In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, it tells us, “if you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your peer” (Deut. 22:1). As a people who, for the most part, no longer work in agriculture, this passage would seem to have little relevance for us today. That being said, it is still a very profound statement.
According to rabbinic understanding, the reason for returning the ox or sheep is to get us into the habit of “returning the property of others will then extend to inanimate objects” (Alshikch). It is a mitzvah to do our best to return property in every circumstance whenever we ascertain ownership. The classic case is that if you find a wallet, you should return it. However, if you simply find ten dollars on the sidewalk without knowing where it came, it is considered ownerless, and therefore you can keep it or give it to tzedakah.
But there is another element of this passage as well. One that is equally if not more important and significant. Another way to look at this verse is that it is a way of reminding us not to be indifferent. Rabbi Bradley Artson Shavit asks in his book The Bedside Torah, “How often do we silently sit through a joke that stereotypes and insults other people for their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation? How often do we hear a bigoted remark or witness a racist act, and yet we still keep quiet?” (pg. 321).
It is part of the human condition to be indifferent. We tend to ignore that which does not directly impact on us. But as Shavit further argues, “But Jewish tradition, in this as in so many other arenas of human behavior, insists that we improve upon nature, that we learn to override our feelings. The Torah commands us to make waves. When human suffering is at issue, we are not allowed to remain neutral or silent” (Ibid.)
Therefore when we read “you must take it back to your peer,” we should be compelled to act in ways against not just injustice, but also against cruel and hurtful words. In today’s world it is easy to write off a missive in social media, hit enter, and walk away. But words have power. Words cut deep.
It is one thing to disagree. It is another entirely to insult, deride and belittle. And it is easy for a group to begin to bully an individual. So as our tradition is reminding us, when you see or read something, do something. Do not be indifferent. In today’s hyper-partisan world, we can agree to disagree, but what we should never agree to or tolerate is hate. For hate breeds hate, and we are a people who know all too well what hate can lead to.
So on this Shabbat, I implore you to remember that we are all responsible for each other just as we are responsible for keeping an eye on each other’s belongings. We are all human beings on the same journey. We may disagree on where we are going or how we are going to get there, but there is certainly room to respect everyone on the journey and not just those to whom we happen to agree with.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff