By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
If one were looking for bang for the buck in a Torah portion when it comes to mitzvot, commandments, one need look no further than this week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, which features a whopping 74 of the 613 laws enumerated in the entire Torah. Among these myriad laws is the obligation of an individual when building a new house to make a parapet (“ma’akeh”) for the roof, so that “you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” (Deuteronomy 22:8) Early rabbinic legend, echoed later by Maimonides in the 12th century, expands the understanding of this commandment to also require us to remove any obstacles or hazards from anywhere on our property and fence in or build railings around not only roofs, but also any ditches or holes that might imperil a guest’s safety. Looking out for others when it comes to their physical safety is of paramount concern in our tradition.
It would be easy for us to rationalize prioritizing the physical safety of others not just from a basic moral standpoint, but also, cynically, from a more selfish point of view. Namely, if I don’t look out for them and they get hurt on my property or on my watch, I could be guilty of negligence and be held financially accountable! But what about looking out for others’ well-being when we either have no financial skin in the game, or even stand to lose money while doing so? Ki Tetze also addresses this question in the case of one finding something lost that clearly belongs to someone else, like an ox, sheep, donkey, clothes or anything of value. If it is an animal, and the other person does not live near us or we cannot easily identify the owner, we are supposed to bring the animal home, take care of it, and then return it when the owner comes to claim it. And any of those other lost objects similarly must be returned to the owner. In these cases our tradition imposes a high standard upon the finder, not only to return what has been lost when it would be tempting to claim the potential windfall for oneself, but even to spend one’s own money if need be to take care of an animal in the interim until its owner comes looking. The text teaches us that other people’s belongings belong at the forefront of our consciousness and our sphere of concern.
Rabbi Yaacov Yosef of Polnoye, an 18th century Ukrainian rabbi and a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, reads this text as a metaphor, with the wandering ox and sheep representing people who have lost their way, saying we may be inclined to ignore them, and to have nothing to do with them, but even so we must return them back into the circle of our life and our community, giving them a sense of belonging once again. The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, adds yet one more insight. When a person becomes such that he is attuned to and cannot ignore a friend’s loss, or a friend who is lost, whether the loss be physical or spiritual, then he cannot only help return to his fellow what has gone missing, but also then become better able to see his own struggles clearly and achieve personal teshuvah, return and redemption. Returning that which has gone astray heightens our understanding of that which has become broken within our own souls.
During this season of teshuvah, it is vital that we reach out to those who have come unmoored from community, especially during these trying pandemic times when we are physically distanced from one another. In so doing we take responsibility for helping others return as well as pave the way for us to return, re-center and be found as well.
May this High Holy Day season be filled with meaning for each of us and may the year 5781 ahead be filled with sweetness, renewal and good health.
Rabbi Ari Sunshine is senior rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel and the secretary and treasurer of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.