Rabbi Reuven Mann
In the Book of Devarim which constitutes Moshe’s last addresses to the Jewish people, he reiterated certain mitzvot which had already been given. In this week’s parhsa, Ki Tetze, he repeats the commandment to take charge of and return the lost object of one’s fellow. This commandment already appeared in parshat Mishpatim. If we study the text carefully we can detect an interesting phenomenon. In Mishpatim the Torah refers to the owner of the object as one’s enemy. In the repetition of this mitzvah, however, Moshe exhorts the Jews not to hide from the lost property of one’s brother. Two questions arise. First of all why does the Torah refer to the property owner as one’s enemy in Parshat Mishpatim? Secondly, why did Moshe change that and designate the owner as one’s brother in parshat Ki Tetze?
There is an important lesson to be derived from the Torah’s command to come to the assistance of and restore lost objects to one’s enemy. The Torah here is going up against the natural inclination of people. Most charitable people become involved in causes which resonate with them emotionally. In general the benefactor has a connection to the cause that he contributes to. It is not enough to point out the objective importance of a particular organization. One needs to evoke powerful feelings of empathy if he expects people to become supporters. The Torah imposes a high standard of morality. It teaches that our responsibilities to fellow Jews includes protection of their property. If we come upon their objects we cannot simply ignore them and move on. We must rather inconvenience ourselves and assume the burden of tracking down the owner and returning his belongings. In performing this miztvah we are being trained to act charitably even when it is contrary to our selfish feelings and desires. In Parshat Mishpatim the Torah raises the ante. It commands us to guard and restore the lost items of our enemy. This establishes a new level of moral responsibility. We have no desire to do nice things for our enemy. Indeed, when encountering his missing property our natural inclination is to experience a certain joy and think, “Good, this is exactly what he deserves.” The Torah does not allow us to indulge those feelings. It commands us to conquer our emotions and treat the person as though he were our friend. We must swallow our indignation, pick up his object, care for it and ultimately return it. And, with a pleasant countenance, happy that we have nullified our will before that of our Creator and successfully performed one of His most challenging Mitzvot. One who returns the lost object of his enemy with good cheer is a spiritual giant, for he subordinates himself to the rule of Hashem and not his base emotions.
In restating this mitzvah in Ki Tetze, Moshe substituted brother for enemy. What right did he have to make a seemingly unauthorized alteration of the word of Hashem? In my view Moshe did not make any substantive change but brought forth a deeper dimension of Hashem’s word. He was saying that the owner of the lost object only appears superficially to be an enemy because you judge him on the basis of subjective criteria. In reality there is much more to the person than what you are focused on. He is a fellow Jew who subscribes to the same values and Torah teachings that you do. There has been an unfortunate encounter between the two of you but your opinion of him should not be based on anger and resentment. The mitzvah of returning his property demands that you let go of your bias and treat him as a fellow Jew worthy of your concern and assistance. Moshe, by omitting the word enemy, was teaching us that this person is truly your friend if you look at things in an objective manner. The Torah is affirming that hostile relationships can be transformed, and that when we treat those we dislike with kindness as though they were our friends we might discover that, indeed, they are.