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You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat cast off, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely return them to your brother. If your brother is not near you and you do not know him, then gather it inside your house, and it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it, and you return it to him. So shall you do for his donkey, so shall you do for his garment, and so shall you do for any lost article of your brother that may become lost from him and you find it; you shall not hide yourself (Devarim 22:1-2).
The Torah commands us to return a lost item to its rightful owner if it has identifiable marks. An entire chapter of the Tractate Bava Metzia is dedicated to this important mitzvah. The first Mishnah begins: "These found objects belong to him (the finder) and these he is obligated to announce."
I once read an article about a truck carrying cash from one bank to another in New York City. Somehow, the back door opened up and a bag of money fell onto the road. People ran to grab as many bills as they could, and one youngster collected fifty thousand dollars! The next day, the young man returned it to the bank which had lost it. His father commented that in his opinion his son is a "wimp" who refused to benefit from that which had been provided him by Heaven!
That father was not religious and so we could not expect much from him. But when a religious leader acts the same way, it is surprising, to say the least.
There is a famous story which I don't remember from whom I heard it. I apologize if the details are wrong, but the gist of the story and its moral are correct.
Shalom, a college student, had found his way back to his roots and was studying in a yeshiva in Israel. He was very happy that he had found the path to eternal bliss but wished that his sister, Shulamis, could share it with him. Instead, she was studying by some Guru in India, and now went by the name Samantha. Her brother knew that the best thing he could do is to keep his close relationship with her and not strain it unnecessarily.
Whenever they would speak, Shalom would extol the beauties of Eretz Yisroel. Finally, Shulamis nibbled at the bait and began to express a desire to see "the Land of Milk and Honey." She also wanted to spend time with her brother whom she hadn't seen for a while.
One day, Shalom offered his sister a deal. He would pay for a round-trip ticket to spend two weeks in Israel, if she would agree to attend one class at Neveh Yerushalayim (a seminar for ba'alos teshuvah - penitent girls). He promised that he would not pressure her in any way to become religious and that she would be absolutely free to spend her time as she chooses and to return to India after two weeks. But she must attend at least one class before she leaves.
Shulamis knew that she could trust her brother who was always reputable, even before he became a ba'al teshuvah. She quickly made arrangements and within a few days she had already arrived in Jerusalem. She was very happy to be with her brother and, although she would not admit it even to herself, she felt something deep inside of her stirring from the magical influence of the Holy Land. She spent most of her time touring around the country and chatting with her brother. She knew that she had to fulfill her end of the agreement, but she kept putting it off for the next day. Her brother was more than a bit disappointed but knew that it would not be wise to pressure her.
They say, "Time flies when you're having fun," and suddenly it was departure day. Shulamis had an afternoon flight from Tel Aviv and lots of last-minute things to do, but she knew that, like it or not, she had to attend a class on authentic Judaism that morning. She visited Neveh Yerushalayim, introduced herself as a Samantha, a visiting student from India, and asked if she could sit in on any class. The registrar realized that what Samantha, Shulamis, really needed was an exciting seminar which proved, unequivocally, the fundamentals of Judaism, and so he tried to persuade her to attend one over the weekend. "Oh, no, that's impossible," Shulamis declared, explaining that she was due in Ben Gurion Airport in but a few hours. Looking over the classes for that morning, the registrar explained that the only class she might get any benefit out of was one on Jewish Law, but, without the religious background, he doubted that it would have any meaning. Shulamis took the details and thanked him, secretly satisfied that she would not be subjected to any "missionary" preaching to her. After all, she thought, I only promised to attend one class at Neveh. No one had stipulated what kind of course it must be in.
Shulamis sat in the back of the classroom, more involved in her to-do list than in the lecture. She did manage to grasp that the rabbi was teaching the laws of returning a lost object, and here and there she heard a sentence or two about how important a mitzvah it was and how one must make a great effort to find the rightful owner and return it to him; for no matter how expensive the item was, the reward from Hashem was much, much greater. She was even surprised to hear the rabbi say that one may not take a reward as compensation, since we believe that our reward comes from the Creator for obeying His commandments.
Having fulfilled her commitment to her brother, Shulamis rushed to take care of last-minute details and, before long, was being escorted by her brother to the airport. She thanked him for a wonderful time, exaggerating a bit how much she had "loved" the class in Neveh, and returned to India. Shalom was very disappointed that he had spent so much money in what turned out to be a fiasco, and, most of all, that he had not succeeded in bringing his sister, whom he loved, closer to Hashem, Whom he loved even more. He discussed the matter with his rebby who advised him to add a chapter of Tehillim (Psalms) to his daily prayers, specifically dedicated to his sister, asking Hashem to help her find the way back home.
Some time went by and Samantha had all but forgotten about her experiences in Israel. She advanced in her studies in India and got closer and closer to her Guru. One day she was out walking with him, listening attentively as he expounded his beliefs. She didn't even notice anything lying on the ground but the Guru suddenly bent down and picked up a wallet filled with money. He checked to see that no one's name and address were within the case and then put it in his pocket, obviously pleased. Samantha asked him what he intended to do with the find and the Guru replied that he intended to keep it. Since the owner had not bothered to write his particulars, what else could he do? When she suggested that perhaps they could advertise the discovery in the local papers and hang up signs in the stores, he looked at her incredulously and declared that it was unnecessary since he had obviously "found grace with the gods who had sent him this gift."
Suddenly Shulamis felt a nostalgic feeling returning her to a classroom in Jerusalem where people who were really honest about their religion were being trained how to return a lost object; putting the feelings of others before their own. Suddenly she felt jealous of her brother who had obviously made a much better choice than she had. She politely excused herself from her mentor and rushed to a phone to ask Shalom if he could enroll her, full time, in Neveh Yerushalayim, beginning immediately. Shalom didn't ask any questions but, thanking Hashem for accepting his prayers, rushed to make arrangements for his sister. She came to Jerusalem the very next day, introduced herself as Shulamis, and joined the hundreds of sincere ba'alos teshuvah studying there.
May Hashem help us all return to Him properly, especially in these days of teshuvah preceding the Days of Awe, and then we will be truly happy, in this world and in the World-to-Come.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network