Beit Midrash

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Seeing – In Perspective


Rabbi Daniel Mann

The Torah presents the mitzva of hashavat aveida (returning lost objects) in a manner that teaches other lessons as well. The Torah writes: "Do not see your brother’s ox or his sheep wandering and you will turn a blind eye to them; return them to your brother" (Devarim 22:1). This mitzva seems to be written both in positive and negative terms in order to strengthen the mitzva. Yet, the gemara (Bava Metzia 30a) paradoxically learns that "there are times that you may turn a blind eye" and applies it to a case where it is beneath the dignity of the finder to be involved in returning it. What caused Chazal to explain the pasuk in this way, and what can we learn from it?
Another surprising linguistic phenomenon in this section is that the last pasuk of the set on hashavat aveida is an apparent repetition of "do not turn a blind eye." It is likely that Chazal understood (and this is the way the Sefer Hachinuch, among others, lists the mitzvot) that the second appearance is the negative commandment. As a result, the first appearance can be used for the nuanced idea that there are times not to ignore the lost object and times to ignore it. There may be a hint from the proximity of sections as well. The Torah previously teaches the mitzva of burial. Rav Hirsch says the mitzvot are connected because burial is, in a way, the returning of a lost object (the body), which was separated from its master (the person’s soul) and needs to be handled properly. One can also connect the mitzvot in a related but different way. One of the main sources for the concept of making halachic accommodations due to human dignity refers to special halachic allowances needed to bury (e.g., for a kohen) when he is uniquely needed to do so due to the dignity of the deceased. The next pasuk would then continue the theme – hashavat aveida can also be waived to preserve the finder’s dignity.
One of the differences between the two examples of human dignity is that regarding burial one is obligated to be concerned about another’s dignity (the deceased). In contrast, the finder is allowed to exempt himself if he feels that the situation is such that if it were his animal he would not shlep it through the streets. However, such people are encouraged to follow the example of Rabbi Yishmael ben Rabbi Yossi who returned a lost object despite his exemption (Bava Metzia 30b). The gemara continues to stress the importance of going beyond the letter of the law and concludes that the Second Temple was destroyed because of people’s unwillingness to do so.
Rav Hirsch suggests that the idea of the hashavat aveida exemption is hinted at with the connection of "do not see … and turn a blind eye." In other words, you can’t look and ignore. However, when one looks carefully, sees the whole picture, and realizes that hashavat aveida is not called for, he has the right to do so. However, when looks at the picture, he fully has to look at the whole picture and determine not only when the mitzva must be fulfilled as opposed to when there is an exemption, but also when it is appropriate to apply the exemption and when it is proper to push oneself and forego the exemption.
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