I just got back from our annual August family vacation in Cape May – a tradition of more than two decades. One day on the beach this year I saw a distraught man who was searching in the surf. He and a friend called out to anyone in earshot that he had just lost a $400 pair of glasses – and that he could barely see without them. He stood knee deep with the waves crashing around him, hoping against hope for the glasses to appear.
I decided to take action, knowing how it feels to lose something valuable. My approach was to sit on the sand and wait for the waves to crash onto to the beach, and hopefully to wash his glasses to shore along with the seashells and other debris. About four minutes into my search a pair of glasses did wash ashore, but by the time I rose to retrieve them, they were sucked back into the water. I was determined to continue my search. As I scanned the shore, the same pair of glasses washed up on the sand – but this time I was able to reach them in time to retrieve them. The gentleman could not believe his good fortune when I brought him the glasses. He thanked me profusely, and I returned to my beach chair, smiling brightly to share the story with my family.
We learn from the book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 22: Verses 1-3) that if one comes upon another person’s animal who has gone lost you should try to find its rightful owner and return the animal. The Bible goes on to say that if you find someone’s garment or any lost article you must try to find its owner and return it to him or her. Returning lost objects is one of the 613 mitzvot (religious obligations) in the Torah. Even if we find a bundle of money lying in the street, we are required to seek out the owner and return it. The Torah even admonishes: “You shall not hide yourself from it” – which means we do not the option of ignoring the situation and continuing on our merry way.
Jewish law even proclaims that if one finds an item and no one comes to claim the item and one cannot find the rightful owner, one must hold onto it “until Elijah the Prophet himself comes [to announce the coming of the Messiah]” and identifies the rightful owner. (i.e., you cannot give up trying to find that owner!)
There is a story in the Talmud (Taanit 25a) that tells the story of how chickens once strayed into the backyard of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa. Rabbi Hanina thus became obligated to care for the chickens until an owner could be found. The chickens laid eggs which hatched into little baby chicks, and soon Rabbi Hanina had more chickens than he could handle. He decided to trade in the chickens for goat, and by the time a person did come to stake his claim, there was a goat herd. Rabbi Hanina was obliged to give him the whole goat herd.
The story of the lost glasses reminds me of my days at Camp Ramah, a summer camp in the Poconos. At the end of the week the Camp Director would stand in the front of the dining room with a box all of the lost items of campers/ counselors. She would say (in Hebrew) that she was prepared to fulfill the religious obligation of returning lost property. Then, she would hold up each lost item, piece by piece, and eventually a camper would stand and go forward to reclaim it. There would be roaring applause in the dining room for each retrieval. This memory is forever imbued in my memory.
So the next time you find something, why not go the extra distance and try to see if you can return it to its rightful owner. Or if you come across someone who is searching, take time to join in their search. I can assure you, it will make you feel so good. And, it’s a mitzvah.