וכן תעשה לחמורו, וכן תעשה לשמלתו, וכן תעשה לכל אבדת אחיך אשר תאבד ממנו ומצאתה, לא תוכל להתעלם
(דברים, כ”ב, ג’)
Ki Tetse is famous for being the parasha with most mitzvot, 74 in total, a whopping 12% of all mitzvot in the Torah. It spans a breathtaking spectrum of human life – from war to conjugal affairs to commerce – and is a fitting illustration of how the Torah encompasses every aspect of the life of a Jewish person. As the Midrash in Devarim Raba says: “Anywhere you go, the mitzvot shall accompany you”.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a common thread in this week’s parasha. But there are a few key words that can perhaps serve as a guiding beacon for us in this sea of commandments. When the Torah speaks of the mitzvah of returning a lost object, it says:
And so shall you do with his ass; and so shall you do with his garment; and so shall you do with every lost thing of your brother’s, which he has lost and you have found; you may not ignore (Devarim 22, 3)
The words “you many not ignore” (לא תוכל להתעלם) may also be translated as “you many not look the other way”, or “you may not hide yourself”. Even in a seemingly trivial matter such as returning a lost object to its rightful owner, the Torah commands us not to ignore our fellow man. In fact, it uses repetitive wording to emphasise the lengths to which we must go in order to return the lost object: “השב תשיבם” (doubling the word “you shall return” in Hebrew). The Midrash says here that the practical outcome of this repetitive wording is that one needs to try “four or five times” to return the lost object before giving up.
We live in an individualistic society that does not encourage or foster much human interaction. We each lead our own lives, pursue our own goals and mostly follow the dictum that “good fences make good neighbours”. But the Torah tells us that we cannot ignore, we cannot look the other way. The Even Ezra (12th century, Spain) points out that the words “לא תוכל” (you shall not) should be interpreted literally, just as they’re used in other places when the Torah commands not to do something. It is not a matter of personal choice; just as one cannot transgress other mitzvot, so one cannot ignore a lost object. We have an obligation.
R. Moshe Alshich (16th century, Israel) adopts a different approach. He points out that it is not reasonable to expect a person to drop everything he’s doing and search for the owner of the lost object “even four or five times”. It is not inherent in human nature to behave in this way. The “השב תשיבם” should be interpreted as follows. The first השב, as the Even Ezra says, is indeed a commandment. Even though we may not like it, we have an obligation to do it. However, the subsequent תשיבם are done of our own will, because we change our personality by obeying the commandment. By forcing ourselves, against our nature, to follow the rules of the Torah and make an effort to find the owner, we change ourselves so that we now willingly continue to search for the owner, if we have not found him first time we tried.
This is a very powerful interpretation, that goes well beyond the mitzvah of returning a lost object. In fact, it relates to the much broader purpose of the Torah: to make us better human beings by fulfilling the will of God. This is the common thread of the 74 mitzvot found in Ki Tetse: “you may not ignore”. By following the mitzvot continuously, day after day, we transform ourselves and change our behaviour for the best. It is the rote repetition that is the essence of the Jewish faith.