The Torah in Parashat Ki-Teitzei presents the mitzva of hashavat aveida – returning lost objects which one finds to their owners. In concluding its discussion, the Torah instructs, “So shall you do…for any lost item of your brother which he loses and you find; you cannot ignore it” (22:3).
The Gemara in Masekhet Bava Metzia (32a) interprets the phrase “lo tukhal le-hit’aleim” (“you cannot ignore it”) as a Biblical prohibition against ignoring a lost object instead of taking it to return it to its owner. And thus hashavat aveida involves both an affirmative command to return a lost object, and a prohibition against neglecting to do so. The Rambam includes both the affirmative command of hashavat aveida, and the prohibition of “lo tukhal le-hit’aleim,” in his listing of the Torah’s commands (mitzvat asei 204; lo ta’aseh 269).
Sefat Emet, however, finds significance in the literal meaning of the word “tukhal” (“be able”) in this verse, and suggests that the Torah here alludes to an inability to ignore the plight of our fellow. If we see somebody losing something valuable, we should feel incapable of standing to the side and ignoring it. The command “lo tukhal le-hit’aleim,” Sefat Emet explains, indicates that we are to feel compelled to help save our fellow from a loss. In this vein, Sefat Emet suggests reading the previous clause – “So shall you do…for any lost item of your brother which he loses and you find.” He writes that if we truly feel incapable of ignoring our fellow’s distress, if we reach the level of care and concern for other people that we cannot restrain ourselves from trying to help them, then we will succeed in restoring “any lost item of your brother.” The more we care about other people’s plight, the more we will succeed in our efforts to alleviate it.
Sefat Emet then concludes, “All the more so for the person himself…When he cannot tolerate his lowliness, he is then saved.” Just as deep-seated care and concern for others helps assure our efforts to restore their losses, our genuine care and concern for our own spiritual standing helps assure the success of our efforts to regain what we’ve lost. We all occasionally “lose” some of our innocence and our inner sanctity through our wrongdoing. In order to retrieve what we’ve lost, Sefat Emet writes, we must live with a feeling of “lo tukhal le-hit’aleim,” with an inability to ignore our losses, to disregard our faults, to complacently accept and resign ourselves to our deficiencies. This sense of urgency is vital for “returning” our own “lost item,” for bringing ourselves back to where we are meant to be as people and as servants of God.
Change is a long, gradual process, but it begins with “lo tukhal le-hit’aleim,” with the feeling that our current standing not acceptable to us. While we must accept our inability to drastically change in an instant, we must never fully accept our “losses,” our inadequacies and faults. We are to be mindful of, and uneased by, our deficiencies, and resolve to make an effort to overcome them.