A portion of the Bible that was read in synagogue on a recent Sabbath contains more laws than almost any other single portion. At first glance, the various laws read as a miscellany list of unconnected themes such as marriage/divorce, personal property, and employee-employer relations. Included are many rules that instruct us how to function as an individual and within the context of a living society.Amongst the long list of responsibilities is the command to protect the property of one's fellow citizen. So says the Torah (Deut 22:1-3):
If you see the ox of your fellow citizen gone astray; do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow citizen. If your fellow citizen does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow citizen claims it; then shall you give it back to him and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow citizen loses and you find; you cannot remain indifferent.
It is not enough to simply return one's neighbor's property. The same respect given to the human being should also be accorded his/her property. We are but caretakers and guardians of all property, which ultimately belongs to God. If we find an individual's lost property, we are duty-bound to "restore it" to that individual. By restoring it to its owner, we carry out God's will.
But the Torah goes one step further. No matter what, 'you cannot remain indifferent.' In many ways, this phrase could be seen as the overriding connection and theme for the entire portion. It is so easy to turn the other cheek, to ignore the people around us as we strive to succeed and to achieve our own goals. Indifference carries far reaching consequences.
In the words of the 18th century English theoretician Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.” The result of individuals failing to act in relationship to one another ends in a complete breakdown of the social order leading to anarchy, where few would ultimately realize their individual goals.
Consequently, the Torah reminds us that whether it be the person with whom we share our home, one's employee or employer, the person next door, the poor, the needy, or any of our fellow citizens - it is impossible for the individual or society to succeed without each one of us living within relationship - to others around us and to society itself. By attuning to ourselves to the needs, cries, and suffering of those around us, we help strengthen the circles of society. So, the Torah instructs us to expand our circle of family and friends to include those around us and those other members of the community - our 'brethren'.
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Dr. Joel Roffman has spoken to many church, synagogue and support groups. His book, Coping with Adversity: Judaism’s response to illness and other life struggles is enjoyable, uplifting and informative. It is meant for people of all faiths and can be viewed at www.copingwithadversity.com. It is available at Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Amazon.com.