Parshat Ki Tetze: Why not ignore?

Ignoring someone else is a selfish way of behaving which does not advance the world and does not attempt to solve its problems.

Torah reading 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Torah reading 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Aman walks down the street and suddenly notices a wallet lying on the ground.
He stops, picks up the wallet, opens it and discovers a few bills.
The first thought that crosses his mind is, “Great! I just made some easy money without even trying.”
But as quickly as that thought entered his mind, he dismisses it. “I am not a thief,” he says to himself as he goes to check who the lost wallet belongs to. After a quick check in the wallet, he sees there is no hint as to its owner – no credit cards, no driver’s license.
No identifying sign. What does one do? Like a pestering mosquito, the thought again enters his mind, “No one would ever know. Put the wallet in your pocket and keep going.” But this man is moral, a person of values, so he ignores the thought and thinks to himself, “I have no way of finding the wallet’s owner. What should I do with it? I’ll just put it back down and be on my way.”
To rationalize this, he even assumes that the owner will notice his loss and certainly come back immediately to look for it.
Here, the Torah stops the honest man who found the wallet and instructs him, “You cannot ignore this!” This is how the Torah describes the situation: “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep driven away, and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely bring them back unto thy brother. And if thy brother be not nigh unto thee, and thou know him not, then thou shalt bring it home to thy house, and it shall be with thee until thy brother require it, and thou shalt restore it to him. And so shalt thou do with his ass; and so shalt thou do with his garment; and so shalt thou do with every lost thing of thy brother’s, which he hath lost, and thou hast found; thou mayest not hide thyself.” (Deuteronomy 22, 1-3)
What is the basis for this clear-cut call not to “hide” or ignore a lost item? The chances of finding the wallet’s owner are so slim, why not just put the wallet back down where it fell and keep walking? What is the reason for my obligation to take the lost wallet to my home and keep it until I find the person who lost it and return it to him? The Torah sees the person who finds the wallet and ignores it as an expression of a world outlook based on ignoring, or not paying attention.
There’s a wallet on the ground in front of you.
If you stop for just a moment to think of the person who lost it, you can feel what he feels now.
One of the more unpleasant feelings is that of losing something for no reason.
A person who invests money to make money knows that he is taking a chance that he will suffer a loss. If his expectations of a gain are not fulfilled and he loses the money, that is certainly unpleasant but the risk was known in advance and the investor agreed to it.
But a person who loses an item or sum of money by accident experiences, along with the sadness over the loss, a certain sense of injustice. Why – he says to himself – did this happen to me? I did not do anything that should cause me to lose this money! One moment of thought on the part of the finder, one moment of identifying with the person who suffered the loss, will cause the finder to understand that if he chooses to ignore the wallet and keep going, he will become to a certain extent a partner in causing pain to the loser. The finder who takes the wallet and tries to return it to its owner does so due to an understanding and identification with the loser, and thus he expresses the better parts of his character, those that can see the pain and sorrow of the other and try to help and make them better.
But the person who ignores the loss expresses a selfish outlook. The sorrow of another person does not faze him. He does not try to lighten the distress of another man.
All that interests him is to go on with his life without being exposed to the pain of someone else.
Ignoring someone else this way is a selfish way of behaving which does not advance the world and does not attempt to solve its problems.
This attitude ultimately harms whoever supports it, for when he needs any help, he will discover that those surrounding him are interested only in themselves. Then he will understand that identifying with another is actually a gift he gives mainly to himself.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.