It is said that, “The devil’s in the details,” but I think more importantly, life is lived in the details, and God is found in the details of life and how we live it.
So far, much of the story of Israel’s Exodus and Redemption have been big, bold, splashy, dramatic events—the opposite of details. Israel experienced the awesome might of God first in the terrifying plagues that afflicted all Egypt, and then in the astonishing parting of the Sea of Reeds that gave way to a song and dance number on the far shore. Moses had his tête-à-tête with God at Mount Sinai. As they communed in the clouds, God revealed Torah, and Moses brought it down to the Israelites. Now Hollywood and Bollywood fade away and Israel settles down to the business of nation-building and living with one another, much if not most of which is in the small details that occupy our waking hours.
Life in the Wilderness is as messy as life anywhere else. Having broadcast the headlines—the Ten Commandments—last week in Parshat Yitro, Torah now dives into the nitty gritty of life and how it should be lived in order to stave off chaos, promote justice, and preserve human dignity. Parshat Mishpatim is a compendium of laws touching on everyday life: family, servants, neighbors, animals… Life is lived in the details.
Among the most mundane details of life is the law concerning finding and returning lost property.
When you encounter your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, return it, return it to him. (Exodus 23:4)
Deuteronomy elaborates on this law, explaining that indifference to another’s claim is unacceptable; we are obligated to care about the details.
If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)
This means that if I find a wallet or a cell phone, I am obligated to make a reasonable effort to locate the owner and return the article. But not every case is as simple as a wallet with a driver’s license or a cell phone with the owner’s information on the lock screen. People’s claims to ownership are often contested. For this reason, even in the ancient world, there were contracts, witnesses, and oaths—more details—employed to prevent nasty disputes
Thirty-five years ago, my husband left his camera in a taxi in Israel. We were in a hurry to get to the airport because the bus drivers were on strike. The taxi driver was rude and when we arrived, he charged us more than the ride was supposed to have cost. It seems a clear case of price-gouging. We argued with him and then took our things and dashed off to make our plane, leaving the camera on the seat of the cab. Given our unpleasant argument with the driver, we assumed it was lost to us forever. There was no doubt who the owner of the camera was, but we didn’t even know the name of the taxi driver. Consider a case where the identity of the owner is less clear.
When the hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1810) moved to Berditchev in 1795 to assume the post as rabbi, the very first case he heard, in his capacity as judge, concerned the return of “lost” property: some barrels of honey. Long before Levi Yitzhak had arrived in Berditchev, a wealthy merchant from Hemelnick had brought several barrels of honey to the Berditchev fair in expectation of selling them at a good price. Unfortunately for him, the price of honey dropped just as he arrived. Preferring not to take a major loss, the merchant asked a friend in Berditchev to store the honey for him. They had long done business together and trusted one another implicitly. They never used contracts, oaths, or witnesses; a handshake and a smile sufficed to seal a deal because their trust ran deep. Time passed. The honey remained in storage. More time passed and the man in Berditchev became ill and passed away before he had the opportunity to tell his family about the barrels of honey.
The price of honey returned to its previous profitable level and the owner of the barrels arrived one day from Hemelnick to reclaim his property. The merchant spoke to his friend’s sons, but they knew nothing about the honey and refused to honor his claim. Unable to arrive at a satisfactory agreement, they took the case to the bet din. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, newly arrived in Berditchev, heard their case.
Levi Yitzhak listened carefully to both litigants. In his mind, the case was clear. There was no signed contract; there were no witnesses. What is more, Torah stipulates that claims may not be brought against orphans. Therefore he was compelled to find in favor of the sons. It certainly appeared to be an easy, open-and-shut case. Yet two things bothered him, so he delayed announcing his decision. The first concerned the nature of the case. Why, he wondered, was the first case brought before him so simple and straight forward, leaving no room for compromise? Was this a message from Heaven that he was to adhere to the strict letter of the law in all future decisions? Second, the Hemelnick merchant and his deceased friend were known to everyone in town. People knew them both to be scrupulously honest. It was beyond imagination that the merchant was lying; therefore the barrels of honey must be his. Yet there was no signed contract and there were no witnesses, leaving Levi Yitzhak with no choice but to rule against the merchant, a decision that would cause everyone in town to ask why Torah law should be the opposite of common sense.
Levi Yitzhak delayed his ruling for several days. The merchant and the sons spent several days anxiously awaiting his ruling. Levi Yitzhak spent his time in prayer, study, and contemplation. On the third day, the merchant from Hemelnick burst into his study and exclaimed, “I remember, I remember!” “What is it you remember?” Levi Yitzhak asked. “It’s a very old memory, Rabbi, but it returned to me. Long ago, 50 years ago, when I was a small child, my father—may his memory be for blessing—died suddenly, leaving my brother and me a large inheritance of cash and property. The property included a storeroom filled with casks of wine and oil. Then the father of these two young men, my dear friend—may his memory be for blessing—came and claimed that the wine and oil belonged to him and that he had left it in our father’s safe keeping. My brother and I didn’t know what to do, so we went to the rabbi. The rabbi decided in our favor because, just like this case, there was no contract and he could not take anything from the inheritance of orphans without absolute proof and oath. So we kept the wine and oil and sold them for a good profit.” Rabbi Levi Yitzhak nodded, understanding what the merchant had in mind. “You see, Rabbi,” the merchant continued, “the profit on the wine and oil equals the value of the barrels of honey.” With that, the merchant happily conceded the case, feeling that justice was being done.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, for his part, understood the case to be one of Divine Providence meant to teach him that what seems obvious and true to human eyes is not necessarily true or just. But for us there may be another lesson: When we pause to consider not just a specific rule or obligation, but its purpose and how it fits into the large scheme of justice and decency, we often see things from a different perspective. When our narrow, immediate interest give way to the bigger picture, justice and decency come into sharper focus. And we see that the details of life are linked inextricably to the larger values and purposes of life.
Before our plane took off, my husband called his cousin in Netanya to tell him that he left his camera in the taxi and about the argument we had had with the driver. We all agreed that the chance of recovering the camera was exceedingly low. When we returned to the United States, my husband’s cousin called to tell us that he had called the taxi company. The driver had turned in the camera with a description of us so that it could be returned to us. When you encounter your enemy’s ox or his donkey [or his camera] going astray, return it, return it to him. (Exodus 23:4)
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman