Ruth Bendik had her wallet stolen in Central Park as she stood watching the New York marathon. That was back in 1982. This July, a tree-care supervisor for the Park discovered her wallet under a heap of compost. He looked up the 69-year old, now living in the Upper East Side of Manhattan and returned her wallet. $20 was missing; everything else was there.
Mrs. Bendik may not have been as lucky had she lost her wallet in Joburg. Actually, people are not often reunited with their lost property anywhere in the world. If society would follow Torah law, things might be different.
This week’s Torah portion instructs us to do whatever we can to return lost objects. If an item carries identifying marks, you need to pursue the owner. Jewish law rules that, as long as you can trace the owner, even if it will take time and effort, you are obliged to.
The Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa once found a clutch of chickens that someone had accidentally left outside his home. He took the chickens and cared for them. They had chicks that grew and had chicks of their own. He eventually sold his backyard's chickens and bought goats instead. Years later, when the chickens’ owner passed through the area, Rabbi Chanina presented him with a mini-farm, the return on his unplanned investment.
In Temple times, there was a “lost property” stone in Jerusalem. When people came to visit the Temple for the festivals, they would congregate at that stone to announce or reclaim lost property. Over time, the Shul became the lost property depot, later it moved to the Shul notice-board and today on many community's websites.
Our Torah readings are timed to coincide with whatever is going on in the Jewish year. Reading about returning lost items in the month of Elul is significant. The Kabbalists teach that we have as much obligation to return lost property to G-d as we have to return to another person.
G-d entrusted us each with a soul, which He wanted us to use for guidance and inspiration. When we assess the year that has passed (as we are meant to do during Elul), we may conclude that our soul has gotten “lost” in the stress and frenzy of modern living.
In 2007 a waiter in New Orleans tracked down the owner of a wallet that was left in a restaurant and landed himself an $8000 reward. You can bet that Hashem’s reward for returning His “lost property”, your own soul, is worth even more.