The Torah view on how to deal with other people’s property
In this week’s Torah reading (22:1-3) we have the Mitzvah (commandment) of Hashavas Aveidah. One who finds a lost object, must not keep it for himself or just leave it as is, but rather he must return it to its rightful owner. (There are exceptions to this in scenarios where the Torah considers the previous ownership to have been relinquished.) By extension of this commandment, one is required to protect his friend’s property from damage as well. As the Talmud says (Bava Metzia 31a): “One who sees water on its way to flood his friends field, must erect a barrier in front of it.” This is an obligation upon us not to take lightly the value of other people’s property. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:17) goes so far as to say, “Rabbi Yosey says, your friends money should be as precious to you as your own.”
This attitude does not conform to that of the world at large, as the common attitude is, ‘if it’s not mine, it’s not my problem.’ Granted, most people would alert someone who they notice had inadvertently dropped something. Nor is it uncommon for one who finds car keys on the floor of store to deliver them to the customer service desk. But how money people are willing to extend themselves and go out of their comfort zone to preserve another person’s possessions? Most people will not go too much out of their way to save someone else’s belongings if they do not feel close to that person, especially for someone that they do not even know. In some cases we see even worse, as many people will not hesitate to abuse the property of others, so long as they are confident that they will not suffer repercussions for their conduct. This is common in regard to public property or property of a large corporation, for which one usually does not picture the face of the owner. A primary example of this is rental cars. It is common knowledge that people do not treat rental cars nearly as well as they would treat their own vehicles – to say the least. This is not the Torah way. The Torah does not discriminate between the property of someone we know and the belongings of someone who is unfamiliar. One is obligated to respect the property of every person, to do his utmost to save another person’s money from damage and to return a lost item to its owner.
The Talmud (Ta’anis 25a) relates a fascinating story pertaining to this subject. A man once passed by the house of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa and left some chickens nearby. Seemingly, the man forgot about them, and when Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa’s wife found them, he instructed her to hold on to the chickens without consuming the eggs that they laid. As time went on, the eggs amounted to a hefty amount and the chickens themselves began increasing in numbers. The new “chicken farm” started becoming quite a burden on its finders, and they sold all the chickens and the eggs, as one is permitted to do with unclaimed animals after a certain amount of time. But Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa did not stop there. Instead of the letting the profits sit around idly, he took the money and invested it in goats. One day, Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa overheard a conversation between two people passing by his home, as one mentioned to the other, “I once left some chickens in this place.” When Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa heard this, he turned to the man and said “Can you identify a sign [on the chickens proving that it is yours]?” (Apparently, Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa took care to note any possible signs about the chickens before he sold them.) The man gave an identifying sign of the chickens, and received a herd of goats!
This is the Torah outlook as to how one should regard the possessions of another. Not only did Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa care to prevent someone else from incurring a financial loss, he made sure to invest the money to profit a fellow he didn’t even know! (Although, he had no obligation to go so far as to invest the money.) Many times when we are not carful enough with someone else’s property, there is truly no malicious intent involved. The problem is merely that we are absent minded. We do not pay attention to the fact that someone’s monetary loss will be upsetting to that person. We fail to picture the pain of another, suffering a loss of hard earned money. To this the Mishnah advises us, “Value the money of others like your own.” By adapting this perspective of appreciating the value of money belonging to others like the way we feel about our own possessions, we will find ourselves much more motivated to treat properly and preserve the property of others as well.
Parshas Ki Seitzei 5779/2019
firstname.lastname@example.org by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber