Had I been assigned to write a “how I spent my summer vacation” essay, as I imagine many students in this room have been this week, the title of my report would be “A Tale of Two Summers.”
The first tale is one of unabashed joy – a summer of fun, family, and friends. I traveled to the West Coast, Colorado, Utah, Europe, Israel, and even the Hudson Valley. I attended multiple family simchas, participated in the World Zionist Congress in Switzerland (about which I am sure I will be speaking in the coming weeks), read multiple novels, and spent quality time with my wife, my children, and my extended family. I am refreshed, I am excited for the year ahead, and most of all, I am grateful to my colleagues, who have cared for our community with extraordinary professionalism, commitment, and devotion. The first tale is one of pure delight whose sweetness I will savor for as long as I can.
The second tale is less delicious – a summer of mishaps and misadventures. Misfortunes that, while never tragic, thank God, caused me all sorts of anxiety and aggravation. As we all know, the airline industry this summer was plagued with cancellations and delays, and I had more than my fair share of trouble with planes, trains, and automobiles. When I was in Israel, my rental car was hit while parked overnight; to this day I remain in a Kafkaesque labyrinth of insurance reimbursement. I purchased tickets to a concert in Tel Aviv only to discover at the entrance that my tickets were counterfeit. My biggest frustration was that I seemed to keep losing things. Prescription sunglasses that fell off while I swam in the Mediterranean, a bathing suit that flew away as it hung to dry on a hotel balcony – a series of self-inflicted losses triggering endless aggravation in me and smug satisfaction in my my perpetually iPhone losing children.
The coup de grace happened earlier this week upon my return from Israel. I arrived home to discover that I had left my laptop in the seat pocket of the airplane. I filled out online forms, spent hours on the phone with airline representatives trying to remember any identifying markings on the device upon which my (and your) High Holiday sermon future depends. Through the wonders of “Find my iPhone,” I could see exactly where my laptop was at JFK – a fact that seemed to interest absolutely nobody in the aviation industry. At my wits’ end, I drove back to JFK and spent an afternoon retrieving my laptop in time – as evidenced from the words I am presently delivering – to share a sermon with you this morning. Grateful as I am that at the end of the day it was all just “stuff,” the second tale of my summer was one of frustrations – more lost objects, lost time, and lost shekels than I care to count.
If you have ever found yourself losing objects - small or large – then know that in this week’s Torah reading you will find the urtext on Jewish law regarding lost property and its return. “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray,” states Deuteronomy, “do not ignore it, you must surely return it to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who the owner is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow reclaims it, and you shall give it back. You shall do the same with that person’s garment, with anything your fellow loses – you must not remain indifferent.” (22:1-3) From these few verses, the rabbis of the Talmud derive an entire chapter on the subject of hasheivat avedah. Hasheivat meaning “returning,” and aveidah, “that which is lost.”
The list of laws is broad and deep. How does one determine when an object can be presumed to be lost? How does the location of where the lost object is found (in an airplane seat pocket, for instance) inform our assumptions about the object’s owner’s hopes for its retrieval? What are the simanim, the markings (as on an engraved watch), that must be identified in order for a claimant to establish ownership of said lost item? May one make use of a found object while waiting for its original owner to retrieve it? At what point may the finder of an object presume that its original owner has forfeited their claim to it? To what degree must one publicize the finding of a lost object or incur personal expense in order to return it? Law after law after law on the subject of lost property and our obligations to return it. More than the specifics of any one law, the Torah and the Talmud seem to be signaling the ethic by which an individual and society must conduct themselves with regard to the restoration of lost items. This ethic comes to a head in the Talmudic description of a ritual that took place when the festivals were celebrated in the Temple in Jerusalem. Individuals who had lost something would gather around a raised stone, a claimant stone – called even ha-toe·en, the “stone of losses” or “stone of the strayed” – and would declare what they had lost in hopes of being made whole once again.
As I went deeper down the rabbit hole of Talmudic law, I was struck not only by the comforting thought that I am not the first rabbi to habitually lose things, but also by the realization that maybe the Torah and the rabbis were talking about more than lost laptops, sunglasses and swimsuits. The eighteenth-century Moroccan rabbi Hayyim Moshe Ibn Attar, known as the Orach Hayyim, noted that the root of hashevat aveidah, returning that which is lost, is the same as the root of teshuvah, meaning “spiritual return” or “repentance.” In other words, our verses in the Torah are not merely about lost objects, but about lost souls – people who have strayed and are seeking to return. Most of us, I don’t think, own oxen, and the Temple no longer stands in Jerusalem. And yet, here we are in this Temple just a few weeks before the festival season, and all of us are, as it were, gathered at a spiritual lost and found. We search our spiritual pockets and panic at what is missing – relationships that have been misplaced, careless worlds that have gone astray, misdeeds that need to be named and identified in order for our spiritual selves to be restored and made whole.
For as long as I can remember, I was taught that during these weeks prior to the holidays, we have to conduct a self-audit, a heshbon ha-nefesh, thinking about where we have wronged others in the year gone by and where others have wronged us. We should reach Yom Kippur having had all those difficult conversations in order to start the new year afresh. This year, I find myself moved by the gentler image of lost souls, the idea that each one of us has somehow veered from the path, finding ourselves somewhere that we should not be, that we did not intend to be, and yet . . . here we are. We can see the dot on our GPS, we know where we want to be; now we are looking for the path, the pivots and redirection, the changes that need to be made and the conversations that need to be had in order to get there. As Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine, wrote in his book Orot Hateshuvah, Lights of Penitence, the primary task of this season is to return, to do teshuvah – to God, of course, but most of all to the root of our souls (15:10). We seek to return to the hidden spark within us all – to be the people we once were, but have somehow lost track of in the year gone by,
And so we arrive here in our Temple, as did the Israelites of old, the lost objects we seek sitting no further than within our very selves. We take comfort in knowing that we are not the only ones engaged in the task, not the only ones feeling lost. We journey on this road in the presence of others doing the same. As I have shared on many occasions, the very purpose of entering a house of worship is to remind ourselves not who we are, but who we aspire to be – more patient, more forgiving, more loving, more charitable, more community-minded, more connected to each other and to tradition. Our relationships, we know, are not where they should be. Some are suffering from rifts, identifiable conflicts and clashes that have separated us from the people we love. More likely, we arrive here thinking about “drifts” – the slow and often imperceptible ways that we have grown away from those with whom we were once close – and the combination of ego and inertia prevents us from retrieving the relationships we once held dear. Perhaps this year, rather than thinking of the holidays as a time to catalogue all the moments we have let someone down or they have let us down, we all dial down the temperature, refrain from the “he saids/she saids,” and just recognize that all of us are lost souls. We are all just trying to find our way home, and none of us can do it alone.
I am reminded of the old story of the guy who is walking home through the woods and falls into a steep hole, so steep that he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and when the guy calls for help, the doctor writes a prescription, throws it in the hole, and keeps walking. Soon enough, a rabbi comes along. When the guy shouts for help, the rabbi writes a prayer, throws it in the hole, and keeps walking. Eventually, the guy’s friend walks by, sees him in the hole, and the friend jumps into the hole! The guy turns to his friend and says, “Are you crazy? Now we’re both down here!” The friend grabs hold of his friend’s hand and says, “Yeah. But I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
The calling, the challenge, and the opportunity of this season is to arrive back home – a destination as close and as far as our own beating hearts. In the words of Psalm 27, the psalm of the season: Achat sha’alti, one thing I ask; shivti b’veit Adonai, to return to the house of God. If we want to make it out of the woods, if we want to make it into the clear, if we want to make it home – then we should endeavor to do so together. So, let’s take each other by the hand, climb our way out, help others do the same, and in so doing, find our way to a restored and renewed year to come.