There are things, if one finds them, which are the finder’s, and there are those that must be declared:

These things, if one finds them, are the finders: One found scattered fruit, scattered coins, sheaves of grain in a public space, pressed fig cakes, loaves of bread from the bakery, strings of dried fish, strips of meat, and shearings of wool as they come from their country of origin, stalks of flax, and purple wool; these belong to the finder, according to Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Yehudah says “Anything that has a unique change to it must be declared. What does this look like? One finds a pressed fig cake, and there is a piece of ceramic in it; a loaf of bread, and it has a coin in it.”

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says, “New merchandise need not be declared.” (Mishnah Bava Metzia, 2:1)

One of the many commandments in this week’s parashah is that of hashavat aveidah, returning lost objects. The Torah reads:

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep going astray, do not ignore them; you must return them to your fellow. (Devarim 22:1)

As we move through the month of Elul, and we approach Yom Hadin, (“The Day of Judgment”, as Rosh Hashanah is sometimes called), we are encouraged to reflect upon ourselves. We are encouraged to look into our actions, those which have been helpful to ourselves and the community, and those which may have caused some damage. We are exhorted to go through a process of teshuvah, repentance; literally, “return.” We are asked to “return” to ourselves. To return to who we are, and to return to actions over the year.

Rabbi Yehudah in our Mishnah above says that anything with a unique characteristic is something that must be declared. The plain meaning of the Mishnah is that anything with a unique sign must belong to someone else, and that the finder must make every effort to ensure that it is returned to its rightful owner. But that Mishnah is brought into Elul by the fact that our parashah, with the commandment of hashavat aveidah, is read during Elul.

That “thing with a unique characteristic” is not only a physical object found on the ground, but a character trait; a powerful memory that informs our values; an emotional pattern; a proclivity that is uniquely and characteristically our own. We are encouraged, through our process of self-examination and teshuvah, to find those patterns in ourselves; to confront our motivating characteristics and “declare” them to ourselves. We need to know what makes us act in the ways that we act.

We know that any motivating characteristic has the power to make us act for the better or for the worse. We may, for example, have known someone who squandered money. That makes us extremely conservative with our own spending. That tendency can be helpful when it prevents waste, and helps us build a savings. But when wise or necessary investment, or even tzedakah, are impinged upon by that same tendency, it becomes harmful.

We need to know what motivates us if we are to effect any meaningful teshuvah, and if we are to direct our tendencies in the best, most productive, ways possible. Do not ignore them, as the verse from our parashah tells us not to ignore our fellow’s stray livestock. As we find those characteristics that are uniquely and recognizably “us,” let us declare them to ourselves, and head into Yom Hadin with better judgment of ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom!

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