I don’t know about you, but when I lose something, I believe the object in question has just taken a temporary hiatus from my possession and will soon make its way back. In Jewish law, a person who loses an object can have “yai-ush” - relinquishment or despair of ever seeing it again. Once a person lets go mentally, it lessens or negates the obligation to return the object. I’m just letting you know that I’m never letting go. Things I lost in sixth grade are still coming back. The central thesis of A Place Called Here by Irish novelist Ceceli Ahern is that all our lost objects end up in a mysterious land, home to single socks, twenty dollar bills, and one earring.
In Jewish law, there is no such enigmatic place because we’re too busy returning lost objects. Even a thief cannot assume that the owner of a lost object has relinquished it [BT Gittin 55a]. The mitzva to return something lost appears in Deuteronomy: “If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until they come looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it” [22:2-3]. This mitzva is the subject of much rabbinic discussion. We are not, according to Jewish law, allowed to leave the object where we find it, ignoring our responsibility to seek out its owner. This only applies if the item has minimum worth (the value of about two cents) and if the owner himself values the object. In other words, something that is of little financial value to the finder may have great sentimental worth to the loser.
If an object has been left in the same place for a very long time, it is assumed that the owner has let go of ever retrieving it, and you do not have to go to any length to find its owner. Yet, if the item has distinctive markings or is in a place with little foot traffic, then your obligation to return it remains. Interestingly, although you have to do everything within your power to publically document that you have found this object, you are not obligated to spend your own money to return it unless the original owner will compensate you.
The degree to which we obligate the finder has to do with our understanding of how deeply troubled the owner is to lose the object. No wonder prayers have been written to help find an object. There is something powerful, almost mystical about being reunited with something you’ve lost. A Jewish prayer cites a midrash based on a story in Genesis 21 that Hagar and Ishmael, her son, were dying of thirst: “Rabbi Benjamin said: ‘Everyone is presumed to be blind, until the Holy One, blessed be He, opens his eyes, as it is written, ‘God opened her eyes and she went and filled the skin.’” The finding of a lost object - the opening of the eyes to see what is really there - is spiritually very gratifying. Christians pray to Saint Anthony. One prayer I found contains these beautiful lines: “At least restore to me peace and tranquility of mind, the loss of which has afflicted me even more than my material loss. To this favor I ask another of you: that I may always remain in possession of the true good that is God. Let me rather lose all things than lose God...”
I close with a true story, whose details I hope I do not muddle. Many years ago, I was teaching in several gap year programs in Israel and carpooled with another faculty member to one of the programs. Impressed with a student in one of my classes, I asked my colleague if he knew her. He told me she had a fascinating story. She was set on studying in an ashram in India. On the way, she stopped off to see family in Israel. Her relative took her to a class in the Old City of Jerusalem on the topic of ha-shava’at aveida, returning lost objects. The minutiae of Jewish law bored her to tears; she told her relative that this was precisely why she was going to India: to escape the legality of Judaism for the spirituality of an ashram. She studied for months with a guru. One day, she was walking and talking with her teacher, when they saw a lost wallet. He pocketed it and said the Indian equivalent of “finders, keepers, losers, weepers.” Suddenly, she recalled her Shabbat in Jerusalem. But this time, the class did not seem so boring. It seemed honest, authentic and ethical. She left India and went back to Jerusalem, where I had her as a student. And thus, returning lost objects helped her return to the tradition in which she was raised.