Not Just “Going Through the Motions”

One of the Commandments that Moshe Rabbeinu addressed again in Deuteronomy is that of returning lost property. In this week’s reading, the verse reads: “You shall not see the ox of your brother, or his sheep or goat, having wandered off, and ignore them; you shall surely return them to your brother.” [22:1] The earlier version of this Mitzvah was in the book of Exodus [23:4]: “When you come upon the ox of your enemy, or his donkey wandering, you shall surely return it to him.”

470_2601432There is a profound difference between these two versions of the same Commandment. In the first version, it says you should return your enemy’s property — isn’t it obvious that you’ll return your friend’s property too? But then the later one says the property is your “brother’s,” perhaps implying that you only really have to return the property when someone you love is involved. How should we resolve this contradiction?

Rabbeinu Bechaya says that the Torah is teaching us that this Commandment has another objective, even beyond the simple act of returning lost property to its owner. This act of giving to another person offers the opportunity to arouse feelings of love and generosity towards that person, and for reciprocal feelings of gratitude and love as well. It’s not just “great, I get to do a Mitzvah” — it’s that the deeper goal is to arouse feelings of love and brotherhood.

With some Commandments and opportunities, the heart is crucial to the whole process. For example, prayer said by just saying the words, with no concentration, is compared by our Sages to a body without a head.

The same can be said, and even more, about things like the Mitzvah of having guests. More than once recently I’ve heard people say something like “they only invite people over for Shabbos to make them religious,” as compared to inviting them over as “people.” But the whole warmth of a Shabbos meal would be lost if that were true. If you don’t care about the person, inviting him or her to be a guest is of little value.

This general principle applies to so many of the things that the Torah tells us to do. It’s not just about going through the motions, but the underlying training to be more godly in our actions and behavior — and feelings. It’s important to put our hearts into everything we do!

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