>I grew up in a house with cats. From the time I was 6 or 7 there has always been a cat in my parent’s house; first Sally, then Tiger, then Lucky, and currently Simba and Nala (I was in a Lion King phase when we got them). The cats have always been free to come and go as they pleased; generally coming for food or to be stroked, and then going soon after.
However, in the last several years a new cat on the block has caused trouble, fighting with Simba and Nala; and on one occasion sending the later to the vet. We have a zero tolerance policy towards this neighbourhood bully and whenever it approaches we chase him away, occasionally using the hose, a water pistol, or whatever is to hand. I realise he is someone else’s pet; but as far as we’re concerned he’s a vicious bully and a thug.
It is easy for a person to consider their own pets wonderful and the animals of others to be a nuisance. We may invite the owner round for tea and biscuits, but we are often less excited when their four legged friend crashes the party.
The portion of Ki Tetze begins as though it cannot sit still; jumping from subject to, often tenuously related, subject every few verses. In one of those leaps it comes to the subject of another person’s animals. ‘If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow’ (Deuteronomy 22:1). One can imagine that this instruction could play havoc with a person’s day, but it is the nice thing to do. One can liken it to responding to one of those lost dog posters stuck on the lamppost (it’s funny that it’s always a lost dog, and cats never seem to go missing).
However, the Torah portion continues: ‘If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him’ (Deuteronomy 22:2). The Torah does not institute a lost an found centre for ox, sheep and donkeys; instead the individual who finds the animal is required to provide it with room and board until it is claimed. Suddenly that other person’s animal becomes your problem.
The Torah appears to be aspiring to a society in which no-one ever says: ‘It’s not my problem’, or stands idly by when an animal is missing. It is not just concerned with animals, and clarifies ‘do the same with his garment’ (Deuteronomy 22:3). By using the example of animals the Torah portrays an extreme case, suggesting that it is therefore a rule for all lost property. It’s much easier to keep hold of a sweater until it is claimed, rather than an ox.
For the person who finds the animal I imagine that this system may have been a little frustrating. But for the person who lost the animal it must have been a very reassuring law to have in place.
The Torah reminds us of the fact that we do not live in isolation, we live as part of a community, a neighbourhood; a society bigger than just us. Our world has become quite individual-orientated, and people inhabit their small spheres, unconcerned about the wider world beyond their boundaries.