I have fond memories of Mr. Rogers TV show. One of the lessons he taught was based on a lesson his own parents taught him. When something terrible happens, he teaches us the thing to do is to look for the helpers, to appreciate all the people who choose to go in to help, support, and make people safe.
Out of the horrible stories and images of flooding in Houston, one bright spot are the stories of those who have helped stranded dogs, picking them up off the rooftops of cars surrounded by water, of people on horseback with deep water around them opening up the gates for other horses to escape rising water, stories of those who drove cattle over flooded roads toward safer ground.
While the analogy is not exact, our Torah portion this week reminds the Israelites if they see a fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep, really any animal or anything, that has gone astray, we must not ignore it, we must return it. Even if the owner is far away or we don’t know where the owner lives, it’s up to us to bring the animal home and care for it until the owner claims it.
The Torah emphasizes that for every lost animal or object, “Lo tuchal le’hit’alem” – An interesting choice of words here, you may not remain indifferent to it. Why does the Torah phrase this in the negative? Why not say, “Take good care of it” or “Look after it”.
The great Rashi explains, that ‘do not remain indifferent’ means do not close your eyes k’eelu ain’cha ro’eh oto, as though you do not see it.
It can be more convenient to walk on by and avoid taking responsibility for the wandering animal. It takes significant effort to lead the animal or animals, to feed them, and care for them. It could be easier to move on and get on with our own responsibilities. Many Israelites were herders, they already had their own flocks to feed.
But Rashi catches us at one of our human weak points. He reminds us how often we look away when we should engage. Elsewhere the Torah reminds us not to ‘avert our eyes’ from those among us in need and to provide for those like the stranger, widow, and orphan – those who could easily have been or have become invisible to the rest of the community.
In these weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the mitzvah of caring for and restoring the animal to its owner, the mitzvah of not remaining indifferent, transforms into a mitzvah not only about 4 legged creatures, but about us 2 legged creatures. The New Year is a celebration of hope for the days ahead, but even more so it is a time to make certain each member of the community is recognized, welcomed, as part of our larger mishpochah, the big family. The Haftarah we will read on Rosh Hashanah, the story of Chana is one of the quintessential reminders of what the holiday means. Chana, a woman in an excruciating existential struggle, pours out her soul in a quiet and fervent prayer – She ‘shouts in a whisper’ (Reb Ziskind, Yesod ve’shoresh ha’Avodah) -- and just at the moment when she needs to most to be heard and her fervent prayers validated, the priest dismisses her on account of his unfamiliarity with intense but softly offered prayers.
Mr. Rogers taught us that one way of praying is looking for the helpers, appreciating them, thanking them. Let us be the supportive presence around the mythical Chana, the help she does not receive except through a promise from God. This season we each have the opportunity to be a helper, to make the best use of our voices, our hands, and abilities to who is feeling lost, disconnected, unheard, anyone who is feeling like an outsider or who is flooded with pain, suffering, and loss will know that we are there to guide them into the New Year.