This parashah contains more mitzvos than any other parashah, and they are mitzvos that encompass many areas that sensitize our hearts and enable us to perceive that there is more to life than mere existence. It is not by coincidence that this parashah is read as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The parashah opens with the stirring words, "When you will go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem, your God, will deliver them into your hand...."

These words are spoken, not only in regard to the battlefield, but more importantly, in connection with the personal struggle that each and every one of us must wage to conquer our most formidable enemy, the yetzer hara. God promises us that if we make a decision to go forth and battle that enemy within ourselves, He will deliver it into our hands; that is, if we are truly determined to free ourselves of our negative traits and base habits, God will do the rest and we will gain control over our passions rather than be controlled by them.

The many and varied mitzvos in the parashah are here to sensitize our souls so that we might better fulfill our mission in our Avodas Hashem (service of God). For example, the laws pertaining to a rebellious son[2] make us realize the critical importance of parents speaking with the same voice and avoiding the tragedies that can result when there is a lack of shalom bayis and parents send conflicting messages.

The laws pertaining to helping unload a burdened animal[3] not only teach us that it is a positive commandment to relieve the animal of its burden, but that closing our eyes to its suffering is to transgress the prohibition of "tzaar baalei chaim," which means that we may not be indifferent to the distress of an animal. This law should give us food for thought and compel us to re-think our relationships with our fellow man. If the Torah demands that we be so sensitive to the pain of an animal, how much more must we sensitize ourselves to the burdens and the pain in the hearts of our brethren.

Nowadays, there are so many problems that afflict people, so many who are lonely and hurting, so many who are ill, so many who have lost their jobs and have difficulty making ends meet, and so many who are suffering in Eretz Yisrael. We dare not turn our backs on them and pretend that we do not see or hear their cries. A kind word, a listening ear, a smile, a helping hand can all serve to ease their pain and lift their burdens.

EACH OF GOD'S CREATIONS IS UNIQUE

The parashah also admonishes us not to harness an ox and a donkey together to plow.[4] Although this commandment is a chok, for which no reason is given, we can derive a moral lesson from it. The Torah has compassion on the animals, since they have different energy levels, and harnessing them together would pit one against the other, causing undue pain and stress. In addition, the ox chews its cud, while the donkey swallows grass or grain quickly, leading the donkey to believe that the ox, which takes longer to consume its food, was given a greater portion. Once again, there are lessons to be drawn in our human relations: Never pit people of different energy levels against one another. Never compare children, for each child is a star in his or her own right. Never should husbands and wives compare their spouses to others. All such comparisons can be painful and can leave deep scars. Each of us is God's creation, endowed with our own unique gifts and talents, and each of us has our own contribution to make.

Furthermore, if we jealously think that someone has more than we have, just remember the donkey that foolishly thinks that the ox has more than it does. God gives to each of us that which we need, so instead of focusing on that which the other has, let us concentrate on that with which God blessed us.

RETURNING THAT WHICH IS LOST

All the portions of the Torah that we read during the month of Elul have been designed to prepare us for the awesome days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when our destiny for the coming year is decided. In this parashah we learn about the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah, returning lost items.

"You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep cast off, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely return them to your brother. If your brother is not near you and you do not know him, then gather it inside your house and it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it, and you shall return it to him."[5]

On a simple level, we understand this to mean that it is a mitzvah to return lost objects to their rightful owners, and this holds true even if we have to inconvenience ourselves to do so. On another level, this teaching takes on a powerful spiritual dimension. Allegorically, your brother Who lost something can be seen as a reference to the Almighty God, Who "lost" many of His children. But, you might ask, how does it happen that a Jew is lost? The answer can be found in our text: He becomes like an ox or a sheep; that is, he becomes stubborn as an ox or, sheeplike, he mindlessly follows the crowd.

We live in an age in which many stubbornly rationalize. No matter what befalls them, they refuse to see the hand of God and try to explain everything away as either happenstance or scientific phenomena. They deny the hand of God in their personal lives as well as in world events. On the other hand, others, like sheep, succumb to that which is in vogue. If their peers assimilate, they too will assimilate; if their peers give up the observance of mitzvos, they too will give up the observance of mitzvos, and so on. So we must all be on guard not to fall into the trap of the ox or the sheep. But regarding those who did fall, it is our responsibility to return them to Almighty God. The soul of every individual belongs to Him, for we are all God's children.

But what if we are not sufficiently erudite in Torah learning and feel inadequate to this task? We are nevertheless responsible, for the Torah teaches that if we find a lost item and do not know who the owner is, we must take it into our homes and safeguard it until the connection is made. How does that teaching apply to us? If we bring lost Jews into our home, a place where the holy lights of Shabbos burn bright, or if we bring them to a Torah class and thereby connect them to their roots, we will awaken the pintele Yid in their neshamos and thus return them to their true source, their Owner. And what if we ourselves are lost? The same formula applies to us. We must seek out a Torah teacher who will guide us on the path of return to our Heavenly Father.

It is only through Torah and mitzvos that we can reunite with Hashem, who is patiently and lovingly waiting for each and every one of us to come home.

The month of Elul is a time when God is holding "Open House" and is anxiously awaiting the return of all His children. In the month of Elul, anyone who knocks on God's door, so to speak, is welcomed and embraced. This truth is reinforced in the acronym formed by the Hebrew letters of the word ELUL - "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li - I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine."[6]

NOTES

1. Deut. 21:10.
2. Ibid. 21:18.
3. Ibid. 22:4.
4. Ibid. 22:10.
5. Ibid. 22:1-2.
6. Song of Songs 6:3.

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