Columns | Rabbi’s Corner

Wandering from the path: A law of return

Rabbi Israel Becker

As Rosh Hashanah approaches and we take stock of our own spiritual lives, it certainly behooves us to dedicate ourselves to expend every effort in reaching out to our fellow Jews, and especially to our own children and grandchildren. In fact, extending ourselves to help inspire our fellow Jews to live Jewishly, is not just a good idea, but a biblical obligation. The Torah teaches, “If you see your brother’s ox or sheep going astray, you must not ignore them. You must return them to your brother… You must do the same to a donkey, an article of clothing, or anything else your brother loses and you find. You must not ignore it.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-3) From this clear Torah mandate, the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan,1838-1933), comments: “From this, we can ponder and understand. If the Torah was concerned to such an extent, regarding the monetary possessions of another Jew, even his donkey or sheep that went astray far away from the path and the obligation is upon each and every individual to redirect it back on the path. How much more so must we have compassion for the soul of a Jew that wanders off the path, even if it would require much toil in bringing it back.”

The sages have derived from the Torah, “Return them to your brother even a hundred times.” (Talmud Baba Metzia 31A) And from this, we learn that one must toil even a hundred times to redirect those who are astray to the proper path, the path of Hashem.

As human beings created in the image of G-d, we are endowed with free will and the right to make our own choices. Nevertheless, when our friend makes a choice that will be harmful to them physically, monetarily, or spiritually, we are obligated to proactively get involved. What if your Jewish friend or relative has expressed a desire to be cremated, do we have an obligation to speak up?

If the obligation to “return your friend’s lost article” extends beyond the physical to the spiritual in this lifetime, would it not surely apply when our friend or neighbor could be harming themselves for all eternity?

A 2012 Jewish Forward article, “More Jews opt for cremation,” states, “Jews are increasingly choosing to be cremated, the funeral professionals say, despite Jewish laws and thousands of years of tradition.” But is this a healthy or harmful choice?

Our divinely gifted soul is actually our essence as a person. It is our consciousness and encompasses our thoughts, deeds, experiences, and relationships. Our soul and body are united in partnership as long as we live. The body serves as a vessel to enable the soul to connect to our physical existence. The body-soul relationship is similar to the Aron Kodesh (ark that houses the Torah). Both are considered holy. The soul’s return to Heaven is dependent upon the body’s return to the ground. “The dust returns to the Earth… And the spirit returns to G-d, who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7) With return to the Earth, the body receives the respect it deserves, and the soul can continue on its journey to eternal reward.

Basic in Jewish belief is that there will come a time when the dead will live again. It is from the Earth that our bodies will be rejuvenated in the future. When an animal, article of clothing, or pocketbook are lost, the Torah teaches us to return it to its rightful owner. When it’s time to return our body, instead of destroying it, should we not return it to G-d, its rightful owner?

Through the body, we live our lives enriched with meaning. We give, we love, we experience, we grow. Appreciating the respect due to the body enables us to appreciate the gift of life itself.

May you, dear friends, together with your family, loved ones, and all Israel be written and sealed for a life filled with spiritual growth and true happiness.