We’ve seen a huge rise in neighbourhood property crime. We’re still driving a car without a back window (yup, two windows vandalized). We also lost a flower planter in June.
We realized the flowers were gone on Shabbat. We were on our way to services when we saw that we only had one and not two matching flowerpots. This matters for two reasons. First, we use the pots to keep people from parking illegally and blocking our gate. Sometimes, the planters get moved because a truck is parked to do work at our house or at a neighbour’s. Sometimes, big trucks or strangers just run over our planters so they can turn around or park illegally at our house. Despite multiple “private parking” signs, we struggle with these issues frequently. After each run-over or blocked gate, we’re scooping up the soil and repotting the flowers, trying to keep the planters going.
Two weeks after the pot went missing, when I was helping my twins walk their bikes to the schoolyard so we could safely practise cycling without training wheels, we stopped to look at our neighbours’ yards. My kids planted the flower pots themselves as part of their birthday celebrations at the beginning of June (reason #2 for their importance). They knew exactly which colours they’d put in each planter. And – surprise – our planter was firmly ensconced in a neighbour’s front yard, a block away from home.
We tried knocking but no one was there. When we returned home, we couldn’t put it out of our minds. My husband filed a supplement to our police report, asking if the cops could help invite these folks to return our flowers. So far, nothing has happened.
One of my kids has taken to doing the early morning walk with me and our two dogs now that it’s summertime. He reflects on the stolen/lost flowers every morning we pass them. On one of these walks, he brought up another story: he’d encountered a lost dog at day camp. Others shooed it away from the grass, into the parking lot, where he feared it would be run over. No one, in his view, helped it get home.
When I mentioned it to adults at camp, I was reassured that someone had found the dog’s owner. It was also pointed out to me that many kids were afraid of dogs; perhaps that’s why it was shooed away. I responded that, even if no one taught kids how to behave around animals, that dog was a “lost item.” Jewish tradition teaches us that it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to return lost items to their owners.
Jewish tradition is full of stories and rabbinic instructions for how we are to manage theft and loss. How we should address theft, punish thieves and figure out the motivations of those who do harm are part of what we should learn and teach as Jews. It’s our responsibility to return things and to help others find that order and closure in the world.
The rabbis recognize this commandment is complex. In some cases, hungry or suffering people may steal, borrow or “find” a lost item that they need to survive. However, we shouldn’t assume that the person who lost something can always make do or be fine without it. If we budget in our household to fill two planters with flowers – so the twins can each plant one – and someone steals one? Our kids feel that one planter is clearly not the same as two. There’s no food involved in this but, aside from contacting the police or directly confronting the neighbours, we run the risk of being seen as the crooks if we “steal” it back.
We have public services – police, courts, animal services – to solve some conflicts. Yet, if public services are delayed or unresponsive, we’re left with the same moral issues. How do we solve these problems without timely intervention or help? What can we do to practise tikkun olam, repair of the world?
We rely on voting in a democratic society, as well as a responsive civil service, to make sure our public services work. (This is a hint – please vote in the next election.) On a personal level, though, my kid suffers when he worries about a missing person, a dog or a flowerpot. He is the same kid who knows what the Red Dress installations mean: I have an 8-year-old who knows these commemorate the loss of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. It’s hard to see a kid learn about this. It’s harder yet to live with loss. Imagine the huge pain of losing a person. For a kid, losing a beloved animal or giving up on something that was stolen seems hard enough.
The rabbis give ways to respond to challenges of theft or loss and it’s up to us not just to study the sources, but to live in a way that carries out their teachings. We must call others to account when they fail to do what’s right. If someone steals, promises to pay for something and doesn’t, or “loses” someone or something, it’s our obligation to ask them to honour their commitments.
It’s not OK to take a loved one, an animal, a kid’s flowerpot or to skip paying the bill. We have limited funds in our household, school and government budgets. Yet, our tradition also teaches a compassionate compromise – if a person truly cannot survive, we must help. The question we’re left with is how to find closure when the world fails us. If no one returns a missing child or animal, if we do not honour our commitments to others, what kind of a place is this?
We have a stake in making this world a better place. It starts with practical steps like helping get a lost person, dog or belongings home safely. Let’s at least honour our obligations.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.