Elan Javanfard, L.M.F.T.
In Parshat Ki Teitzei we encounter various laws and ethical guidelines that address our responsibilities towards others. In the second perek of the parsha Moshe Rabeynu expresses, “lo-tireh et-shor aḥícha o et-seyo niddaḥím vehit'allamta mehem hashev teshívem leaḥícha” – “If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your peer” (Deuteronomy 22:1). Rashi elaborates on the passuk “do not close your eyes tight as if you did not see what your fellow lost”. The Mishnah in Bava Metzia 2:1-2, sourcing our passuk, provides us with an in depth explanation of the mitzvah of Hashavat Aveidah, returning lost objects. This mitzvah sheds light on the psychological concept of the bystander effect.
The bystander effect refers to the tendency of individuals to be less likely to offer help when others are present or when they don’t feel invested in the problem. The Torah addresses this phenomenon by emphasizing the importance of taking action even when it seems easier to ignore the situation. The passuk places the responsibility in our hands, that when we come across someone else's lost property, we must not turn a blind eye or assume someone else will take care of it. As described by Professor Philip Zimbardo, "The tendency to avoid taking a stand when confronted by an uncomfortable moral challenge is known as the bystander effect."
The Meshech Chochmah, on the second perek of Bava Metzia, (“Eilu Metziot”), discusses in depth the steps someone takes to care for lost objects and makes decisions regarding a course of action related to them. The discussion sheds valuable insight into how to overcome the bystander effect. Treating others’ objects as how we would like our items to be treated, and therefore increasing investment in the situation by placing yourself into the shoes of the other. It is not enough to assume someone else with help. The Rambam further elaborates in Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Gezeilah 11:1), a person who sees an object lost by a fellow Jew and ignores it, leaving it in its place, transgresses a negative commandment comparable to stealing.
The mitzvah of Hashavat Aveidah here goes beyond mere physical possessions. It teaches us that we have a personal responsibility to step up and help, even if we are not directly connected to the person in need. By specifically mentioning cases where the owner is not nearby or known, the Torah challenges us to overcome the bystander effect and take initiative regardless of the circumstances.
Here are a few tips to overcome the bystander effect:
- Be Aware of the Phenomenon: Recognize that the bystander effect exists and can influence your actions. Being aware of this tendency can help you consciously choose to intervene when needed.
- Take Immediate Action: Trust your instincts and do not wait for someone else to act. If you see someone in need or a situation that requires assistance, take initiative and offer help or call for help without hesitating.
- Assume Responsibility: Imagine yourself as the sole responder and take responsibility for the situation. By personalizing the scenario, you are more likely to step up and provide aid, rather than assuming someone else will do it.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, "The act of returning lost property is a bridge connecting people and fostering a sense of unity.” This Mitzvah reminds us that we are not just passive observers in the world; we are active participants with the ability to make a positive impact. By transcending the bystander effect and actively returning lost objects, we cultivate a sense of communal responsibility and contribute to a society that values empathy and mutual support.
Elan Javanfard, M.A., L.M.F.T. is a Consulting Psychotherapist focused on behavioral health redesign, a Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University, & a lecturer related to Mindfulness, Evidence Based Practices, and Suicide Prevention. Elan is the author of Psycho-Spiritual Insights: Exploring Parasha & Psychology, weekly blog. He lives in Los Angeles Pico Robertson community with his wife and two children and can be reached at Elan.Javanfard@gmail.com.