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There is No Despair

In my experience, there are certain things that are more “losable” than others. Cell phones, sunglasses, metrocards and crucial papers are particularly slippery, and, considering that the average person misplaces up to nine items a day, we invest a lot of time looking for these lost objects. More things slide through our fingers than car keys though. We lose our trains of thought, words, chances, friends, and ourselves. Through interpolating the halachic concept of loss with a chassidic approach, we can understand what it means to lose our conscious awareness of our soul, and how to ultimately find it.

According to Torah, acquiring ownership has two aspects. The owner must engage in a physical act of transfer, as well as consent to the object becoming his. The Talmud states that it is ordained in Heaven how much wealth a soul should have, which shows that there is a spiritual connection between man and his possessions. Therefore, how one perceives his possessions is how they will relate to him. In other words, to truly own something, one needs to think that it’s his. Herein lies the halachic concept of yi'ush, the initial despair one feels when he gives up hope in finding his lost item. Once he has yi'ush, he essentially withdraws his ownership and leaves the object available to whoever finds it.

There is a disagreement between the sages Rava and Abaya over when yi'ush occurs. Rava claims that even if the owner isn't aware that his money fell out of his pocket, and hence doesn't consciously despair of finding the cash, it’s still no longer his. Since he eventually will notice and almost certainly have yi'ush, that future probability is enough to render the money ownerless now. This is known as yi'ush shelo mida'as, unconscious despair.

Abaya argues with Rava, claiming that until someone is conscious of his missing money, he still owns it. This is because a vital aspect of ownership is one's perception of the article. If he still thinks it's his, then it is.The Gemara concludes the topic by affirming Abaya's opinion, ruling that yi'ush shelo mida'as, unconscious despair, lo havey yi'ush, isn't real despair, and doesn't make the item ownerless.

Through the lens of chassidus, we can see how Rava and Abaya's differing perspectives on loss relate to us, our souls, and our timeless ability to do teshuva.

It's written in Gemara Chagiga, "Eizehu shoteh? Hameabed kol mah shenotnim lo—Who is a fool? One who loses what was given to him." According to kabbalah, the word "mah —what" refers to a Jew’s soul. Though we were chosen to guard and express our essential being, we often lose sight of its desires and ambitions. As we start viewing anything other than G-d as our primary focus in life, we become deaf to our soul’s voice.

However, some people simply aren't to blame for this. Like a child born to a prisoner of war, some were never taught a different way. How can this person have yi'ush for his soul’s potential if he never had a chance to access it? He literally doesn’t know what he’s missing. Following Rava's opinion, where yi'ush shelo mida’as is valid and an unconscious loss is a true loss, this person’s soul would be lost to him.

Abaya, on the other hand, views yi'ush as a choice made by the person himself. Since the person is unaware of his soul’s capacity, and therefore doesn't know that it's gone, he cannot mourn its loss. According to Abaya, this person still has complete ownership. This Jew just needs to awaken his soul by learning Torah and becoming aware of G-d in his life and his "mah" will be revealed to him.

But what about someone who forwent his soul's desires purposely? Is he eternally lost? After all, even Abaya says that once he's conscious of the loss, his object is not his.

Here, the Gemara makes a distinction between active and passive yi'ush. When someone loses his watch, he despairs because he has no choice in the matter. If, however, he takes his watch off and declares that he doesn't want it anymore, actively renouncing his ownership, the laws are then slightly different.

Usually, one needs to do a physical action, a kinyan, in order to transfer ownership from one to another. In a case of active yi'ush however, the only thing that changed is his attitude toward his watch. While it's still in his physical domain, it became vulnerable to someone else seizing it. If he wants to reclaim it, he doesn't even need to pick it up again. By merely deciding mentally that he still wants it, it remains his.

It's true that a Jew can choose to forgo his soul's inclination and sin without any guilty conscience. Yet, despite his blatant yi'ush, his soul still belongs to him, even if he doesn't acknowledge it. And with just one thought, one thought of teshuva, one tiny, "this is mine", he's not lost anymore.

Such a Jew exists inside all of us, and that’s why teshuva, regret and transformation, is relevant in all of our lives. Teshuva stands for "tashuv hey —the return of the letter hey," which refers to our reconnection to what's good and true: our G-dly soul. Teshuva comes about when we despair our current situation, and yearn for an alternate reality. The very yi'ush, the heartbreaking despair, upon realizing how far we are, is what causes our lost item to be returned to us.

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