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Yours for the Taking

Reuven walked down the street, remaining unaware as his watch loosened and fell to the ground. Upon noticing his loss, he expressed to his business partner Shimon that he highly doubted his watch would ever be returned to him. The next day Shimon was surprised to come across the watch lying on the pavement. Being in need of a new timepiece he pocketed the item, much to Reuven's consternation. Yet, being that Reuven had not expected to recover his watch, Torah law was on Shimon's side. Indeed, Reuven’s lax attitude toward his watch created his vulnerability.


"I keep Halacha and conduct myself in accordance with the Torah; why do I need to work on refining myself?" Words spoken honestly and innocently, and which can no longer be said. A year later, the speaker seeks the leniencies found in Halacha and no longer presents themself in the way of a committed Jew. Indeed, the speaker’s lax attitude toward their spiritual growth created their vulnerability.


The Halachic ramifications of what is termed yiush - despair - are more commonly encountered than one might think. Every time a generic item is lost, yiush determines the finder's power of ownership. When one loses an object which he knows cannot be identified as his, he will eventually react with yiush, despairing that he will regain his loss. Until one experiences the mental state of yiush, his lost possession remains his. At the moment, however, that he resigns himself to his loss, he loses his power to retain possession over the lost item, and the next person to find it becomes its new owner.

Civil ownership laws and the power of the mind seem to be an unlikely match. How can one's unspoken perspective regarding an object determine to whom it belongs? Furthermore, the despair experienced by the owner can hardly be called voluntary, and hence, the same applies to his relinquishing his power of possession. The owner did not choose to lose his property; such a scenario would not be called a loss. Even his despair is not a state he happily reaches, nor is it the product of a peaceful state of mind. It is a reaction created not so much by choice as it is by circumstance; how can it be the deciding factor regarding the identity of an owner?

Indeed, were Torah to be merely a set of utilitarian laws formed for societal convenience, this law would appear to be counter-intuitive and unfair. However, whereas most systems of law follow the blueprint of the world, the world follows the blueprint of the Torah. Hence, its laws reflect the underpinnings and subtle realities of our universe.

Each of us has been endowed with a G-dly mission, and it is this purpose which is the reason for the world and all of existence. We are here to bring G-d back to the forefront of our minds, of our lives and of the entire universe. We have each received intellectual and emotional abilities and bodily functions in order to use them in accordance with G-d's Will, thereby making Him comfortable with us. We have each received an allotment of physical possessions in order to use them in accordance with G-d's Will, thereby making Him comfortable in His world. Our possessions are not ours by chance; they are elements which are necessary for the creation of a G-dly world. That which belongs to us does so by virtue of the fact that G-d assigned us to actualise its purpose. We received it because it is related to our souls.

This is why the principles of ownership must be so accurately determined. The related laws are not for the purpose of defining the boundaries of each individual's property simply in order to prevent conflict, but rather to allow us to recognize to whom a particular item belongs, to whose soul it is linked. An item legally changing hands is indicative of the fact that its mission must now be further actualized by its new owner. The laws of ownership must be absolutely precise, for they reflect a deeper, truer reality. Designing them to be convenient and satisfactory for owners would be counterproductive. They must be fashioned to precisely reveal to us the connection which exists between each object and its owner as designated by G-d.

As long as ownership is viewed merely as a necessary invention of a civilized world, the legal concept of yiush seems rather strange. Since, however, there is actually an internal connection between an owner and his possessions, it is fitting that the relationship would be impacted by the owner's state of mind. Once an item has been lost and is no longer spatially connected to its owner, the mind is the vehicle which severs the last inner link between the two. Conversely, this link can never be compromised without the mind's sense of despair - without the owner's inner resignation to his loss.

The concept of yiush and its ramifications is not only found in halacha. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe discusses a similar concept within the context of a Jew's service of G-d. Picture a Jew who fulfills all of the positive commandments and avoids transgressing the negative commandments, who does not suffice with action but who designates time to learn Torah and chassidus, who learns with a depth of understanding, who is overcome with passion for that which he learns, and who discusses his newfound knowledge with fire and clarity. Such a person appears to be rather well-to-do in his Divine service. Yet, like in the case of an owner who loses a possession of his, owning something today does not mean that one will own it tomorrow. Owners lose physical objects and the sad truth is that people lose their spiritual standing as well. And like the classic owner, a component to losing one's spirituality is yiush.

How is it that one who acts as G-d commands and seemingly has a strong foundation of knowledge and passion can lose it all? It is clear that this does not happen in one day. What allows the continued process of deterioration which results in one losing their spiritual standing?

A person is not his possessions, neither physical nor spiritual. Therefore, one must be currently bound to his possession in order to be considered its owner. Halachically, one only owns an object which is bound to him spatially, by being in his property, or psychologically, by not being despaired of. Spiritual possessions, as well, must be bound to their owner throughout his life both in action and by avoiding yiush.

Service of G-d means putting oneself aside to do G-d's Will. The moment doing so becomes easy, it is no longer service; it is habit. Retaining one's Divine service through action means not only constantly doing G-d's Will, but ensuring that one does it with more than just habitual regularity. An observant, learned and even passionate Jew can lose all of his spiritual qualities by ceasing to actively work on his service of G-d. Such an individual may very well recognize the importance of the demands that Chassidus makes of him, yet he thinks himself incapable of fulfilling them and so he doesn't. In truth, it is simply that he doesn't want to live according to the plethora of guidelines, but he confuses his reluctance with inability. It is this despair which prevents him from taking the next step in his Divine service, allowing his internal toil to slip. He places himself as a priority over G-d, thereby leading himself further into his own selfishness and away from the qualities which previously characterized his relationship to G-d. It is yiush which triggers his downfall.

Reality is not always fun, particularly when it comes to yiush. Yet it is reality, and it is what transforms our lives from containing fantastical meaning to containing true depth.

Halachic yiush is part of a legal system which is executed on earth in human courts. Therefore it must, at least to a degree, apply one common law to all people who find themselves in identical legal situations. When an object which has no identifying mark is lost, halacha assumes that upon discovering his loss the owner will despair of retrieving his possession, at which point he relinquishes ownership over it and it becomes available for the taking. Although it is possible for a person to be unnaturally optimistic and expect to find his unidentifiable lost possession, he is considered to have despaired, being that such is the way of the average human. After all, our courts cannot judge based on the inner workings of each individual; the law must be guided by the reality which we all know.

On the other hand, our service of G-d is judged by Him alone, the Reader of all minds and Knower of all hearts. He can, and does, incorporate our inner intentions into His verdicts. To Him our motivations are apparent and He knows that not every laxity in our performance is triggered by spiritual despair. He sees who suffers from yiush and who does not. Each individual is a case unto its own based on one's spiritual possessions - actions - and one's mindset toward these possessions. And each individual is given the ability to choose how to relate to his Divine service; whether or not he will despair by viewing himself as incapable is his choice, and his choice alone.

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