Shoftim: Lost and Found

I lost my new “Smartphone” a few days ago. It happened somewhere between my Jerusalem apartment and my arrival at morning minyan. I think I put it on the bus seat when I opened my backpack to retrieve something that then took my full attention during the remaining short ride.  I remember being surprised when I looked up and saw that we were arriving at my stop; I jumped up, grabbed my backpack, and alighted without checking around me. 

No one has turned it in. Yet, prompted by the Jewish calendar, I think that I have gained, rather than lost, from this incident. 

We’ve entered the month of Elul, during which we are bidden to conduct a thorough hesbon nefesh – soul accounting – to prepare for the coming Days of Awe.  I certainly didn’t expect to engage in the process because of a lost object, but that’s what’s happened.  Perhaps some of the things I have learned will help you in your soul accounting.    

1.  First, the obvious.  I need to be more careful, especially with expensive things and most especially when on the move.  I shouldn’t have let myself become preoccupied and largely oblivious to my surroundings for several minutes, and I should have checked around me before getting off the bus.  But, in my defense, I hadn’t slept well and was tired.   Walking to the bus, I realized that I had forgotten to don my kippah, a very rare occurrence.  So, perhaps I was “out of sorts” that morning.  Unfortunately, my self-analysis revealed much more serious problems.

2.  I had heard that my Smartphone could be located, locked, and data-wiped remotely.  But in the months that I’d had it, I hadn’t bothered to learn how to activate these features!   This was laziness as well as imprudence that I couldn’t attribute to a moment’s inattention, fatigue, or being “out of sorts” one particular morning.    

3.   Much worse, I hadn’t password-protected my phone, since this would have required the nuisance, albeit only momentary, of entering a four-digit password dozens of times each day.  Consequently, my loss of the phone had exposed at least some private information about others – their emails and email addresses, phone numbers, some street addresses, photographs, etc. -- to potentially unscrupulous individuals.  My failure to take the most simple safeguard demonstrated a reprehensible (albeit “unintentional”) disregard for others’ interests.  (If all of your electronic devices – phones, tablets, and computers – aren’t password protected, as all of my others now are and will remain, please do it now!)

As I continued my heshbon nefesh, even more important “lessons” emerged.      

4.  I was reminded that my wife is both compassionate and practical.  When I told her that I had lost my Smartphone on the bus, she neither got angry nor criticized me; rather, she commiserated with me.  She said “I’m sorry” and “you must be really mad!”  Her first concern was for my feelings.  This was a lesson in empathy! (When I gave this D’var Torah in synagogue two days later, this compassionate spousal reaction prompted the most comments; could this indicate a great need for more such empathy in our homes?).  Then she suggested that we immediately notify the service provider to shut down the phone number, and also check on the cost of refurbished replacement phones.  I hadn’t thought of doing either of these things.  This “negative” incident gave me an opportunity to feel renewed love and appreciation for my wife – and to tell her so. 

5.  I realized that I wasn’t feeling only irritation and chagrin at myself -- I was feeling an actual emotional loss!  I had “emotionally bonded” with this object!  I had customized it and gradually increased its use to dozens of times every day, reluctantly “unplugging”it  – and, thus, myself -- only on Shabbat.  It was how I spoke on the phone; read the news (on the bus!); checked and sent email whenever away from my computer; video-chatted with my family; got directions; answered questions; played lessons and music; took, shared, and viewed photos and videos; set alarms; used dozens of handy applications, etc. etc.   It had become more than a versatile tool, it was a “personal assistant” who knew much about my “needs,” meaning my wants and preferences.   Now that I was suddenly without it, I felt “lonely” and perhaps vulnerable.  I now realized that the more I had discovered what it could do for me, the more reliant upon it I had become.  I had invested too much of myself in this thing.  Perhaps I had not developed an addiction – or had I? – but this attachment/reliance was definitely unwise.    

6.  Recognizing how attached I had become to this object opened my eyes to how important personal possessions can be to people.  Their loss can leave them feeling vulnerable and bereft (and, worse, violated, if those objects were stolen or maliciously damaged or destroyed).   Glasses, canes, books, photos, clothing, cars, homes, personal momentos, almost anything can be very important to someone.  Even without being “addicted” to them, we often feel possessions as extensions of ourselves and of our feeling of well-being in the world.   I now realize that I should not attempt to comfort someone with the statement: “it can be replaced.”  Even if true (and often untrue, since the true value may not be intrinsic to the object itself), such a statement disrespects and trivializes the powerful sense of emotional loss.   It also reinforced my sense of responsibility (not just “the nice thing to do”) to safeguard and try to return identifiable lost objects.  The owner may be suffering from its loss in ways that we might never imagine.  (Jewish law’s treatment of lost objects provides a fascinating balance of righteousness behavior, prudent interpersonal relationships, psychology, and pragmatism).

So, what now? 

Perhaps you are wondering whether, having experienced these personal “revelations,” I will replace my lost Smartphone.  Therein lies yet another lesson.  I still have my two-generations-ago model (only about three years, but significantly less capable).  Before I bought the newest version, though, the old one was perfectly adequate.  Since I “didn’t know what I was missing,” I was happy with what I had.

Now that I’m back to an “old” version, I not only know what I was missing, but I’m better able to judge how important or not-important those upgrades were.  It turns out that they were very nice, but not necessities after all – and that their convenience had a dark side.  Due to my heshbon nefesh, I’m now much more conscious of the “price” that comes with upgrades and with technology in general – not just the monetary cost, but the cost in greater dependence, vulnerability, insensitivity, and misplaced priorities.  If I do replace it, I’m determined to be cautious with and about this tool.  I’ll won’t look at it as a unmitigated blessing.   And I’ll be reassured that turning it off on Shabbat is actually a very healthy and wise thing to do.

There are probably “apps” to help with hesbon nefesh.  But I don’t recommend them.  Just use “b’chol l’vavha, u’vchol nafshecha, u’vchol m’udechah.”  All your heart, all your soul, and all your might.   

May you have a productive Heshbon Nefesh and a Shabbat of shalom.    

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb