Parshat Vayikra concludes with the laws concerning guilt offerings for theft, and it is here where we learn that if someone has stolen an object then they are required by Torah law to return that specific object.
But – ask our Rabbis – what if the object has since been sold or destroyed? In such a case we are taught that the thief must repay the value of the object that they have stolen.
However, Mishna Gittin 5:5 raises a fascinating question: what if someone stole a wooden beam, and used it for the construction of their home? Technically, they still possess the beam, but practically, the only way to return that particular beam is by destroying their home. In this instance, what should they do? The Mishna answers this question with a clear decision and a powerful principle: ‘restitution for [the beam] may be made in money, so as not to put obstacles in the way of penitents’.
What this principle (which we often refer to as ‘Takanat Hashavim’) teaches us is that while a person who has sinned should fulfil certain requirements in order to correct their mistakes, if it is apparent that these requirements would be excessively hard for them to fulfil then we are dutibound to establish easier pathways to enable them to reach their desired spiritual destination. Based on this idea we find numerous rulings from poskim (halakhic decisors) who have incorporated Takanat Hashavim considerations to ease the pathway for penitents.
However, while the principle of Takanat Hashavim is cited in halakhic rulings (although, I should note, it is not cited anywhere near as much as it should be!), it is also a principle that should be taken to heart by all Jews in all Jewish communities. Many of us have friends and relatives who may wish to become more observant, but if such a person looks towards their Orthodox friend or relative and draws the conclusion that the financial, personal and cultural cost of being Orthodox is too high, then they are likely to be disenfranchised.
As we know, many Jews like to talk about the failures of hasbara for Israel. However, there is not enough talk about the failure of hasbara for observance. True, there are principles which cannot be circumvented. At the same time, too many Orthodox Jews portray an image of Orthodoxy that is unattractive to the not-yet-observant Jew.
To be observant is not just about observing the laws; it is also about considering how your actions will be observed by others. We learn from the law of returning lost objects that there is a principle of Takanat Hashavim, and we learn from the principle of Takanat Hashavim that if we are sensitive about how we portray our lives as Orthodox Jews, more Jews are likely to consider returning to observance.