כִּי תִפְגַּע שׁוֹר אֹיִבְךָ אוֹ חֲמֹרוֹ תֹּעֶה הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לוֹ:
“If you encounter your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shalt surely bring it back to him again.” (Shemot 23:4).
A man wrote to me after cleaning out his grown daughter’s bedroom, he found a sweatshirt that his daughter most likely borrowed years ago from her very close friend. The daughter and the owner of the sweatshirt had a falling out over 15 years ago, and there has been no communication since then. Is there an obligation to try to contact the owner? Under what circumstances can the item be donated or given away?
The daughter (or the father) is required to return the sweater, despite the falling out between them. It still belongs to its rightful owner.
Even if we were to presume yeush, that the original owner had given up hope of ever getting the sweater back, it would not allow the daughter to keep the sweater (or give it away). The principle that a person can keep a lost object once the original owners have had yeush only applies if there was yeush before it comes into the hands of the one who has found it. In this case, it was already in the daughter’s possession for a good while before the original owner realized that it was missing and abandoned hope of getting it back. The original obligation that the daughter had to return the sweater does not go away when the owner has yeush later on.
In a way, the obligation in a case like this of ill-will between the parties is actually stated clearly a verse: “כִּי תִפְגַּע שׁוֹר אֹיִבְךָ—when you encounter the ox of your enemy, you must return it to him”(Shemot 23:4). The point of the verse is clear: despite the hatred that exists between the two of you, you are not exempted from the ethical obligations towards this person or even towards his or her property. The object must be restored to the owner.
The Gemara in Baba Metzia (32b) goes further. Commenting on the following verse regarding a donkey that is struggling under its load—“If you see the ass of your enemy crouching under his burden, and you would think to forgo helping him, you shall surely help him with it.” (Shemot 23:5)—the Gemara states that “if the choice is between unloading the donkey of someone you love (which would save the animal from the suffering it is undergoing) and reloading the donkey that belongs to someone you hate, your first obligation is to help the one you hate, in order to subjugate your evil desire (i.e., your hateful feelings towards this person).”
So, not only does the obligation still remain, it also presents an important, if challenging, opportunity to push oneself to transcend or bracket those negative feelings to do what is right. If it will prove to be too difficult to directly engage the friend, then I would just mail the sweater to her with a note “I found this while cleaning up. All the best. etc.”