This week an Orthodox rabbi made headlines (and a kiddush Hashem) when he returned close to $100,000 he found in a desk that he had purchased.
The values that this man exemplified run very deep in Jewish tradition (Jerusalem Talmud Bava Metzia 2:5):
Shimon ben Shetach once purchased a donkey. The original owner had neglected to check the saddlebag before he made the sale, and inadvertently left diamonds in the bag. When they discovered the treasure, Shimon ben Shetach’s students were exuberant, for now, they were certain, their teacher would be able to teach Torah without the constant financial worries that had been plaguing him. Shimon ben Shetach did not join in their excitement though. “Do you think I am a barbarian?” he exclaimed, “I bought a donkey, not diamonds!” He promptly returned the diamonds. When the owner received them he cried out, “Blessed is the G-d of Shimon ben Shetach!”
The mitzvah of hashavat aveidah, returning lost objects, is at the core of our tradition and contributes to our definition as a people. Social trust is built when others act responsibly with lost items they find.
What is uncanny about the recent story is how closely it parallels that of the Jerusalem Talmud. Noach Muroff, High School Rebbi at Yeshiva of New Haven, bought a used desk online for less than $200. When the desk arrived, it did not fit through his door. When Noach and his wife took the desk apart, they discovered a bag with $98,000 in cash hidden inside. Without hesitation, they decided to contact and present the stunned original owner with the money, which most likely was part of an unknown inheritance. In return, they received the following thank you note: “I do not think there are too many people in this world that would have done what you did by calling me. I do like to believe that there are still good people left in this crazy world we live in. You certainly are one of them.”
Sometimes, however, returning lost money does not result in a happy heartwarming story. A homeless man, James Brady of Hackensack, New Jersey, found $850 and turned it in to the police. When no one claimed the money within a 6-month period, the money was returned to him as a reward. Things seemed to be looking up for Brady, who had recently been able to find housing and was honored by the City Council for his honesty. However, he then found out that because he had failed to report the money as income, he had been cut off from Medicaid and general assistance, a troubling indicator of how quick and callous governments can be in cutting off aid to the poor. Perhaps the many people who expressed a desire to contribute money to make up for Mr. Brady’s lost benefits will be able to positively impact the situation.
While instances of people returning lost money often receive media attention, it is difficult to assess how many others decide to quietly keep what they find. As such, experiments are usually done on a small scale and cannot generally be regarded as scientifically rigorous. Nevertheless, some studies warrant examination. In a recent test, Reader’s Digest reporters placed 12 wallets with the equivalent of $50 cash and some coupons, and identification with a phone number, on the ground in 16 cities throughout the world. Helsinki, Finland, turned out to be the most honest (11 of 12 wallets returned). New York City fared better than some might expect (8 of 12 returned), while the Iberian Peninsula fared the worst, with Madrid (2 of 12 returned) and Lisbon (1 of 12 returned, and by a tourist) placing at the bottom. Overall, only about 47 percent of the wallets were returned, as most of the people (gender, age, and other factors appeared to be unimportant) pocketed the wallet and the money. Of those who returned the wallets, all reported having been raised with a strong belief that lost items should be returned.
Finding lost money or items can be viewed as a test. Are we willing to betray the mitzvah of hashavat aveidah for $50, $500, or $50,000? For those raised with a strong sense of morality, it is a test that can, and should, be passed. We should not look for media attention or a handsome reward; our reward is performing a mitzvah and the knowledge that we have, at least for one or maybe a few people, restored belief in the goodness of people. This knowledge, alone, is priceless.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”