Monday, January 21, 2008

Finding a Wallet on the Street

A friend of mine was shopping at a mall about five miles from her house. As she was walking through a store, she saw something colorful on the ground. My friend went to pick it up, and realized that she had found a child’s wallet. It was one of those brightly colored wallets, with yellows and oranges, and a Velcro seam, that 11 and 12 year olds like to carry around. My friend opened the wallet to discover 84 dollars and a middle school ID card. Now, I could write a whole other blog post about how a middle school student has 84 dollars in his wallet, but that is for another time.

My friend took the ID and called the middle school. When she got the address of the child, she was surprised to discover that he lived in her subdivision, less than half a mile away. My friend took the wallet with all 84 dollars and returned it. The boy and his mother were thrilled. And my friend had made a new connection with a previously unknown neighbor.

My friend’s experience of finding lost money on the street is practically universal. We have no moral problem with picking up change that we see on the ground. Were we to find a 20 or even a 100 dollar bill on the street, there is no ethical reason not to keep it, since there is no way to find its owner. However, when my friend found the wallet, and saw the ID, she knew that she had to take action.

My friend did not let the 84 dollars tempt her, and she did the right thing. But sometimes money can cloud our judgment when it comes to doing the right thing. When does the hope of financial reward interfere with the high ethical standards that Judaism demands?

At the worst of times for a family, when a loved one passes away, the possibility of money corrupting good deeds can appear. We all know the phrase: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” One of my lawyer friends likes to say: “Where there’s a will, there’s a relative.” When the desire for money finds its way into the mourning process, sometimes the results can be difficult to witness.

At one funeral, a woman passed away in her 70s. She had a companion, a man that she did not marry. She left all of her belongings, including a very nice apartment, to her relatives. The companion and his children were very unhappy that they would receive nothing, and even during the preparation for the funeral, they were already contesting the will. At her funeral, the companion gave a euology that was hard to hear, because the family was unsure if he was truly expressing his love of the woman, or trying to make a better case for receiving part of her wealth.

Perhaps the lesson here is the power of money to blur even the best intentions and deeds of kindness. Returning 84 dollars found in a wallet is not too hard, although it is human nature to want to keep even that amount of money. But what about when a loved one passes away and you are left out of the will?

Judaism teaches us that money should never cloud our judgment, especially when it comes to caring for our loved ones. When Abraham lost his wife Sarah, he went to purchase a burial place for her at Machpelah, in Israel. Abraham enters into negotiations and ends up purchasing a small plot of land to bury his wife. It cost him 400 shekels, which was a huge sum to pay. A similar plot of land was sold elsewhere for 17 shekels. Abraham overpaid by 383 shekels! But Abraham does not argue and remains gracious, paying the full sum.

I am not advocating for getting ripped off. But I am saying that when it comes to the most important tasks in life, like caring for elderly relatives and burying our loved ones, money should not prevent us from doing the right thing. One Jewish prayer lists the commandments, mitzvot, that Jews perform with no expectation of reward. Some of these good deeds include: Honoring parents, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, rejoicing with bride and groom, and burying the deceased.

Judaism teaches us that our task is to treat everyone in our family, and everyone in our lives the same, whether they are of great means or no means. For when we fight for what we think is ours, we may end up with nothing but hurt feelings and strained relationships. But when we do the right thing, like returning a wallet we find on the street, we feel good about ourselves, and we might even make a new friend.

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