My busy schedule doesn’t allow much leisure reading, but each week I take a few minutes to peruse Rabbi Yoel Gold’s column in Ami Magazine. He relates inspiring stories of divine providence. A few years ago, he told the story of a Jewish man (we’ll call him “Isaac”) who was staying in a hotel in the West Coast for business. When placing his valuables in the hotel room safe, he was surprised to find a pouch full of expensive jewelry. Logically, the owners probably gave up hope on getting it back, so according to Jewish law, he might be able to keep the jewelry. What a find!
But then, Isaac remembered reading about Rabbi Noah Muroff from Connecticut who found $98,000 hidden in a $150 desk he purchased on Craigslist. Here too, Rabbi Muroff could have kept the money, but he called the lady who sold him the desk and returned the cash. Rabbi Muroff was featured in countless news articles nationwide. In one interview, he explained, “To me, the need to return money was clear. I am Jewish and I want to spread the message of honesty and integrity.” Isaac went down to the front desk and said in a loud voice, “I found this pouch of jewelry in my room. I am Jewish and I want to return it to its rightful owner. The hotel staff was stunned by this display of honesty.
Isaac was scheduled to be in the West Coast for Shabbos but didn’t know anyone. A contact helped set him up with a local family. Now it was Isaac’s turn to be stunned: his host was none other than Rabbi Noah Muroff, who had moved there earlier. Isaac realized Hashem was sending him a clear message that he did the right thing and was proud of him.
Parshas Mishpatim is replete with hundreds of laws: personal injury, property damage, returning lost articles, marriage, divorce, and interpersonal and monetary obligations. Each of these laws is discussed at length in various gemaras and the Shulchan Aruch. However, even cases where a course of action that might benefit oneself are technically permitted under the letter of the law, are subject to a higher code of ethics. This is referred to as lifnim m’shuras hadin—beyond the letter of the law. When finding a lost object that one might be able to keep, one should nevertheless try to locate the rightful owner. According to many opinions, this extra step is actually mandated.
The Beer Hagolah writes that it is praiseworthy to return even money that may be kept if there is an element of Kiddush Hashem in returning it. I have seen many people become wealthy from other people’s errors, he said, but then lose their wealth and have nothing left. Those who sanctified Hashem’s name by returning gains made by the errors of others became wealthy and left their wealth for their heirs.
Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l was very careful about his honesty in money matters. He was once audited by the IRS. Rav Schwab handed in all the requested papers with every cent accounted for. When he finished, the IRS agent told Rav Schwab “I have never met anyone so honest in my life.”
Rav Schwab would lament that too often we see Jewish people on the cover of the newspaper for illegal actions. We need instead to try to make a public display of how honest a Jew behaves.
And even though acting honestly and ethically doesn’t always gain the limelight, it is still incumbent upon us, as a reflection of our Creator, to do so.
The civil laws in Parshas Mishpatim are placed right after the Ten Commandments to teach us that all areas of mitzvos are important and need to be followed. In the same way we are diligent in keeping Shabbos and buying a beautiful esrog, so too we must be diligent in monetary matters and interpersonal relationships.
This Shabbos is also called Parshas Shekalim. Each person was obligated to give a half shekel of shekel hakodesh (holy shekel) to the Mishkan. What does “holy shekel” mean? Rav Schwab explains that it means every cent of that shekel needs to be acquired honestly, without any duplicity or cheating. The funds from the collection of the shekalim were used to create the sockets, the foundation of the Mishkan. They were also collected yearly to purchase the animals that were sacrificed daily on behalf of the Jewish nation. Using “honest money” was a must!
Let us be a shining example of a Torah Jew each day at work, at the store, with our neighbors—everywhere! This will bring blessing both in our business matters and in our homes, which are a mini Mishkan—a place where Hashem dwells. And with that, may we merit to rebuild the third Beis Hamikdash speedily in our days.