Law of return

What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours

By: Rabbi Dr David Fox

There was no doubt about it, he was dishonest. There was nothing I could do about it. True, it had been money owed to me, and it was a large sum in those days. In fact, it had been a very large sum; money which I had earned through hard work. In fact, it had been very hard work over a very large interval of time. Through a series of deceptions and other manipulative legerdemain, the money had been sent to his office to be forwarded to me, but for years my letters of demand, my phone calls, and my disbelief had failed to recoup a single penny. I gave up on my efforts, although not on my hope, once I realised that he had no plans to pay me. Not that he needed the money. The man lived well, associated with an elite crowd, and I was not part of his social or professional circles.

Years passed and I busied myself with better causes and, generally, with better people. That money would have brought me, perhaps, an easier life in many ways. It is true that money can’t buy happiness, but it is also true that happiness cannot buy money. I busied myself with cheerful lines such as this and went on with my life. By and large I had been happy and aimed to be productive. I moved on and rarely thought about that time, that encounter, that loss.

It was in the pursuit of one of life’s better experiences – the chance to perform a mitzvah – helping another person in need, that I had a strange occurrence. I had been walking in a quiet part of town to pay a visit to an ailing acquaintance. As I moved along the sidewalk towards his house, I felt a crunch beneath my feet. It was only some worn envelope, so I stepped ahead and went on into the house of my friend where I offered some encouraging words, then retraced my steps.

I was back on that sidewalk and again heard that paper crackle as a I stepped over the envelope. My powers of deduction ordered me to stop and inquire into the sound of that flat sheath. I picked it up. It was unsealed. Inside the envelope was a thick stack of crisp bills, many, many one hundred-dollar bills to be exact. Curious and at least mildly excited, I counted the contents. It was a large sum of money. In fact, it was a very large sum of money. In fact, it was within a few dollars of what…had been intended for me.

Inquisitive, I removed the bills from the envelope and saw a handwritten note. It was hard to believe my eyes, for the neat epistle was addressed to my erstwhile associate-in-crime (his, not mine). The writer announced that this was the cash which had been promised or owed to that man and constituted payment to him in full for something.

I pondered this: a strange part of town, far from the abode and office of that man. An envelope full of money intended for him. A sum which approximated the money which he had taken from me. I was the lucky finder.

I went back into the house of my ailing acquaintance and asked to use the phone (this was back in those days when no one had a mobile phone). I looked up the number of the wealthy man (this was back in those days when there were telephone books). I called and asked one of his many secretaries if I could speak to him. She said he was too busy. I explained that I had a financial venture for him, and he got on, barking, “What is it?”

“Tell me, Travis, did you lose something recently?”
“WHAT! Do you have my envelope with the cash? Bring it to me right this minute!”
“I did find an envelope, Travis. Can you identify it? It is not addressed to anyone.”
“It’s mine. Otherwise you would not have called me. Bring it to me this minute or else.”
I credit him for having made that deduction – it must be his or how would I know to call him?

“What were the contents, Travis?” I persisted gently. In Jewish law, not that this was of any relevance to Travis, one must identify the contents of a found item in order to claim ownership.

Travis spat out the sum. He was right. He then ordered me to deliver it to him.

I told him I was miles from his location and was not prepared to drive and meet him at that moment. He then ordered me to give my exact location and he advised that he was sending his limousine and instructed me to surrender the envelope to his driver. I asked for the driver’s name, indicated that I would have that man show me his identification to verify who he was, then I would surrender the packet.

“With every single bill, too. Or else.”
“Travis,” I said, “what’s yours is yours. I will wait here twenty minutes.”

The entirety of the money made its way back to Travis; none of it in my pockets.

Had I read the meaning of this episode correctly? Was this meant to be a gift from Above to compensate me for what Travis had done to me years before, or was this a test from Above to tempt me to stray beyond the spirit of the law? I may never know. But although I left with my wallet a little lighter, something inside of me felt lighter too.

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