click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

A Real Bargain

A Real Bargain

Do I look like a thief to you?


I was in a store stocking up on Chanukah presents and some household items (one for them, one for me, one for them…). Standing at the register I gasped aloud at the total, thinking it was perhaps time to repeal the child labor laws and get a little help with the bills around here.

The proprietor had compassion (and no doubt wanted my return business) so he made me an offer. Why don't I just make the check out to cash and I'll save the tax? In California, at 8.25%, that can be significant money.

"Great," I said and began to write the check.

Then I remembered the class I had taught that week -- the ins and outs of stealing; the small things we do and rationalize to ourselves: the restaurant won't miss it, in fact they expect us to take it; the hotel is overpriced anyway - what's one extra towel?; the limits on bringing goods across the border are meant to catch drug smugglers and big-item re-sellers, not me! (Then why is the limit so low?)

How was this any different? Wasn't I trying to steal from the government? True, I'm not the high-end manufacturer or retailer, nor was there much money at stake, but was that the point?

With some embarrassment and chagrin (on both our sides), I said I'd write the check for the full amount.

It's so easy to bring home (just a few) pens and pads from the office, to make (only one or two) personal phone calls on our employer's dime, to surf the web and play solitaire in the middle of the workday.

We tell ourselves: "Why pay when I can get it for free?" Not: "Why pay when I could steal it?"

We've upped the ante on what's really stealing to justify our petty crimes. After all, everyone does it. Music-sharing, pirated DVD's… it's become an epidemic. We tell ourselves: "Why pay when I can get it for free?" Not: "Why pay when I could steal it?"

The temptations are everywhere: to use someone else's club membership card, season's pass, friends and family discount. We've already told ourselves it's no big deal. And we're teaching that lesson to our children.

According to a report by the Josephson Institute of Ethics released in 2002, students' values are rapidly deteriorating: Cheating rose from 71% in 2000 to 74% in 2002, theft increased from 35% to 38%, and those who said they would be willing to lie to get a good job jumped from 28% to 39%.

We can't discount societal and peer pressure, but we should turn the magnifying glass inward first. During the L.A. riots after the Rodney King trial in 1991, some large department stores were looted. Rioters were shown on TV grabbing boxes of diapers, bicycles, television sets and toys. And I wondered how they explained these new acquisitions to their children.

We would never do something like that, we say as we shake our heads in disgust. Yet what if we tell our children to be quiet as we go through customs, if we take them to sports events with tickets bought for clients, if we write off a family vacation as a business expense, if we overlook the ethical dilemma in our desire to be the first on the block to own the DVD of the latest movie?

Our children are smart and they're learning from us. If we want them to be scrupulously honest, we must begin by modeling that behavior.

A Rutgers Management Education Center survey bolsters the Josephson Institute finding. In the same year of the high school students they polled, 75% admitted to serious cheating. "What's important is getting ahead," said one student. "It's not how moral you were in getting there." Where did she learn that? Whose behavior did she witness?

Beyond the rationalized, even unintentional stealing, lies a deeper issue or attitude and values. When our children see us in action, what do they really see? If they followed us around all day, would we exemplify desirable behavior? What price have we been willing to pay for material success?

One of the Jewish antidotes is recognizing that it's all in the Almighty's hands. We are taught that on Rosh Hashana, the Almighty determines how much money we will earn that year. Stealing, cheating, manipulating, back-stabbing -- none of it will increase the amount.

For any type of success, business or otherwise, all we can do is make our effort. The outcome is in the Almighty's hands. Which effort do you think He is most likely to reward?

A second antidote is found in Ethics of the Fathers: "Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know what is above you -- a watchful Eye, an attentive Ear, and all your deeds are recorded in a Book" (2:1). When we steal, we believe we won't be caught. We wouldn't do it if we thought there was any risk of serious consequences, any real danger to ourselves. But we think no one will notice; No one is watching. We're so relieved -- and so sure -- we got away with it.

But did we? Sometimes it's frustrating to realize that we can't get away with it, that we're under constant scrutiny. Sometimes it's frustrating to remember that we're always on video (and you were worried about the cameras in the stores!). But it's actually a gift. To slightly force our hand. To help us do what's right. It's a gift that we get as a kindness from the Almighty. And that's a real bargain.

January 23, 2005

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Anna, January 17, 2005 12:00 AM


I agree with much of the article, although I wouldn't have a problem using someone's season ticket, as they have paid for it already & I can't see that it makes much difference who actually uses it. Our bus company used to have a four-trip ticket that cost the same as two one-way trips, and I used to give mine away if I'd only used two or three,reasoning that I'd paid for four trips & it was as if I'd asked the driver to clip two clips on my pre-paid ten-trip card so someone else could ride at my expense.

I agree that small thefts can be a slippery slope, but I must confess to once being the proud owner of a toilet roll whose paper cover proclaimed it to be the property of the Government! To me (and all the young ones in that department), that WAS asking for it.There must have been hundreds of them sitting on toilet cisterns all over the city, for display only!

I haven't liked myself in the past when I've done petty dishonest things, so dishonesty is its own punishment.

The only criminal whom I have known (not a friend, I knew him very slightly) had many, many convictions for fraud & dishonesty, but when someone robbed him, the howls of indignation could be heard all over the district & he got himself in the paper to tell the sad story. His air of outraged virtue did not get him much sympathy from anyone who knew his history, needless to say.

(1) Diana Connan Forgy, January 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Intellectual Property

My younger children sometimes ask me if they can borrow and copy a friend's video game CD. I have spent much of my professional career protecting my company's software copyrights; these copyrights represent about thirty years of my husband's work to develop the technology that we license, as well as our livlihood. If, after all of my eye-glazing lectures about respect for other people's property, even my own children say "but everybody does it", what hope is there for anyone else? I may get through to my kids eventually, but that still leaves about six billion other people I can't reach. I am not optimistic.

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment