My husband and I checked into our hotel room with plenty of time to get ready for our five o'clock treatments at the hotel spa. All I had to do was phone into my New York publisher the final corrections for my new book.
I sat down at the desk, munching on the cake provided by the hotel, and dialed. The line was busy. Five minutes later the receptionist picked up, but my editor was not at her desk. By the time I finally succeeded in delivering the corrections, it was 4:40.
I scrambled to get ready for my treatment. As I took off my watch and gold pendant and placed them on the desk, my husband, who hates when I make him late, told me that he was putting my wallet into the safe in the closet. He was already standing at the door when I noticed my opal ring on my finger. I quickly took it off and placed it next to my watch. Then we zipped off.
After our treatments, my husband went to the hotel shul to pray the afternoon prayers, and I returned to our room. As I approached, I saw that the door to our room was wide open, and the maid was just exiting. At first I was startled, but then I realized that the amenities of a five-star hotel sometimes include an evening cleaning. I smiled and thanked her, but she didn't return my smile.
I noticed right away that she had cleaned the desk. The cake crumbs were gone and the manuscript pages, which I had left helter-skelter, were in a neat pile. Fifteen minutes later, when I had finished dressing for dinner, I went to put on my jewelry. The watch and gold pendant were exactly where I had left them, but the ring was missing.
Either my husband had put the ring in the safe or the maid had stolen it.
I searched under every object on the desk. I looked all over the floor. With mounting panic, I checked the entire room and the bathroom, although I was absolutely sure that I had left the ring on the desk, next to my watch.
There were only two possibilities: either my husband had put the ring in the safe or the maid had stolen it. I had no way to check the safe; the credit card to unlock it was with my husband, who was in the middle of his prayers. Besides, I vaguely remembered that he was already standing at the door when I took off my ring. As for the maid, a glance down the hall revealed that she had finished our floor and was standing by the service elevator. If I confronted her immediately, while she still had the ring on her, perhaps she would return it. Once she went home, I realized with a sinking feeling, I would never get my ring back.
I loved that ring with its glistening blue opals, a gift from my husband for my birthday this year. In the back of my mind, I heard a whispered warning: "You're not allowed to hastily accuse the maid. There are mitzvot [commandments of the Torah] that apply here." But the whisper was drowned out by the loud shriek: "I WANT MY RING BACK!"
I darted down the hall. Through clenched teeth, I said to the maid in Hebrew, "My ring is missing. If you give it back to me now, I promise I won't say anything to anyone."
She looked at me expressionless. "Which room is yours?" she asked with a Russian accent.
She started walking to my room. She wants to give it back to me in private, I surmised with satisfaction. I was glad I had acted quickly.
Standing beside the desk, I pointed to the scene of the crime. "The ring was right here. I know I left it right here."
Instead of handing me the ring, she started canvassing the floor. Angrily, I repeated my offer: "If you give it back to me right now, I won't tell anyone. I just want my ring back."
The maid looked at me with steely eyes. "I have worked here for six years," she fairly spit the words at me, "and I have never stolen anything."
My accusation ricocheted back and hit me with full force.
At that moment, I knew she was telling the truth. My accusation ricocheted back and hit me with full force. She was not guilty of any wrongdoing, but I was guilty of transgressing the Torah by hurting a vulnerable person with my words.
It turned out that my memory of the sequence of events had tricked me. Before we left the room, while I was rushing to get ready, my husband had put the ring into the safe.
IT'S THE MONEY
The ring was worth $175, not a trifling amount in our family budget, but certainly not worth transgressing the Torah for it. That night, as I agonized over how I had allowed myself to contravene my own standard of behavior, a scene out of a B movie occurred to me: If a sleazy character had sidled up to me and said, "I'll pay you $175 to ignore one of the Torah's commandments," I would have responded with outrage: "How dare you! I would never ignore a single mitzvah for $175, or for ten times that amount. You can't buy me off!"
But, in fact, that's exactly what I had done; I had allowed myself to compromise my moral standards for $175. If I had quieted my shrieking mind long enough to weigh the matter, I could have asked myself: "If you don't hastily accuse the maid and she really did steal it, what's the most you would lose?" The answer would have been: "$175 and the time it takes to walk to the jewelry store five minutes from our house and buy a new ring."
If someone offered you several thousand dollars to never speak to your brother or sister again, you might answer with indignation, "My relationship with my sister/brother is not for sale!" Yet how many adult siblings engage in furious fights, and even lifelong feuds, over the terms of their parents' will?
A startling statistic claims that over half of all divorces are caused by squabbles over finances. At first it seems preposterous that a thinking adult would choose the pain and loneliness of divorce, as well as the psychological scars it inflicts on children, over any amount of money. However, the financial rift is usually so buried in layers of other issues that one rarely sees the reality for what it is.
My friend Marcia once told me this story: Marcia's husband Barry had lent $5,000 to an old college friend of his, Neil. Marcia had never liked Neil, and, since their finances were never flush, she was horrified that Barry had lent him such a sum. Barry hadn't consulted her, however, so she could only hope that Neil would pay the money back.
About a year later, Marcia, a fellow writer, got an advance on her next book. She was thrilled to be able to deposit $5,000 into the family vacation fund. That very night, Barry broached what was clearly a painful subject for him. Their car and house insurance was due and he had hoped to pay it with the repayment of the money he had loaned to Neil, but Neil, after several reminders, had finally confessed that he didn't have any way to pay back the money. They would have to use Marcia's $5,000 for the insurance.
Marcia went ballistic. She had never approved of the loan, and now that Barry's low-life friend had reneged on the repayment, she would have to sacrifice the family vacation?! "If you so much as touch my $5,000, I'll never speak to you again!" she cried as she stalked off.
She took a walk around the block, fuming over her husband's gullibility in trusting that low-life. By her third time around the block, though, it suddenly occurred to her: If someone had approached her and said, "I'll pay you $5,000 to turn your home into a battleground," she would have scoffed at the offer. But here she was, sacrificing her marital harmony for $5,000.
"Yes, my husband's a lousy judge of character," Marcia thought to herself. "And he was wrong to lend money without consulting me. But if $5,000 would drop out of the sky right now, I'd be big enough to forgive all his faults."
As the maxim goes: Whenever someone says, "It's not the money, it's the principle," know for sure that it's the money.
"WITH ALL YOUR MONEY"
The second line of "Shema Yisrael" states: "And you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." The classical commentaries explain that "with all your heart" means with both your good and bad inclinations, "with all your soul" means with your very life, and "with all your might" means with all your money. Since the mitzvah seems to be stated in order of ascending difficulty, the question is asked how loving God with all your money can be more difficult than giving up your life. The answer: "Some people love their money more than their life."
None of us is immune to the power of money to distort our values and corrupt our choices.
This Talmudic teaching used to make me think of wealthy German Jews in the 1930s, who chose not to leave Germany without their property and paid for that choice with their lives. After my debacle with my opal ring, however, I realized that none of us is immune to the power of money to distort our values and corrupt our choices. Sad to say, we all have our price.
The cure for this Faustian predicament is to clearly identify the two sides of the choice. If we could strip away the layers of principles, and expose the choice for what it is, we would be shocked to discover how often we are swayed by money.
Next time you're involved in an interpersonal dispute with a relative, friend, or neighbor, ask yourself what amount of money could solve the problem. For example, let's say your neighbors' pet rabbit escaped from its cage and feasted on your beautiful flower bed. You politely asked your neighbors, with whom you've always had a good relationship, to make sure that the children are more careful to latch the cage, and you asked your gardener to replace the ravaged annuals with new plants. Several weeks later, the rabbit again escaped and devastated your annuals. This has now become a point of real conflict between you and your neighbors, causing you no end of aggravation. The problem is, of course, that your neighbors are not sufficiently responsible, don't watch their children closely enough, and don't teach their children their civic duty. But if you asked yourself how many times in a summer's growing season the rabbit gets out and how much it would cost you to simply replace the annuals that number of times, you would realize that you could purchase peace with your neighbors for less than $100.
Keep a "shalom fund" to reestablish peace when disputes with relatives and neighbors arise.
One rabbi recommends that just as you put away money into a vacation fund or a retirement fund, so you should keep a "shalom fund." Then, when disputes arise with relatives and neighbors, you can use that money to reestablish peace. In the long run, such a "shalom fund" pays off, not only morally, but also physically. Isn't it worth spending $100 rather than getting an ulcer or high blood pressure?
BUYING YOURSELF OFF FOR THE GOOD
As Rosh Hashana approaches, we are bidden to improve ourselves, to do tshuva, to undertake to make better choices this new year. Awareness of our human propensity to be bought off can help us make better choices in two ways.
The first is to call that sleazy dark figure out of the shadows and identify him clearly. Whenever you find yourself involved in an argument either about money or that could be solved by money, visualize that mobster-like character offering you, "I'll pay you x amount of dollars to sacrifice your ___ (moral standard, relationship with your spouse or sibling, harmony in your life, etc.)." Then ask yourself, "Am I really willing to be bought off for that amount of money?"
The second device is to buy yourself off for the sake of good. If you can't bring yourself to do something worthwhile but difficult, buy yourself off! For example, this new year, you want to establish a better relationship with your parents, but every phone conversation degenerates into their pressing your buttons and your responding rudely. Tell yourself: "For every five minutes on the phone with my parents that I don't speak a disrespectful word, I'll give myself $10 toward that new x that I've been wanting but really can't afford." You'll be amazed at how quickly you can reach new heights of parental respect.
As the Talmud says: If you do the right thing for a base motive (such as money), you'll eventually end up doing the right thing for its own sake.
We can also harness our propensity to be bought off by asking ourselves: "I can't say a civil word to my brother-in-law, but if he suddenly gave me $1,000, would I change my behavior toward him?" An honest, "yes" should lead us to the next stage: "If I would do it for $1,000, why not just do it for the sake of harmony in the family?"
Jack Benny used to tell the following joke: "When I was on my way here tonight, a mugger held me up at gunpoint and threatened, ‘Your money or your life. [PAUSE] I SAID, YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIFE!'
"I'm thinking, I'm thinking!" was the famous cheapskate's reply.
On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, life and death is decreed for each of us. Our moral choices can, as the High Holiday prayer book asserts, "reverse the severe decree." Seen clearly, your choices often are between "your money or your life."
This Rosh Hashana, choose life.