If you see another person’s animal, you shall not hide from it; you must return it to the owner. If the owner is not known to you, then you should bring the object into your house, where it shall remain until the owner inquires after it, and you will return it to him. So shall you do for his donkey, his garment, or any lost article that you may find… (Deut. 22:1-3)
Paying ahead, the Good Luck Restaurant, and news from Shadi told the story of how I found on the street a $50 Gift Card for the Good Luck Restaurant. The moral was that my good fortune was perhaps a reward for a good deed done the day before.
A few days ago, on my daily bicycle ride on the Brickyard Trail in Brighton, I approached the trail by cutting through the Temple B’rith Kodesh’s parking lot en route to a small bridge that leads to the main trail.
As I passed the temple, I spotted what looked like multiple bills lying on the curbside. Not a full wad but definitely more than one. Greedily lifting them from the curb, I saw on each the picture of Andrew Jackson. Three $20 bills.
Not only seeming good luck, but an uncanny coincidence. At that very moment, in my mind I was composing an essay on — yes — Andrew Jackson! (See King ‘Drew and his new Crew at JCC CenterStage: “Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson”)
Looking over my shoulder and seeing no one — the synagogue not yet open — quickly pocketing the cash, I hastened across the bridge. The adrenaline rush subsiding, I now had to decide. What to do? A sixty dollar find — passing my ethical threshold where I wouldn’t think twice — demanded reflection.I could re-place the money so its rightful owner might find it. I could go on my merry way. I chose a middle path.
When the synagogue opened, I returned, inquiring of the staff if anyone had asked about the money. No one had. They said maybe it was a member of the Day Camp that meets mornings in the synagogue. Perhaps the loser was still unaware of the loss. I offered to call back at some later point.
At the same time, given that I was in a synagogue and the money found on its property, I sought further ethical or theological insight.
I told Rabbi Peter Stein the story. What does the Torah teach about finding money?
Rabbi Stein said the Torah requires the finder make a reasonable effort to find the owner. By inquiring of the staff, I had done so. Some might say I should now donate the money, but it’s not a requirement. Rabbi Stein added, it’s not like you are going to put up a big billboard saying you found sixty dollars next to the temple. He also mentioned I could take the cash to the Brighton Town Police. We didn’t discuss whether for 60 dollars this was a legal imperative.
More philosophically, I asked what it said about me — or humanity — that I was gleeful when discovering the money even though it meant another person had suffered a loss. The rabbi said my initial impulse or feeling was very human. Had it been an object possibly having sentimental value — rather than cold cash — he guessed my social instinct would have been one of empathy, and I would more readily or actively search for the owner.
Rabbi Stein also suggested looking online for more elaboration.
So I read “Returning Lost Objects” from Aish.com, a site offering advice based on the teaching of the Torah.
First I learned:
Returning lost objects” is one of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah. At the most basic level, this means that if we find a bundle of money lying in the street, we are required to seek out the owner and return it.
That was me. But “a bundle” is vague. At what amount would any anyone seek out the owner? Not for a quarter but most likely for 100 dollars. Sixty is in a grey area. And would I act differently had it not been in the parking lot of a middle class synagogue but, say, outside a rec center in an urban park? But, of course, the Torah recognizes that ethical choices are not always black and white.
The Torah adds a deeper dimension: “You shall not hide yourself from it.” This precludes the option of ignoring it and going along your merry way.
No merry way for me. Right now I am telling the entire world on Thursday July 20th at about 7:30am I found 60 dollars near the west entrance of Temple B’rith Kodesh on Elmwood Avenue.
I also learned a new theological term, “siman:”
With lost objects, the key factor is “siman” – an identifying mark by which the true owner of the item can be determined. What is an acceptable siman? Anything that is: 1) not standard for this type of item, and 2) only the owner is likely to know about. For example, if you find an umbrella with initials scratched on the handle, or an iPod with a blue ink stain, that is a siman.
I was in the clear. Currency has no identifying mark of ownership, just as the Good Luck Gift Card’s original owner is untraceable.
If an item is found in a public place without any siman, the finder may keep it.
Ah, but it was not in a public place. It was on B’rith Kodesh property.
But Rabbi Stein had not demanded I give him the money. So maybe this time, he was going by folk wisdom: finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers.
Then came Finding the Owner
Once you find an object, you’ll need to post signs in the area (or on Craigslist), and ask around for who may have lost such a thing. As an example, you would publicize: “Briefcase found on July 1st on Brookville Drive. To claim it, call 555-1234.”
The key is to divulge enough information about the object so the owner will know it refers to him, but not too much information that someone could unscrupulously come and claim the object. Whoever calls to claim the briefcase would be required to give a “siman” – e.g. basic identifying marks like color, size, and perhaps some of the contents. In this way, we are certain that the object is properly returned.
Rabbi Stein had said I didn’t need to plaster Brighton with a billboard. I hadn’t thought of Craigslist. Do people do that? As for taking the money to the Brighton Town Police, possibly rationalizing, I didn’t want to get involved with civil or state bureaucracies.
Interestingly, the Torah accounts for the presence of “unscrupulous” behavior. But shouldn’t my assumption be that my fellow man is honest?Nonetheless, for all my reasonableness, my conscience kept hearing a little voice. The temple staff woman had said: Maybe it was a member of the Day Camp that meets mornings in the synagogue.
And the next day I saw the campers trudging across Elmwood Avenue. We talked about how they had gone to the Seneca Park Zoo and a Red Wings game. But I was mum on the money, nor have called back the temple to see if anyone inquired.
The site ended with a Talumudic parable in response to the question: What happens if no one comes to claim the item?
The Sages say that you must hold onto it “until Elijah the prophet comes” and identifies the rightful owner.
The Talmud (Taanit 25a) tells the story of how chickens once strayed into the yard of Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa. Rabbi Chanina thus became obligated to care for the chickens until their owner could be found. The chickens laid eggs which hatched into chicks — and soon Rabbi Chanina’s property was overrun with a whole flock of chickens! In order to consolidate, he traded all the chickens for a few goats.
Through careful observance of the mitzvah, Rabbi Chanina had multiplied the wealth of the original owner of the chickens. By the time the man came to stake his claim, he was the proud owner of an entire herd of goats.
The parable itself is illuminating from a sociological perspective. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, German sociologist Max Weber saw a connection between the self-denying principles of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism.
In this case, Rabbi Chanina denied himself the immediate gratification of eating the chickens. Instead, he used them as a “means of production” to create more chickens. Then, he made a wise investment choice by profitably trading the chickens (“use value”) for the goats (“exchange value”).
The Rabbi himself did not get a bite to eat, and in doing so, “multiplied the wealth of the original owner.” As Weber might say, a case in point where religious virtues underwrite market values.
Now what shall I do with the money? I could donate the sum to the Democrat and Chronicle: on hard times and its circulation dropping with the appearance of Talker. Or I could could munificently grant bonuses to the otherwise slacking staff. See Talker staff demands royalties! and Talk to me baby. Staff takes the Lip Sync ChallengeAs for the Mystic’s stick
Last summer I was bicycling on the canal path near the Islamic Center on Westfall Road. On the path, I saw a man in what looked like a yellow prayer shirt, wearing beads and carrying a long walking stick. Curious, I asked “the Mystic” where he found such an impressive stick.
He said Allah gave it to him and now he is giving it me. The Mystic handed me the stick. But I didn’t need the stick, I protested, I just wondered where you got it. No, you said you wanted the stick and now it is yours. As he refused to take back the stick, I carried it back home, balanced — awkwardly if not dangerously — on the bicycle.
Fortuitously, the stick was used in a published poem as seen in Some more poetry from the Mystic.
Then a few weeks ago, I went to the Islamic Center to see my good friend Dr. Muhammad Shafiq. Outside the prayer room, I saw the Mystic, asking if he remembered about the stick from last summer. He had. And had he gotten a new stick? No, Allah has not yet given him another.
The Mystic was still stickless. But I had my poem. So was cosmic good karma well served? I’ll ask Dr. Shafiq next time I see him.