On Books, Money and Jewish Women
This is a true story about an honest Jewish teenager. And about how Torah guidelines contribute to a more civilized society.
Many years ago, from my personal interest in the topic and, okay… I admit it, my obsessive love of books, I amassed a collection of books on the general topic of women and Judaism that numbered in the hundreds. The collection includes books about women in Jewish history, women in Jewish law, women in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish feminism, children’s books about Jewish women, women’s Torah commentaries, fiction and poetry by Jewish women and, well… you get the idea. These were an invaluable resource to me when I was formally teaching college courses about women and Judaism.
My husband is a rabbi and I worked as a Jewish educator, so we had a really insane number of books in our home in America. In order to reduce the number of books we owned to a number that would fit into a modest apartment in Israel, we sold many hundreds of books before making aliyah.
Before we left America, I attempted to place the women and Judaism books in a library that would value them as a collection. I felt they had much more impact as a collection and I didn’t want to sell them one-by-one. Alas, I found no takers, so we brought them to Israel with us.
Now, facing another move this coming spring, I decided to try again to find an institution that would value the collection. Happily, I found such a place – a relatively new program for post-high school girls who are academically inclined and whose founding director is open to a range of perspectives on Jewish issues.
A week ago, the husband of the program director came to pick up the books. He worked for a long time, filling a plastic tub with books and schlepping them to his car and then doing it again. And again. Until he said his car was completely full and he couldn’t fit in even one more book.
The next day, the program director sent me pictures of the girls unpacking, sorting and shelving the entire collection. I was so thrilled that a new group of Jewish students would benefit from the books I had so lovingly collected.
Two nights later, while lying in bed, my eyes flew open with a start. I suddenly remembered that, some years before, concerned that we might need it in the future, I had tucked away 3000 shekels (about $825) in cash in an envelope in one of those books. I had completely forgotten about it until that moment, when Hashem reminded me.
An envelope full of cash. No identifying markings. Considering the way the books had been stacked and tossed about and unpacked from the car and laid out in random piles on the tables in the Beit Midrash (study hall), I knew the envelope could be anywhere, from the street to the car to someone’s pocket.
The next day, I got a Facebook message from a young woman I don’t know. Let’s call her M. She asked me if I was the one who had recently donated a lot of books to her school. When I confirmed that I had, she said, “I found something inside [one of the books] that I would assume you’d like back.” And, to my great relief, the envelope, with all its contents, has since been returned.
I don’t take for granted for one moment that a young student, who is presumably on a tight student budget, found an envelope with a wad of cash and sought out the owner of that money.
There is a mitzvah known as hashavat aveidah, which means returning a lost object. Very simply, the Torah commands us to make an effort to return lost objects we find in order to prevent loss to another person.
In Sefer HaChinuch, which enumerates the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah, hashavat aveidah is number 538. The mitzvah is discussed in detail in the Talmud, but it’s based on a verse from the Book of Devarim.
You shall not see your brother's ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall return them to your brother. Devarim 22:1
Of course I know about this mitzvah. But I also know human nature. And what it’s like to be a student on a limited budget. And how easy it would have been for M to simply pocket the envelope.
So I asked M to tell me her version of the story. I wanted to know what happened from her perspective. She replied quickly and with enthusiasm.
“I was in the Beit Midrash while the books where being looked through and sorted into piles. I was going to go home for lunch but instead started flipping through the books and [this particular book] looked well loved; it caught my attention.
“So I thought. ‘Wow I want to read that book.’ I flipped it open and it immediately opened to a page with an envelope that said 3000 on it. Unsure of what it was, I flipped it over and was able to make out what looked like money.
“I couldn’t believe it. I opened it to be positive and then immediately ran to call my Rosh Midrasha (faculty administrator) to tell her what I found. I said, ‘The woman who donated these to us probably put it here for safekeeping and completely forgot and we need to call her ASAP.’
“I’m not gonna lie. There was a voice in the back of my head that said ‘Wow’ with that type of money… but it lasted not even a minute. It wasn’t my money to fantasize about. I didn’t lose out on it. It never belonged to me and I had the opportunity of doing such a great mitzvah.
“It might sound cliché, and I don’t mean it to, but that day, during mincha (the afternoon prayer service), I thanked God for giving me a strong enough yetzer tov (good inclination) to do the right thing.”
Obviously, one doesn’t have to be a Torah Jew to have done the right thing in this situation. But it’s easy to see the beauty of the Torah’s ethical lessons in M’s words. Concern for my lost property trumped her own self-interest.
Because of Jewish values.
Naturally, I was relieved to get the envelope and its contents back. But even more, I felt blessed, knowing that M’s actions were motivated by her commitment to Torah learning.
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