Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
This is the ethical quandary that has been making the rounds in the media, even in Israel, following the revelation that a Connecticut rabbi found precisely that amount several weeks ago and immediately returned the money to the desk’s prior owner.
Well, it turns out that one key person was left out of many news accounts, and that person happens to be Jay, the son of my shul’s secretary. He was the person who helped the rabbi move the desk and Jay’s presence adds an important ingredient to the narrative.
Jay told the story on his Facebook page. With his permission, I’m sharing it (along with the cool photo of him and the cash) here.
People have been asking me about “The rabbi who returned $98,000 to its rightful owner,” as I am from New Haven and I actually do know the rabbi personally. The cooler part of the story is that I helped him load the desk into his van and bring it into his house where the story which you all know by now unfolded.
It was getting towards midnight and we simply couldn’t find an angle to turn or flip the desk to get it through the doorway, all we needed was literally less than half an inch of space and this story would probably never have happened.
When we took the table top off the legs and body of the desk, there in the hollow of the desk was the bag of money. The rabbi and I looked at each other for about 5 minutes and all we could say, like teenage girls, was, “Oh My God.” This kind of thing happens in movies not in real life, but it happened, and luckily this money happened upon the right people. The rabbi and I were beside ourselves with excitement.
Now comes the important and meaningful part of the story.
The rabbi’s wife came in when she heard the commotion and after a single “OMG” moment the next thing she said was, “Noach, we have to return this money. Get her number right away. This money isn’t ours. I don’t want it in our house. Call her now.” Me being a big tzaddik and all, I said something to the effect of, “Woah, let’s think about this for a second. I mean maybeee….” However, Mrs. Muroff didn’t want to hear it and Rabbi Muroff immediately got on the phone with the seller, already a little after midnight.
Many people are commenting and questioning where the money came from and how you could forget such a large sum of cash like that in a desk and manage to sell the desk on top of all that?
Honestly, we still aren’t really sure to this day (the incident happened over a month ago) but the Rabbi had one thing on his mind after this amazing find. When she asked him what could be done to repay him for his tremendous act of kindness he had one request. He told her that if it would be ok with her, he would like this story to go public…that a Jew, a rabbi at that, found this fortune and returned it to its rightful owner without question.
All Rabbi Muroff wanted was to make the biggest kiddush Hashem possible and he was successful at that, very much so. It was a tremendous lesson for myself, just watching how he and his wife never doubted for a second what the right course of action was. Although it was not my money, my stomach was in knots when I heard they were going to return it. I know it would have taken me a lot longer to make the right decision than they did. I would have poured something very alcoholic and sipped it just staring at the money for a very long time, lol.
No matter where the money came from or the circumstances surrounding the story, all sides could not be happier and a great lesson in honesty and integrity has been taught. Not by a big tzaddik but by a Jew who knows right from wrong. The only thing on his agenda was fairness. He did what he hoped others would do for him. I’m not sure I will ever forget this.
The New Haven story contains echoes of the Talmudic tale of Simon Ben Shetach. After his students purchased a donkey from a non Jewish merchant, they discovered a precious jewel that had been hidden in the donkey’s ear. They were flabbergasted when their teacher insisted that the jewel be returned because the seller had no intention of selling the jewel with the animal. When the jewel was returned, the merchant exclaimed, “Praised be the God of Simon ben Shetach.”
What any rabbi does – what any Jew does – is as much a reflection on Judaism, Torah and even God, as it is a reflection of our own ethical standing. Each action ripples across the moral universe. Rabbi Muroff understood that.
Would I have given back the money? I’d like to think I would have, but Jay’s being in the room adds another element to the equation. Even if Rabbi Muroff had been tempted for an instant to keep the money, having an impressionable third party in the room would have clinched the decision to do otherwise. I’m not insinuating that he would not have done the right thing anyway, but that factor needs to be included in this story.
It’s amazing how people are on their best behavior when they know their students or children are watching them. With their kids by their side, parents will do the darndest things, like giving to street beggars, saying please and thank you to testy waiters, refraining from foul language and even coming to Shabbat services once in a while.
In this age where our every action is seen, potentially by the entire world (and most certainly by the NSA), it’s not only rabbis who have to be on their best behavior all the time. We all do. And that’s a good thing.
We may never know how so much money – in cash – ended up in such a place. We may never even know whether the desk seller was telling the truth about an inheritance. But we do know that Rabbi Muroff has done a world of good for Jews, and especially for the tarnished image of rabbis.
This week one question has been answered definitively: