An Ethical Dilemma by Steve Wenick

A friend of mine recently told me about an event in his life which I thought was too good not to share with you. This is his story as I remember it.

Years ago, while working at the cash register in my father’s grocery store in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, I saved all the two dollar bills handed to me. Over time I managed to collect fourteen of the bills, all of which were printed prior to 1970, which I believed might make them valuable.

My plan was to hoard them until some later date in the hopes that they turn out to be worth much more than two dollars each. I later discovered that they could be worth from three dollars up to several thousand dollars each, depending on where and when they were printed, their serial numbers and if they were from the valuable ‘red seal’ series. However at the time I received the bills I had no idea of their actual worth but planned to check their value at the library (there was no Internet back then) at some later date.

In 1970 I got married and moved not far from East Flatbush to Canarsie with my bride. While living in our new home we were burglarized but luckily the thieves did not find the two-dollar bills. Nevertheless I thought it would be wise to hide my collection of bills in the event of another home invasion. So I mustered my most imaginative and creative concealment skills and hid the cash in a place where I thought no one would ever think to search for it.

This is what I did. I rolled the bills into a tight cylindrical shape and stuffed them inside of a discarded cardboard toilet paper roll. Next I took the roll and taped it flush against the rear of the toilet’s water tank – safely out of sight.

Years later I secured a position in South Jersey and had to relocate and sell our house. With the excited anticipation of moving into our new home in Cherry Hill my wife and I packed our belongings and bid farewell to our little Canarsie nest. Unfortunately my stash of two-dollar bills, which were still hidden in the bathroom, stayed behind because I forgot that I hid them.

Many years later I had occasion to drive by my old Canarsie neighborhood. I guess seeing some of the old familiar sights nudged my memory awake because suddenly I recalled that I had concealed lot of cash behind the toilet. I circled the block twice while trying to summon up the nerve to go up to what had formerly been my home. Hesitatingly I rapped on the door lightly, then slightly harder.

“Coming”, bellowed a female voice to the accompaniment of her footsteps pounding down the stairs from the second story. I contemplated just turning heel and leaving, when suddenly the door swung open and staring at me was a pair of pit bulls straining at their leashes as the current owner of the house greeted me with a not so warm and fuzzy, “Yeah, what is it?”

It is really hard to speak when your mouth is Sahara Desert dry but I managed to eke out a few words in response to her question. “I used to live here and was wondering if it would be OK if I just came in and looked around for old time’s sake?” Before she could answer I had already begun to back away from the entrance and prepared to retreat because I thought she would say no. Also I wasn’t sure if she could continue to restrain her two drooling darlings from breaking loose from her grip in their effort to rip into my throat.

To my surprise and delight she answered, “Sure” as she open the door welcoming me into what used to be my house. And thankfully she whisked the two growling beasts down the stairs into the basement. Relieved, I stepped inside and into the living room. The first thing that struck me was how small the room appeared; I remembered it being so much larger.

Thankfully the owner was sensitive enough to realize that I might be uncomfortable roaming around the house with her accompanying me because she immediately offered, “Go ahead make yourself at home and look around I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me”. A wave of guilt washed over me because her generosity was about to be rewarded by my duplicitous search for the stash of cash.

As I proceeded to look around room by room, pretending to reminisce in an effort to camouflage my true motive for visiting, I carried with me the burden of guilt and the pangs of shame because in essence I was, “Placing a stumbling block before the blind.” I couldn’t be sure, but as far as I knew, the owner did not know about the hidden money. Worse yet, I was betraying a trust that was accorded me by the benevolent owner because she trusted me enough to let me roam freely around her house. Nevertheless, I meandered in a pseudo-nonchalant manner to the end of the hall on the second floor and stood facing the closed bathroom door. It was to be my last stop.

My heart began to gallop in anticipation of finding and reclaiming the two-dollar bills, providing of course that no one had discovered them during ensuing the years. It was then that I heard that “Still Small Voice” inside my head reining in my now unbridled excitement, reminding me of the difference between right and wrong. It whispered, “You may get away with it but you’ll never get over it.”

I had long ago recognized that what may be legal is not necessarily moral and what is moral may not be legal. Therefore I felt obliged to weigh both the legal and moral consequences before making a final judgment about what would be the right thing to do. I grappled with my limited knowledge of the legal issues involved in reclaiming ‘my/her’ money while I wrestled with the morality or lack thereof of whether or not to tell her about the hidden money. There seemed to be three options: 1) confess and give her all of the money, 2) deceive and keep all of the money and 3) negotiate an equitable distribution of the money.

I decided to hold my decision in abeyance hoping that my moral compass would kick in and help point me in the direction of doing the right thing. While ruminating over that question, the thought occurred to me, “Was I being tested like Abraham in the Biblical account of the sacrifice of Isaac?” I doubted a roll of fourteen deuces would warrant such a test but then again people have been tested for much less than that.

Having agonized enough over my moral dilemma I decided to enter the bathroom, look behind the toilet and retrieve the money before making my final decision. I knew that once I was holding the money I would no longer have the luxury of hypothesizing which of the three choices I should make: to give, to keep or to share the cash. Then, slowly I turned the door knob and gently pushed open the door.

A stunning surprise greeted me. What I recalled as having been a rather dingy and dated bathroom had been completely gutted and remodeled. What now lay before me was a modern bathroom complete with a new stall shower, double sink, stone tile floor and yes – a spanking new, state-of-the-art, eco-friendly toilet.

There are times when we must make difficult ethical choices and there are times when they are made for us.

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Comments

  1. Publisher says

    Here is perhaps an ethical compromise. Knock on the door and be honest. “Hi, I used to live here, and I was driving by and it occurred to me that I left a treasure in this house when I sold it. Did you by any chance find it? If so, congratulations. It was certainly hefker (abandoned, ownerless property) and you can keep it. If not, I would be glad to tell you where to find it and split the treasure with you.”

    • siweni says

      Dan I have asked a dozen people (including my friend who told me this story) for their opinion about what would be the ethical thing to do and what are the legal ramifications. Thus far I have 12 different answers and now yours makes 13.  

      It might make an interesting follow up to this story to post the variety of answers I have received thus far.

  2. leebarzel says

    Dear Steve,

    I asked my Rabbi about this situation after Shabbat services, and he said that the short answer is that the money no longer belonged to your friend. My husband said that it may also be true in American law, but we’re not legal experts.

    It was only 14 bills after all.  I recall some Gemarah about a jewel that was mistakenly sold and the Rabbis ruled against the seller.

    Hannah Lee

  3. siweni says

    Hannah the more I discuss the situation the less clear the ‘answer’ becomes.

    In civilized society we must function within the law for if we step over the legal line the possibility and probability of punishment is real. Even within the law there are differences of interpretation as to what is the proper application of the law.

    However in this instance what the moral thing to do poses quite another question. Who sets the moral code that you follow? Is it the Supreme Being or is it the Supreme Court or is what in your heart you feel is the right thing to do. But not everyone’s heart may agree with yours.

    So the dilemma persists.

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