On my phone, in my Notes app, I have a note labeled “Worry List.”
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, was a brilliant philosopher and a scholar of sweeping proportions, including Torah and other wisdoms. He was also a stunning orator and a deeply compassionate man. I like to think of him as my adoptive ideological grandfather.
I’ve seen many emails and social media posts reviewing 2020, capturing the highlights of the year. But the task feels insurmountable to me. There are some things that happen in my life that are so big, so overwhelming and overbearing, that I don’t even know how to make sense of them. Maybe this will finally break me, I think. Maybe I should finally see a psychologist who can make this right before it creates too much subconscious gunk. (Thanks, Freud, for freaking me out.)
A few months ago, I got a phone call from my friend Elissa. She told me that her life coach, Chris, was writing a children’s book about life after death, and that he was including different religious perspectives in his book. He’d asked her about the Jewish view, and she deferred to me, saying that she wasn’t the expert on the topic, but that I’d know what should be included. Would it be OK, she asked, to give Chris my number?
Each week after Shabbat ends on Saturday night, I turn on my phone, always curious to see what messages have accumulated over 25 hours. On October 3, after all my emails from the weekend had loaded, I saw one with the subject line, “Action Needed: Please confirm you made this purchase.”
Great, I thought. Fraud.
It wouldn’t be the first time someone had fraudulently tried to charge something to my card and we’d have to change the numbers on all our automatic payments. This is annoying enough, but also, there have been times I flagged a charge as fraudulent, only to discover it was a family member trying to make a weird but legitimate purchase. (Oops.)
Scrolling through the email, I saw it was for a $638.01 charge from the “Test Equipment Depot.” I rejected the charge and went on with my life.
A week later, a large package arrived at my doorstep. This is not newsworthy at all; we’re one of Amazon’s most special customers. But when I opened the package, I was thoroughly confused, thinking simultaneously, What on earth is this? and, Who on earth ordered this? Also not newsworthy, as one of my part-time jobs is managing, identifying, and sorting Amazon packages between the various members of our household.
Eventually my son googled the item, telling me it was a freon tester for refrigerator technicians, which confirmed definitively that none of us ordered it. Then it clicked in for me. This was the fraudulent item for which I had denied the charge! I quickly rechecked my credit card account to be sure I hadn’t been charged. I hadn’t. Now what?
“Mom,” said one of my kids, “You could sell it on Ebay and make a pretty penny.” While tempting (and I could immediately think of a few nice ways to spend the windfall), something about this rubbed me the wrong way. Although I was neither legally nor Jewishly obligated to voluntarily return the item, it just felt wrong. How could I sleep at night, knowing this company was out several hundred dollars? Plus, I kept wondering if it would appear on my credit card at some point, and then what?
So I called Maggie at customer service at the number on the packing slip, which, creepily, had my nickname, address, and cell phone number. I explained to her what happened and she told me she’d email me a return label to ship it back. With each step of the process, I felt like a virtuous human being. Printing the label, packing the item back up, taping on the label, and setting it on the counter to bring over to Fedex were each labors of love: to be a good, upright and honest person in a world of fraud and corruption.
We’re each pulled by different temptations. We each have our moments of moral weakness. We each have the courage to do better.
I wish I would have told Maggie on the phone that my Jewish values taught me to be honest, but I forgot in the moment. That would have been a priceless opportunity to create a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name by being a light and a leader and helping to be a good ambassador for Judaism.
But the truth is, even if only I know the story, and even if only you know the story, maybe it’s a good reminder for us both. Judaism isn’t about checking the boxes and making sure you’re kosher. It’s about checking in with your character, even, or especially, when no one is looking.