The cashier insisted that I keep the extra change found in the coin dispenser.
I made my purchase at the supermarket. Three dollars and eighty-four cents.
I gave the cashier four one-dollar bills and waited for my change as the bagger put the items in a paper bag. My change rolled down the metal arm of the coin dispenser and I reached into the cup to retrieve my 16 cents. But as I scooped the coins into my hand, something felt wrong.
Inside the metal cup were many, many coins. Quarters, dimes, nickels. There were a few paper dollar bills. Some eight dollars of change was inside the cup, far more than the meager 16 cents due to me.
“You gave me too much change!” I told the cashier. He looked at me quizzically, almost as if I was accusing him of something. I clarified. “There should only have been 16 cents here. Look – there are many dollars’ worth of coins instead. There are some dollar bills. It’s not mine.”
“Probably the last shopper left it there. Just keep it.”
“It’s not mine to keep. Could be it was left by someone else or could be the machine is broken. Either way, the change belongs to the store now.” It did not even occur to me at that moment that coin dispensers do not, cannot, dispense paper money.
“You should just take it,” the bagger chimed in. “Just keep the money.”
“With respect to you both, this money does not belong to you, so you really lack the authority to give it away. The money belongs to the store. It’s not mine to take. Please take it from me and put it back in the machine.”
“That will mess up our accounting at the end of the day. We have to account for each penny taken in as payment, each penny disbursed as change. You are doing us a favor by keeping it. We have no way to return it. It would mean a lot of paperwork. So, take it.”
“I cannot take it. It’s not my money. It belongs to the store and whoever owns this store or this chain of supermarkets is entitled to it.”
“We will clear it with the manager later. Just take it.”
“Look, gentlemen – I appreciate what you are saying, but this is an area that I am very conscientious about. Other people’s money is not something I am lax about. Even the manager is an employee here and it’s not his money to give away. I will not take the money and I’m returning it to the metal cup. This time you can keep the change, including my 16 cents. Thanks.”
We all smiled at each other and I picked up my grocery items and began to walk away.
As I did, I heard the cashier say to the bagger, “Well, there is one Jew who passed the test.”
The entire encounter had been a set up.
That machine is automated and would never release that much change. And machines never release dollar bills. The coins and the bills had been put there by the cashier to test the integrity of customers.
Was it his own scheme, or was it a test being run by the store itself? What seemed clear to me was that the cashier and the bagger had been waiting to see how I might react. Would I nonchalantly pick up the money and say nothing? Would I even stop to notice that there was a large wad of change? Would I bring it up to them, but then consent to keeping money that I was not entitled to? Would I try to justify keeping the money in some way and just take the cash?
And I do not know what they were testing me and other shoppers for. Was it to check out their stereotype about Jews and money? I might have inferred something prejudicial like that from the comment they had shared about “the Jew who passed the test.”
I thought about the rationale for my display of honesty in public. Was I refraining from taking the money in order to make a Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying the name of God) by conducting myself according to His Will, or was my concern about not making a Chillul Hashem (desecrating God’s name) and not being perceived as, well, someone who fits their stereotype?
Was I honest because I was brought up that way, and it was more of a reflex than a matter of conscious choice, or was I just a person trying to avert the reprimands of my conscience, which would torment me for taking someone else’s money?
Bottom line, it was tainted money: ‘t ain’t mine, ‘t ain’t yours.
Reprinted from Jewish Life magazine, www.jewishlife.co.za, download the free Jewish Life app on iOS and Android