There once lived a man named Yankel. He was a decent fellow, a bit shy. Over time, he landed a job as a bookkeeper, got married, bought a home, and had five children.
One Friday, as he was leaving the supermarket with groceries for Shabbos, a large, gruff-looking man approached him and demanded the bags he was holding.
“But they belong to me,” Yankel said innocently.
“Why should they belong to you? Are you better than me? I want them,” the man replied.
Yankel thought to himself. “Indeed, by what right are the groceries mine? Do I deserve them more than he does? He wants to eat just like I do. What makes my appetite more worthy than his?”
And so he handed the man his groceries.
On Sunday, after spending Shabbos explaining to his hungry family that it’s wrong to be selfish, Yankel was sitting on a park bench in deep thought when the same man approached him.
“I want your job,” the man said.
“What?” Yankel exclaimed.
“Why should you be a bookkeeper when I’m out of work?” he asked. “What makes you better than me?”
“Well, nothing, but -”
“In that case, I want your position.”
Yankel thought and thought, and couldn’t come up with a good reason why he should be a bookkeeper and this man shouldn’t. Did he deserve the position? Yankel knew the truth. He had done many bad things in his life. Why, just the other week, he had said something terrible to his wife, which made her cry.
“The man is right,” Yankel thought to himself. “I certainly do not deserve this job more than he does.” And so Yankel sent his employer an e-mail telling him that someone else would be replacing him at work the following day.
Yankel’s wife wasn’t pleased. She told him he didn’t need to be better than someone else to keep what’s his or to fend off a bully – but Yankel knew better. He knew his worth and realized that if he insisted on keeping his job, he would be acting no better than the bully himself.
The whole next week Yankel sat at home without work, but he felt good. He had taken the high road. He had acted morally. And there’s no greater satisfaction in life than living with a clear conscience.
He could have lived in such happiness indefinitely, but the large gruff man showed up in his life again just a few weeks later.
“I want your house,” he said.
“My house?” Yankel asked incredulously.
“Yes. You see, I don’t like where I currently live. My place is small, and I don’t like the view. Also, my grandfather had a farm in your neighborhood before it was developed. So your property rightfully belongs to me.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Yankel. “I bought my house fair and square with my hard-earned money. And my great-grandfather also lived in this area – probably even before your grandfather did.”
Just then, two of Yankel’s young sons – ages 7 and 9 – walked by.
“Who is this man, Abba?” they asked.
He’s the man who took our groceries and my job. Now he wants our house.”
“We should give it to him,” his kids said.
“What?” Yankel exclaimed.
“Yes,” his kids replied. “Didn’t you tell us it’s wrong to be selfish? Look at this man. He deserves a proper home. He probably has little kids just like us. Don’t you, Mister?”
The man nodded and pulled out a picture of three kids from his pocket. Their cherubic faces struck Yankel.
“Hashem gave us our house, but now this man wants it, and we should give it to him. Why do we deserve our house more than he does?”
Yankel pondered his children’s words. It’s true that he had worked hard to pay for the house, but he also knew that he didn’t deserve his good life. He had messed up so many times over the years in so many ways, big and small. People considered him a simple decent Jew, but he knew the truth. He knew that if heaven put him on a scale with this man, the man would win.
“Can I at least keep half the house?” Yankel asked.
“No,” the man replied.
Yankel looked at his sons and knew he had no choice. Insisting on keeping his house would make him no better, no less greedy, than the man standing in front of him. If he wanted to set a good example to his children, he had to give up his house.
And so he did.
The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the full editorial board of The Jewish Press.