I was recently traveling across the United States/Canadian Border. As soon as people heard I would be traveling that way, my phone began ringing off the hook. Friends, and even strangers, called me to ask if I would take packages for them. From a favorite food for someone’s daughter, baby clothes for a new grandchild, to a much loved breakfast cereal; the requests came pouring in. But what astounded me the most was the requests from people I didn’t know asking me to take jewelry. One person asked if I would take a diamond ring to her son so he could propose. She wanted to send it with me so that it would not be held up for taxes.
I couldn’t help but wonder how the stranger could know I was an honest person and actually trust me to deliver the ring. And then I thought about all these packages I was being asked to take and wondered if they indeed contained what the people told me they did. Forget about them trusting me. The real question was could I trust them?
There are many reasons I do not take packages for people when I travel. I am still astounded that so many people do, even from strangers. Every few months we read another story about someone being arrested for unknowingly smuggling drugs hidden in cans of coffee, birthday cakes, or suitcases. We are all fair game to the unscrupulous or the addicted whether we are close relatives or have never seen this person before. So many innocent people are serving time in prison for helping a friend or a stranger.
So, how can we teach our children (and even ourselves) to maintain a high level of chesed, to be willing to run and do for another, while at the same time staying safe in a world filled with danger? How can we learn to tell the difference between chesed and exploitation?
This is what I would like to suggest as a partial solution to the problem. It may not help in all situations, but I think in most cases it can be effective. It’s simply to follow a strict adherence to halacha.
People are asked to take packages for others for a variety of reasons. For some the packages are a way of sending their love. For others it is a way of avoiding taxes. Most of us have come to see cheating the taxman as a positive thing. But in reality it is simply geneiva, theft. The Torah instructs us to obey the laws of the land we live in. Like it or not, taxes are part and parcel of those rules. We need to teach our children, and realize ourselves, that helping someone avoid taxes is simply not kosher. If we are able to get this message through to our children then they will readily refuse to take the diamonds (so a friend can avoid taxes) that turn out to be drugs or the artifact (with the high tax rate) that is filled with Ecstasy or jewelry etc. They will deny the request as quickly as they would deny a suggestion that they rob the local store because they will see them both as theft, which indeed is exactly what they are.
But what of the other items we are asked to deliver – the gift to a daughter living in a different city or the toy to a grandchild or the sealed package for a friend’s birthday. Emes, truth, is our protection in these cases. Simply ask the person to write their own name and address on the package and then be truthful at the border, telling the guard that you are taking a package for this person and you did not pack it yourself. Ask the sender to leave the package open so you can examine it and know what it contains so you can be honest at the border when asked what you are carrying. Anyone, stranger or friend, who declines your request and wants you to lie for them, can just use the mail services.
I am not naive enough to think that this will solve the whole problem. Unscrupulous people will still find ways to take advantage of our children’s and our own innocence and lack of experience. But being meticulously honest and truthful in all our dealings, both within our community and outside it, being extra careful in our halachic observance can only add to our own well-being and safety. The closer we strive to meet the ideals of Hashem’s Torah, the more we infuse ourselves and teach our children to be thoroughly honest and truthful in all our dealings, in business and life, the more protected we will be.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org