The following historical fiction is based on a story reported by Reuters on May 6, 2009.
It all started in late 2002. The money from their most recent refi had just about disappeared, undoubtedly lost somewhere between the outrageous dues at their Long Island country club and her long-standing relationship with Saks Fifth Avenue. Her children’s private schools kept threatening to terminate her children’s enrollment if they didn’t come up with the $27,000 in back tuition pronto, and no one likes to hear the words terminate and your children in close proximity.
To add sulfuric acid to the open wound, her birthday was almost there and she seriously didn’t think she would live out the year if she didn’t get those Manolo shoes she had been telling her husband about for the past two months. But the Burga by Blahnik came with a price tag, and they didn’t exactly have an extra $1,400 hanging around. So many things to buy, so little money… What to do?
Then Teresa Tambunting, or Tess Tess as her friends called her, realized that she was sitting on a gold mine – literally. Working for Jacmel Jewelry Inc., one of the nation’s largest manufacturers and distributors of price-pointed jewelry, she spent every working day in a building with millions of dollars in gold bullion, precious stones, and jewelry. Although she never thought of tapping into it because security was so tight, somehow she knew she could find a way.
First she needed some rationalization. After all, it is not easy to steal from the hand that feeds you. But the truth was that she was viciously underpaid! She had worked for twelve years for this company, tirelessly clawed her way up to the executive level, and still wasn’t making as much as Charles Jacmel, that little twerp who started as a VP just because he was the founder’s son! She was being robbed, and it was her duty to make it right!
Once the rationalization was in place (and it did pain her deeply to be the one with the difficult burden of righting the company’s wrongs), she moved forward with implementation. There were significant challenges. Every employee, from the CEO to the floor sweeper, had to go through a metal detector, a pat down, and a full search of personal effects before getting out of the building. But there was some hope. For years she had taken cigarette breaks with one of the guards, and she just might be able to work something out….
During the holiday season, on one of their cigarette breaks, she stopped their regular discussions about how life is so unfair, and gave him a Dunhill lighter with diamond accents ($799 + tax), and by mistake left the receipt in the box. Despite his protests, she confided in him that he was one of her closest friends, someone who really understood her struggles.
A few weeks later, as she was leaving, she ran up to the checkpoint flushed. “I’m having an emergency, just check my bag by hand, forget the whole metal detector garbage!” He complied. That happened again, and again, and after about three months, it was happening every day, even when she wasn’t in a rush. Who needed that whole tedious metal detector anyway, if they were checking through the bags by hand anyway? Was that machine any better than him?
Then came Operation Goldfinger. Every time she went down to the manufacturing floor, she managed to come back up to the office with gold filings, usually concealed in the long sleeves she began wearing obsessively. These were inserted in the secret fake bottom she sewed into her Chanel bag, where they laid quietly until she got home. Sometimes she managed to get bullion out as well. Her bag was so heavy with all the random debris she kept in it, that the guard hardly noticed the extra weight.
She fulfilled her moral duty surprisingly well. The Jacmels may not have been aware of it, but they were punished for their mistreatment of her. As the amount she stole became larger and larger, she took on the additional role of punishing them for the way they mistreated the rest of the staff. The gold added up, and soon she had collected millions of dollars worth of retribution for the Jacmels crimes against their honest workers. Getting rid of the gold was not always easy. The market for untraceable gold filings is filled with unsavory characters. But her fierce wit guided her through dealings with the toughest of the tough. She had dealt with the Russian Mafia, Chinese diplomats (Chinese Mafia), the dreaded yakuza,and of course the rank and file swindlers, the white collar goons. But somehow, she kept her head on her shoulders, and her Jimmy Choos on her feet.
That all came to a crashing halt in early Febuary, when she was called into the big boss’ office. Gary Jacmel probably wouldn’t understand her crusade for justice, so when he confronted her, she broke down crying and promised to return everything. The next day she brought in a suitcase with sixty six pounds of pure gold, but that was just the beginning. After being arrested by the police, who had secretly videotaped her confession to Gary, a search on her home yielded an additional 448 pounds of gold. Further audits found that over twelve million dollars worth of gold and jewelry had disappeared through Tess Tess in just six years.
The bad news is that the only filings she will be able to stick up her sleeves for the next couple of years will be the shavings she can scrape off the bars at Fishkill Correctional Facility, a maximum security “extended replacement home” in Dutchess County, NY. The good news is that a lot of people in Fishkill probably have been wronged by their bosses, their spouses, Uncle Sam and a host of other people, and they can use someone like Tess Tess, a person who dutifully shoulders the burden of righting the wrongs being wrought on the masses!
While we have no sympathy for Teresa Tambunting, and might even get the smug “she got what she deserved” feeling when hearing about her, her story brings up an important reality. The Talmud tells us,“Most people are guilty of stealing, a minority of people of immoral misconduct, and everyone of lashon hara (gossip).” (Bava Basra 165A) How are most people guilty of stealing? Are adults shoplifting at a rate retailers are yet unaware of? Are most of my neighbors putting on ski masks, and giving bank tellers notes saying “giv me evrething or I shut u”? What does this statement in the Talmud mean?
We may not bring home bars of bullion from the office, but we might bring home a pen or two, sometimes without even realizing it! We may not pilfer twelve million dollars, but we might bring home an “extra” ream of paper. Even if we don’t bring home anything at all, we still might just leave an hour early when the boss is not around. We might spend time at work taking personal phone calls or answering personal emails.
National estimates show that 75% of all employees steal from their employers at least once throughout their careers, with over half of them stealing regularly. Employee dishonesty and theft costs U.S. businesses over $50 billion dollars annually. The Talmud is telling us not to unhook the actions of a Tess Tess from our everyday actions. We start to look just like her when we play solitaire at work, take home some extra post-its pads, or spend an extra half hour on lunch break.
This almost-innocent theft it is not only limited to offices. Using a pen we see on a table in the library without looking for the owner, or even taking a shortcut through someone’s backyard without permission, can be included in the same category.
It’s not that people are bad, it’s that “Stolen water is sweet,” (Proverbs, 9:17). We like to get little something-for-nothing deals here and there. At a recent conference for day-school educators, one principal got up and said, “Do you know what the biggest problem facing my school is? It’s not economics, it’s not shrinking demographics, or high tuition costs. It’s a father who spends fifteen grand a year to get his child inculcated with Jewish values, and then, when they’re on line to get into Disney World, tells her ‘tell them you’re only five,’ to save fifty bucks.” That’s a prime example of someone who really wants what’s good for his child, and is willing to pay top dollar for it, but can’t pass up a sip of the sweet water.
It takes real effort to be constantly aware of what belongs to others, and when we might be crossing the line from our’s to someone else’s. This is why the Talmud says that most people are guilty of stealing. But drinking the sweet water makes you just want more and more, until you find yourself drinking twelve million dollars worth of it. The Talmud is enjoining us all to be vigilant that we only drink of our own water. It may not be sweet, but it’s refreshingly ours.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah details the laws of the festivals and the special mitzvos attached to each one of them. However, right in the middle of the festivals, immediately after the laws of Shavuos, the Torah inserts a few laws pertaining to agriculture. The laws, known as “leket” and “peah,” tell us to leave over different parts of our harvest for the poor. How do these laws fit into this particular Torah portion?
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926, Lithuania), author of the Meshech Chochma, explains that we are being taught an important fundament of the Torah that was given on Shavuos. The Torah is not just a set of laws instructing mankind how to interact with G-d, a set of strictures and rules for human communication with the Divine. The Torah is an entire system of moral living, and as such contains the formula that synergizes optimal relationships with our fellow humans and with G-d.
To emphasize this idea, the Torah places moral precepts dealing with kindness and charity right next to the laws discussing Shavuos, when we received the Torah. Today, charity is such an ingrained value that people have a hard time linking it to the Torah, but indeed most of the primitive societies in the pre-Torah world were not charitable ones, and the idea of people tithing their crops or leaving over an entire corner of their fields to a poor person was as foreign to them as the idea of not eating milk and meat together or keeping Shabbat.
In a class on the history of social policy I once took, the professor explained to the class that the first record of a social policy in which people took responsibility for the poor was the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601. I didn’t want to argue with my professor on the first day in class, but I remember scrolling mentally through the dozens of laws in the Torah (circa. 1312 BCE) that put responsibility for the poor, the widow, and the orphan onto the rest of society.
The message of our parsha is the all encompassing nature of the Torah. It was the same Torah we received on Shavuos that set the foundation for a social welfare, put forth the laws of Kosher, taught us to respect the wise man over the strong man, required us to eat matzah, and taught us to leave the last of our harvest for the widow and orphan. Indeed the marker of the greatest Torah scholars has not only been their brilliant minds, but their great sensitivity to the needs of all people.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892, Belarus) exemplified this. While known for his magnum opus, the Beis Halevi, a work still studied widely today, the stories of his kindness are even more legendary. During the busy pre-Passover season, as dozens of people streamed through his house asking him questions, a local widow came to him with a strange question. She wanted to know if she could use milk (instead of wine) for her Four Cups at the Seder. Although the question had a very clear and simple answer, Rabbi Soloveitchik appeared to give it some serious thought, so as not to embarrass the woman for asking such a simple question, and then answered her that one could not use milk to fulfill the mitzvahof the Four Cups.
After the woman left, Rabbi Soloveitchik immediately called over one of the members of the household, gave him a large sum of money, and instructed him to go to the market and buy all the Passovernecessities for the woman. Without further ado, the man bought wine, meat, matzah, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables, and discreetly placed it outside the woman’s door. When he returned, he asked Rabbi Soloveitchik his reason for this unusual errand. Rabbi Soloveitchik answered, “If she is coming to ask me whether she can use milk for the Seder, it is clear that she can’t even afford four cups of wine, let alone all the other needs for Passover!”
This exemplifies the Torah’s perfect blend of spirituality and humanity.
This week’s Parsha begins with G-d telling Moshe an assortment of laws that only apply to the Kohanim, the priests. The role of the Kohen was not only to serve in the Temple, but also to be the spiritual guide of the Jewish people. Immediately prior to the Jew’s acceptance of the Torah, G-d told Moshe “You shall be to me a kingdom of Kohanim,” (Exodus 19:6). The Torah didn’t mean that we would all actually be priests, rather that we would be a nation of leaders which would guide all of mankind closer to their Father in heaven. (This is the source for the idea of Tikun Olam, that we have a manifest role in fixing our world, spiritually first, but physically as well. So, before you head to Haiti to help build power plants, or to Cambodia to purify villages’ water, remember to pray daily for the people of the world suffering from oppression or violence, such as the people of Darfur, Sudan, China and, most importantly, Israel!) Because the Kohain has such a serious responsibility, he must act in a more refined manner than the average person. To this end he is given a special group of laws. Most important are those laws which forbid him to come into contact with tumah or ritual impurity, and to marry certain people. He also get some benefits from his lofty status, (no not medical, dental, or 401K) as we are commanded to accord him preferential treatment. The Kohen always gets the first aliyah to the Torah, we are supposed to offer him food first, and allow him to be the first to speak from among a group of speakers. The Kohen Gadol, being even more exalted than the regular Kohen, has an extra set of laws, to keep him on an even higher level of refinement. The Torah then discusses the laws of blemishes that disqualify a Kohen from serving in the Temple. In order to be a servant in the King’s courtroom, one had to be unblemished both inside and out. Some of these blemishes include missing limbs, broken limbs, different type of rashes and, believe it or not, bad breath. Many of these blemishes only disqualify the Kohen while they are present, and once they are gone the Kohen can serve again (you could imagine, Listerine would have flowed like water in the Kohen’s Quarter had it been around. In its absence, the gemara talks about using different spices and herbs to cure bad breath). Even a Kohen with disqualifying blemishes was allowed to partake in all the food of the sacrifices; he just couldn’t offer them up. Next, the torah talks about the laws of Terumah, a portion of everyone’s crops which must be given to the Kohanim. The number is anywhere from 1/40th of your crops if you’re as generous as Bill Gates (24 billion donated to world health) and 1/60th if your as stingy as Ebenezer Scrooge (a famous Charles Dickens character). The Torah enumerates exactly who is allowed to eat Terumah, what levels of purity they must have, and what happens if a non-Kohen eats it by mistake. We then learn what makes an animal unfit for use as a sacrifice (a similar group of blemishes to the ones disqualifying a human, ealthough I can’t imagine a cow with good breath!). The Torah tells us there that it is forbidden to sacrifice an animal less than 8 days old, and it’s forbidden to slaughter a mother and its child on the same day (another example of the Torah’s sesitivity toward animals’ feelings). We are also forbidden to desecrate G-d’s name and given a responsibility to sanctify it. Whether we like it or not, when we do something wrong people often will say “How could a Jew do that,” or “look at that Jewish hypocrite.” These statements come from the fact that people understand that we are a Chosen Nation, that we are to be held to higher standard, and that when we fail to do so, we not only desecrate ourselves, but we also desecrate He who chose us. The Torah then discusses all the festivals, and which sacrifices are offered on those special days. It goes into detail about the Omer offering brought on the second day of Pesach, which heralds in the counting of the Omer(which we are in the midst of right now), and culminates with the Shtei Halechem, a bread sacrifice brought on Shavout (no, in the Temple they didn’t offer cheesecake on the Altar on Shavous!). The Parsha concludes with a discussion of the Menorah and the showbreads (breads that were placed on a special table in the Holy section of the Temple). Each set of twelve loaves would remain on the table for a week, after which time they would be replaced by fresh loves. They would miraculously remain warm and fresh the entire week, and eating them was considered an auspicious omen that one become wealthy. (I could use all twelve loaves of showbread right about now!!!). The last part of this Parsha is the story of the blasphemer, a man who blasphemed in public and was sentenced to death. Even in the Biblical times, treason was a capital offense, and there can be no greater treason than blaspheming G-d, Who gave you everything you have! So, I would like to wish all you faithful ones who are still reading a wonderful week! I think one the main lessons we should take home this week is that, as the Chosen Nation, we must behave in a more refined manner than everyone else, as we represent G-d Who chose us. And don’t forget – don’t blaspheme!
Quote of the Week: The best part of our lives we pass in counting what is to come. William Hazlitt
Random Fact of the Week: In ten minutes, a hurricane releases more energy that all the world’s nuclear weapons detonated at once.
Funny Line of the Week: Never criticize your wife’s faults. It might have been those faults that kept her from getting a better husband.
Have a Satisfying Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham