Friday, August 24, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Teitzei 5778–The Torah, The Gold Watch, and Everything Retold Yet Again

It’s been six years since I last shared this favorite and oft-traditionally-re-shared missing for Ki Teitzei, so it’s time once again. Adding, of course, a few new thoughts.

2012 - It’s time to share it again. Perhaps a little cleaning, polishing, and editing this time around. This is, after all, from the book of “second time around” (i.e. Deuteronomy.)

In 1997, I first wrote the musing for parashat Ki Teitzei entitled “The Torah, The Gold Watch, and Everything.” The title is a play on John MacDonald's 1960 fantasy fiction novel "The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything" which was made into a (really bad) movie in 1980. It’s the story of a schlemiel who inherits a gold watch from his uncle, a mathematician who suddenly developed an uncanny ability to bilk casinos, amassing great wealth. He left nothing to his nephew except a gold watch. Turns out the watch has the ability to stop time for all but the holder of the watch, so Kirby, along with a loving female companion he meets in a most awkward way, uses the watch to defeat a criminal couple who were often thwarted by his uncle, and sought the watch for their own nefarious purposes. None of which is relevant, but interesting nonetheless.

For many years, it was my tradition to annually resend this musing. I’ve edited and rewritten the original story just a little bit this year.

There it sits. Each day, at some point, I open the pencil drawer in my desk at work, and laying among the hundreds of other miscellaneous items, it shines and stares at me. That gold ladies watch. It's been a month, I think. Six months. A year. Two years. Why not finally just take it home?

I had tried all the usual means to locate the owner, who had apparently lost it at a symphony concert, held in the venue I managed, almost two years ago. The usher who first found it and brought it to me in my office thought this find was important enough to bring to my attention right away.

"It's a gold watch, after all," she said

I asked, "Have you ever not brought something you found to my attention right away?"

"Oh yes," she said. "We find little unimportant things all the time. We just put them in our pockets and then leave them in the lost and found box."

"So no one knows you put them there, except you?" I asked. Never one to waste a teachable moment, I hastened to tell the well meaning usher that we should treat every lost object as if it were priceless to its owner - whether it's a cracker-jack box ring, an umbrella, or a gold watch. I later took the opportunity to address the entire staff, both backstage and front-to-house, on the importance of treating all apparent “lost/found” objects as important. I've been teaching that to all the staff at that venue and everywhere else I have worked ever since then.

But I digress. I called the symphony office, and tried to find out who was sitting in seats in the area the watch was found, since many attendees were regulars with subscriptions and regular seats. We called all those we could identify and none of them were the owner of the watch. We kept this up for several weeks. No one ever called to report a lost gold watch or to claim it. At other symphony concerts that season and next I asked people if the watch was theirs or if they knew who might own it. We even had the watch opened by a jeweler and checked for serial numbers, engravings, etc. Still no luck.

Now it is two years later. All last week, I kept saying to myself, "Adrian, it's time. Just take it home, or donate it to a charity that could resell it (or use it.)"

Each day, I had the same conversation. Shabbat Shof’tim came and went. Then it was time to read Ki Teitzei. And there it was, in verses 22:1-3.

לא־תראה את־שור אחיך או את־שיו נדחים והתעלמת מהם השב תשיבם לאחיך

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.

ואם־לא קרוב אחיך אליך ולא ידעתו ואספתו אל־תוך ביתך והיה עמך עד דרש אחיך אתו והשבתו לו

If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him.

כן תעשה לחמרו וכן תעשה לשמלתו וכן תעשה לכל־אבדת אחיך אשר־תאבד ממנו ומצאתה לא תוכל להתעלם

You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

I was doing the right thing, in diligently trying to return the watch to its owner. Something had always told me that this was a Jewish value that had been instilled in me by my parents. * And that I should keep following this principle.

Torah teaches us that we must seek out the owner of the lost item, but it doesn't tell us what to do when we can't find them, so the tradition has always been to hold on to things until the owner is finally found. There is a Talmudic story about Rabbi Chanina who watched over some wandering chickens so fastidiously that what started out as a few chickens wound up as a herd of goats which were ultimately returned to the original owner of the chickens. This story has been further enhanced in many fanciful retellings by Jewish storytellers over the centuries.

It was so fortuitous, the timing of reading these words of Torah. That gold watch staring back at me every day from the drawer was calling to me. My life continues to be a series of little epiphanies like that. It's a joy.

Well, wouldn't it be nice if I could say that this story had a perfect ending - and the owner of the watch finally was found and I returned it. No such luck. I think it is finally time to take the watch to some charity that can use it. The watch has already served its purpose sitting in my drawer - that constant reminder to me of the ethic by which I, as a Jew, must live. And a reminder to teach those ethics to those who work with me, to especially to those I teach. It's as though that little watch was a verse of Torah come to life. Now it's time to let it bring its magic to others. I only hope that it was to its original owner of as great a value as it has been to me, and will now be to others.

My your drawers contain that little piece of Torah as well...

...And here the original tale ended in 1997.

Every year, people would write and ask me "so what happened to the watch?" In subsequent annual re-postings of the musing, I had hinted that there was a postscript to the story which someday I would tell. In 2005 the time had finally come to tell the rest of the tale. Then, I wrote these words:

"It's all so apropos that I have always felt people would find it unbelievable, and I feared being accused of boasting about my own righteous behavior. I can only tell you that the story is a true one. You'll have to judge for yourself, for I am including the story's postscript this year."

So what did happen to the watch? I'll tell you, though I fear you might think I'm making it up. I'm not.

The true story is better than fiction. I have only told a few close friends, and I never wrote it up before, as I thought no one would believe it.

One very cold winter's day, and remember this took place while I was living in Fargo, North Dakota,where cold days can be really cold, I took the watch with me on a trip to the Goodwill store, where I routinely used to shop for props for shows (and where I had learned to shop for clothes, because somewhat used and shrunken men's small and medium sizes might fit my small but broad shaped body better than newer clothes. It was a lesson my wife at the time, Linda, taught me.) I was going to donate the watch to them.

On my way from the parking lot into the store, a bag lady, who hung around there periodically, even in the coldest weather, approached me and asked if I had the time. I looked at my watch and told her the time. She thanked me and I started to walk off into the store but she shouted at me to wait. She rummaged through her bags a minute. Eventually, she brought out an old, battered pocket watch--a real old railroad watch or conductor's watch--I think it had the Burlington-Northern Railway logo on it. She said it doesn't work anymore, but that it had been her father's watch-she said he had been a railroad conductor on the BN line. She offered to sell it to me for $5.

The irony of it all was quite thick. I took the gold watch out of my pocket, and gave it to her, saying "how about an exchange?" I knew the gold watch was worth far more than $5. The jeweler we had taken the watch to had confirmed it was quite a valuable object. Worth hundreds. She asked if it worked and I said yes. She quickly and insistently handed me the pocket watch. She said "G”d bless you" and shuffled off as I walked into the store.

I’ve never been entirely sure if she was more excited to have a working watch again, or she knew she had a valuable object she could now sell or pawn. At the time, I had the feeling she was more excited to have a working watch.

In retrospect, I suppose I could have just given her the watch, and let her keep the old timepiece, which seemed to have sentimental value. For that matter, I could have just given her $5, or even more, in cash, and told her to keep the watch. So even I learn ways to improve myself when I retell these stories. Yet as I look back on it, I do think there is honor in honoring the woman’s desire to not take plain charity, and insist on an exchange.

The story doesn't end here. I figured that this old pocket watch was probably worth something, and I had an idea, so that same day I showed it to a friend in Fargo who dealt in antiques. He offered me $100 on the spot for it! Apparently, they were in demand. Later that day, I cashed the check. I wrote a note explaining what I had done, put it and $100 cash in an envelope and took it back to the Goodwill store. The bag lady wasn't there, but the nice people in the store said they would give it to her, as she comes around every so often. (Living in Fargo at the time I had grown more used to being trusting of people and was quite sure the folks in the  Goodwill store would sincerely make sure the bag lady got the money. Now that I have spent many years once again living in more urban settings, I wish I could recapture more of that trusting nature.)

I think it was about 6 months later that I happened to return to the Goodwill store, and guess who was working there? It took me a minute to recognize her-but it was, without a doubt, the bag lady. Her name was Eunice, as her name tag proudly displayed. Clean, dressed in decent clothes, with a little weight on her bones, entirely affable. She never showed any hint of knowing me – somewhat surprising given that my short stature seems to often make me more memorable to people - which I guess, in the end, was actually better, making it a "better mitzvah" according to the Rambam's ladder of tzedakah. (Anonymous donations are considered of a higher order.) Of course, I don't know that it was that gold watch, and what she may have gotten for selling or exchanging it somewhere else,  or the $100 for which I sold her watch that I tried to get back to her through the folks at the Goodwill store, that might have set her on the path that led her to wind up working there, and apparently in a much better place in life,  but that doesn't really matter now, does it? I was just happy to see this woman in a better place.

I won’t deny I felt good inside. I was proud of myself. I realized, though, that it was only through her own efforts that she could have risen from her destitute state and recaptured control of her life.

Now can you see why I think no one would ever believe it. It’s almost too good to be true. Perhaps you, dear reader, can see why I think it might appear to be boasting about my myself, and that wouldn't be right, and why I was always reluctant to tell that part of the story.

We never did find the watch’s original owner. So in some ways, the original mitzvah wasn't fulfilled. Yet, in attempting to fulfill one mitzvah, other mitzvot were fulfilled. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. One mitzvah leads to another.

I've had other lost items turn up over the years that I've held on to while seeking the owner. Yet none of those stories is as amazing as the story of the gold watch left at the symphony concert. To this day, I think of that watch that sat in my desk drawer for two years. And I'm always on the lookout for more little pieces of Torah sitting in my drawers.

In 2005 I wrote:

And now you all know the end of the story. Which means that next year, I'll have to write an entirely new musing for Ki Tetze. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.

I kept that promise and wrote on new and different things, but this year, it was as if I opened a drawer and saw that little gold watch staring back at me, and I felt I had to tell the story once more.

* – note in 2018. Thinking upon this reminded me of a story from my childhood. I was in 5th or 6th grade, and me and two school friends were walking around a hilly, wooded neighborhood park after school one day, when we changed upon a briefcase on the ground. Naturally, being curious children, we opened it up. It wasn’t entirely curiosity, as I am pretty sure I and my two friends were also eager to see if we could return it to the owner. Finders keepers is one thing with a Spalding rubber ball, but with something like a professional grown-up adult briefcase, not so much. We opened the case to discover it chock full of papers, most of them copies of official looking forms, clearly indicating they were I.R.S. forms. Some of the forms had a  business named on them along with address and phone number. So we went to my apartment and called some of these business, trying to disguise our voices and sound like adults, and saying we were calling from the I.R.S. and asking if they had misplaced a briefcase. We were not particularly convincing, and, as is typical with kids, often laughed or otherwise made it obvious that this was, to some extent, a prank call (though we were serious about trying to find the owner of the briefcase.) In between, we looked more carefully through the documents, and it soon became apparent to us that this must be a briefcase belonging to an agent of the I.R.S. Looking carefully at some of the forms, it became clear who the agent in question was.  At this point we thought it best to wait for some help from parents. They later were able to identify and contact the agent, and arrange for him to come pick up his briefcase. He was happy to have it back, and even gave us each a small reward. We told him we hoped we didn’t cause any problems by contacting some of the businesses – perhaps alerting them that they might be under investigation. He assured us these were matters well-known to the parties concerned, and didn’t fault us for having looked at “official government documents.” He even mentioned how returning a lost object was the right thing to do. (Looking back, I think he happened to be Jewish.) While I lost track of one of these friends, I had been in contact with the other through Facebook. Much to my surprise and chagrin, another classmate informed me recently that my reconnected through Facebook friend had passed away almost one year ago, a fact he discovered when he wondered why he hadn’t seen any posts from him on Facebook for a while and began to investigate. Wow, did that make me feel like a total heel. But, as usual, I digress, so back to 2012 (or perhaps, 2005,or earlier – it all becomes a muddle after a while.)

I as was musing on all of this, I kept thinking about times in the past years when I have found myself starting to be a bit lazy when it came to doing the right thing, and catching myself, and going ahead and doing the right thing. It could be something as simple as walking by a piece of trash figuring someone else would pick it up, and then stopping myself and picking it up. It could be something as simple as finding a forgotten and unidentified art project from camp on the ground, being tempted to just dump it in the trash, and instead taking it to some counselors or an art specialist and asking of they knew who made it, and asking them to make sure they got it.

It’s easy to say “why bother?” If the child discarded it, it probably wasn’t important to them anyway. They might have just taken it home and thrown it out themselves. However, we just can’t assume that.

    וְכֵ֧ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַחֲמֹר֗וֹ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂה֮ לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ֒ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֜ה לְכָל־אֲבֵדַ֥ת אָחִ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאבַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ וּמְצָאתָ֑הּ לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לְהִתְעַלֵּֽם׃ 

3 You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. [JPS]

Talmudic exegesis makes it clear that this teaches us that the obligation to return lost items to our neighbors (and by extension, perhaps, anyone) cannot be ignored. I’d like to go a step further.

Sometimes, things that are lost are not tangible things. Love, honor, trust, respect, dignity. Those are all things that can be lost. I believe it is as much our obligation to try and return those intangibles to those who have lost them as it is to return a lost gold watch.

Look around. You might find some metaphorical lost gold watches in your life. what can you do to help return them?

Shabbat Shalom,


©2018. Portions ©1997, 2001, 2004, 2005, and 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Teitzei 5777 - B'shetzef Ketzef (Expanded and revised)
Ki Tetzei 5775 - Re-Honoring Inconsistency
Ki Teitzei 5774 - Microcosm
Ki Teitzei 5773 - Be True To Who You Are
Ki Teitzei 5772 - The Torah, the Gold Watch, and Another Retelling
Ki Teitzei 5771 -  Metaphorical Parapets
Ki Tetzei 5769 - The Choice of Memory
Ki Tetzei 5767 - Honoring Inconsistency
Ki Teitzei 5766-B'Shetzef Ketzef
Ki Tetze 5764/5-The Torah, The Gold Watch, and The Rest of the Story
Ki Tetze 5757,9,60,63--The Torah, The Gold Watch, & Everything
Ki Tetze 5758--Exclude Me
Ki Tetze 5762--One Standard

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