A rabbi from Connecticut knew exactly what to do when he found $98,000 in cold, hard cash stuffed inside a desk he purchased on Craigslist: He promptly returned it.
What would you have done?
That’s the popular parlor game question being asked across America this week as the astonishing news of Rabbi Noah Muroff’s good deed pinged around the Internet.
We asked Muroff to tell us what happened. Here’s what he said. The New Haven, Conn., rabbi and father of four had turned to Craigslist in September when he was looking to purchase a desk for his home office. And he found one, for $150. But when he got it home, it barely fit through the door. Muroff figured out he could squeeze it through the doorway if he dismantled it.
And so he unscrewed the desktop, and pulled out the file drawers.
That’s when he noticed something odd.
“When I first saw the bag, I thought I saw the face of a dollar bill,” he told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. “I said, ‘I think there’s money in here,’ and I could tell that the bag had some weight to it.”
Muroff brought the bag to the dining room table and opened it. The contents left him, his wife and the friend he’d enlisted for the moving project in shock.
Nearly $100,000 in cash.
The rabbi, who teaches Judaic studies at a private school, said there was only the briefest of discussions with his wife. They both agreed to return the cash. Even though it was past 11 p.m., the rabbi called the desk seller and told her what he’d found. The moment was captured on video, seen above. The desk’s original owner was in shock, and can be heard in the video saying, “Oh my gosh! Oh my God!”
Now, let’s pause for a second and think about the ethics here. The woman sold him the desk. It was her responsibility to make sure it was empty, right? It’s not like the rabbi cheated her out of the money. So, why didn’t he decide to keep it under the time honored “finder’s keeper” rule?
Because, Muroff said, he answers to a higher authority.
“Both my wife and I were raised as Orthodox Jews, and this is what we were taught from a young age. To do what is right, and thinking about the feelings of others. It’s looking out for one’s fellow man, and not just for one’s self.”
The rabbi said he knew from talking to the woman that she was the first and only owner of the desk. (She told him she’d purchased it and put it together herself.) He also knew that the woman was dealing with some personal struggles. Her parents had recently died, and the cash was part of her inheritance. He recalled that when he was talking to the woman prior to the sale that she seemed a bit overwhelmed by life.
“She was a very nice lady,” the rabbi said, “and it seemed clear to me that somehow the money had fallen behind the drawers or something.”
His hunch was right. The woman told the rabbi that she’d stuffed the cash in the back of the desk drawer for safekeeping because she wasn’t quite ready to deal with investment options. When she was finally ready to deal with the money, she began looking for it, without luck.
“She didn’t have the chance to put the money in the bank as she should have, and her thinking was, ‘I know it will turn up somewhere,’” the rabbi said. “Little did she know that it would be walking out her front door.”
The rabbi has not identified the woman, in part for her personal safety. He said he hopes she is no longer keeping large sums of cash on hand, but such a story could draw the interest of would-be thieves. Moreover, he said he wants to shield her. As the story has made the rounds of the Internet, Muroff said he has noticed that some comments are quite nasty, along the lines of “How could that woman be so dumb...?”
There are also some suspicions that something about the story is not quite right.
David Owens, a reporter at the Hartford Courant who was assigned to write the story about Muroff, said his initial reaction was skepticism as well. But, after interviewing Muroff, he told the Los Angeles Times he felt confident that the rabbi was telling the truth. Still, he hopes his reporting will lead to an interview with the woman as well, even if she doesn’t want her name used.
“Reader reaction has been a little bit of skepticism, but mostly it has been big praise for him and general happiness that someone has done the right thing,” the reporter said. (You can read Owens’ excellent story here.)
The rabbi said he and his wife took their four children -- the oldest is six -- for the drive to return the money.
The woman gave the rabbi a $3,500 reward, the $150 he paid for the desk, and a handwritten note of heartfelt thanks. The rabbi said he didn’t expect or want a reward, but appreciated the gesture and has applied it to a fledgling college fund for his children.
The rabbi said he never mentioned the incident when it happened in September, but opened up to the local media to use it as a teaching lesson for his children, and his students.
And no, the rabbi said when asked, he is not the most honest man in America.
“But I’d like to think I am one of many people in America who are honest.”
Do you hate it when you forget where you put your $98K? So do I. Join me on Twitter @renelynch