“Finders Keepers”

What should one do with an envelope of money?

“I have a halachic question for you,” says my spouse, a research scientist at Georgia Tech.

“I was walking across campus and saw a folded piece of paper on the sidewalk. I picked it up to throw it away and discovered it was actually an envelope that contained five $20 bills. Doesn’t the Talmud teach about this?”

It does. And I can’t believe he found an unmarked envelope with cash on the sidewalk in midtown Atlanta as I’m preparing to teach this very Mishnah in my Advanced Jewish Law class.

Before I can even ask the clarifying questions, he continues:

“I looked around, but everyone was walking briskly and no one stopped because they realized they’d dropped it. It could’ve been lying there for 2 minutes or 2 hours.”

There is no real legal question in his story. He knows the Talmud teaches about this. He simply feels terrible about keeping the money. He asks a non-halachic question:

“What if it’s a low-income student’s spending money for the entire month?”

Then he wonders aloud if he should put up signs in the Student Center to see if anyone claims it.

While I’m convinced the principle of Ye’ush (the owner’s despair of finding the lost item) applies in this case, he is convinced the money isn’t really his to spend.

At dinner, we present the case to our son, a 10th-grade student in my Advanced Jewish Law class at The Weber School. Although he hasn’t yet studied the Mishnah, he draws a similar conclusion: In this particular circumstance, it’s highly unlikely the money can be returned to the person who lost it. “Finders keepers” is the rule of the city streets, even if the finder would prefer a different outcome.

“Maybe I should donate the money,” my spouse suggests. I agree with his ruling.

He carries the $100, still neatly folded in its envelope, in his backpack for about a week until he receives an email from the president of Georgia Tech, who has created a fund to improve mental health services on campus. Following the tragic death of Scout Schultz, who was shot by a police officer in an apparent suicide, students struggling with anxiety and depression, students grieving the loss of their classmate and friend, need help. It’s not a lot of money, but if a Georgia Tech student gains access to better treatment or benefits from additional counseling services then it will be money well spent.

The person who dropped the envelope probably despaired of getting it back as soon as they realized it was gone. The person who found the envelope despaired of returning it as soon as he realized it was in his possession.

Perhaps his circumventing the finders keepers rule in this case will lessen one person’s despair. Perhaps this positive action will prevent another tragic situation at Tech.

Doesn’t the Talmud teach that saving one life is equal to saving the entire world?

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