Have an ethical quandary? Beliefnet's wise and insightful ethicist will sort it out for you. Just ask.

Dear Joseph,
At a party a few months ago, when I was barely beginning to come to terms with the news that my two-month-old baby was born with a disability, I mentioned my situation to another guest at the party. She replied, "You must be a very nice person--I don't believe that God would give such a baby to someone who wasn't good enough to take care of him." I was stunned, hurt, appalled, angry. I was thinking, "No, God doesn't work that way--He wouldn't do that to me." I wanted to put her in her place but was too taken aback and, despite my fury, concerned that I'd show my bile to someone who was probably well intentioned. What should I have said to her?"

Dear Hurt,
Did this woman have good intentions? Undoubtedly. What she unfortunately lacked was common sense--both about God and about another's feelings. Analyze exactly what it was that she was saying. First, that she knows God's will. But how does she know why God sent you a baby with a disability? A medieval Hebrew proverb teaches, "If I knew God, I'd be God." This woman does not know God and is not God. And thank God for that. For if she were God, she would reward good people by sending them babies with disabilities--which would discourage people from being good.

This woman does not know God and is not God. And thank
God for that.

Like many well-meaning but somewhat impulsive or foolish people, she probably spoke without thinking. If you could explain to her why her comment was wounding, she might realize her error, apologize, and, most importantly, not continue hurting people with comments like that in the future.

Therefore, perhaps you could say to her something like this: "I know you meant well, but you should know that your words hurt me. For one thing, the your comment that if only I were a less nice person I would have had a normal baby was a very painful thought, because it implies that I caused my baby's problem. Furthermore, how would you like it if someone said to you, 'You seem like such a nice person that I pray God will bring you many babies with special needs'"?

Dear Joseph,
For 33 years, I was a taxi driver in New York. I used to hang out at JFK Airport and bring a lot of foreign visitors into the city, but, instead of charging them what was on the meter, I charged them pretty much whatever I could get away with. I never got caught, but I'm 74 now and not in the best of health, and I feel very bad about what I did. The only one I've talked about it with is my wife, and she feels I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. But I really would like to figure out some way to undo what I've done. Anytime I try to think through what I can do, I come up with zilch.
--Repentant in Queens

Dear Repentant,
Repentance depends in large measure on undoing the evil act you have committed. For example, I cheat you out of $1,000 and regret what I have done. The most necessary step in my repentance is to return the money to you and seek your forgiveness. Even if I'm not in a position to repay you, I can still seek your forgiveness, and you might choose to say, "I forgive you, and don't worry about the money."

Unfortunately, though, as touched as I am by the obvious sincerity of your repentance, you have committed one of those sins for which it is now impossible to fully repent. When one defrauds the public, whether through the sort of deception in which you engaged as a taxi driver or through a pyramid scheme or a stock market manipulation, there's not a whole lot one can do. Because you don't know the victims of your cheating, you are not in a position either to return the money or to request forgiveness.

Jewish ethics, the ethical tradition with which I am most acquainted, advises those who have defrauded the public to, in the words of a 2,000-year-old legal text known as the "Tosefta," "pay back those whom they know they defrauded, and to devote the balance to public needs." In ancient times, this might have meant digging a well that could service the public.

Today, you could perhaps contribute to a park, a library, a hospital, or something else that benefits the broader community. You mention that the victims of your behavior were foreigners. If, for example, you cheated many Japanese tourists, it would be fitting to make these donations to a park, library, or hospital in Japan, thereby benefiting people in the country whose citizens you defrauded. Or, if no one country seems appropriate, make a gift to an organization such as Traveler's Aid.

Send your questions for Joseph Telushkin to: columnists@staff.beliefnet.com. Please include "Telushkin" in the subject line.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad