I was inspired to share this very personal event in my life because of something I learned from Rabbi Aaron Krupnick, who wrote, “We all make mistakes. The question is what we do with them.” This is my answer.
By STEVEN WENICK
I was a sophomore in high school when I made a mistake—an error in judgment—that would shadow me my entire life. It happened during the change of classes. You know the scene—when the hallways are filled with a cacophony of sounds as students frantically push their way through crowded hallways en route from one classroom to another.
So there I was, alternately tripping over my own feet and juggling an arm full of books, desperately trying to get to my next class when I noticed something fall from my classmate Alan’s pocket and drop to the floor in front of me. I bent down, picked it up and saw, to my amazement, that it was a $20 bill. Hesitating momentarily, glancing over both shoulders to see if anyone was watching, I then made the regrettable mistake of stealthily slipping the bill into my pocket.
Finding $20 back then seemed like a fortune to me—and a stroke of good fortune as well. Since my high school was not a neighborhood school, it was populated by academically inclined students from every neighborhood of the city; consequently its population reflected all strata of the social and financial spectrum. Although my family stood on the lower rung of the economic ladder, it wasn’t the lack of money that caused my poor choice. It was solely lack of good judgment.
Having thought of that episode from time to time over the ensuing years, I always managed to convince myself that I found the money in the hallway, when in fact (to use a politician’s terminology) I misappropriated it. I considered myself so lucky to have been in the right place at the right time and I was blind to the fact that the shadow of guilt had become my silent partner for life.
I remember the hard times when my mother asked me to walk to my grandfather’s house to see if she could borrow five dollars until the end of the week when my father got paid. I learned at an early age that even hard work and careful budgeting were no guarantee that there would be sufficient income to make it through to the end of the week. Regrettably, I had not learned the importance of integrity or frugality because I managed to squander my newly absconded funds within a week. But unlike that misappropriated money, the burden of guilt that came with it lasted me a lifetime.
I always regretted making that error in judgment but regrets were not the sufficient balm for a guilty conscience. I needed something more. There is a concept in Judaism that true repentance can be achieved by not committing the same transgression again if given the same opportunity to do it. In other words, I could achieve absolution if I were to be presented with the same opportunity to benefit from someone else’s loss, and resist the temptation to capitalize on it.
Over the ensuing years I did not recognize an opportunity to repent for my misdeed. I spent over 50 years tethered to shame and bound with regret for that one mistake made long ago, vowing, constantly, that if the opportunity for me to make amends should present itself, I would seize it. Eventually I made this pact with myself: If I ever saw Alan again, I would return the $20 he lost, and I stole. I was able to honor this pact one Wednesday evening during a performance at the Walnut Theater in Philadelphia.
A season ticket holder, I usually attend Thursday night performances, but because that particular show fell on a Jewish holiday, I had obtained Wednesday seats. I don’t recall the name of the show, but I’ll never forget the drama that unfolded that Wednesday night.
Sometime during the first act, the lights flickered momentarily and then went completely dark. At first I thought it was part of the show, that is, until I saw the ushers carrying flashlights and directing theatergoers to the lobby where the lights remained lit. Meandering around the crowded lobby along with all of the other patrons, I caught a glimpse of a man identified to me as a Judge Emeritus of the Philadelphia Municipal Court who I recognized immediately as my classmate Alan.
I could barely contain myself as I nudged my way towards him through the crowded lobby. Thoughts and phrases raced through my mind as I rehearsed what I would say, and how I would explain what had happened so long ago, and what I was about to do.
Suddenly we were face to face and I wondered if he would recognize me after so many years. “Hi Al, do you know who I am?” His silent stare was his answer.
“I’m Steve, Steve Wen…” His eyes flashed, his face sprang to life and before I could finish my name, he did it for me, “Wenick!” We both smiled and shook hands vigorously. It had been more than half a century and we still recognized each other. But only one of us remembered the mistake.
Suddenly a burst of light illuminated the entire theater. The problem has been fixed. As we began to leave the lobby, I recalled my pact.
Pulling Alan aside, I told him that I wanted to repay him for something I’d owed him since high school. He looked puzzled as I implored him not to refuse this payment, but to give it to charity or to a grandchild if it would make him more comfortable. Then, as he stood dumbfounded, I placed a $20 bill in his hand.
Since the show was about to resume, I quickly explained when and how I came to owe him $20. Whereupon he managed to sputter some unintelligible sounds but could hardly speak. “Well what about the interest?” he quipped, when he had finally gather himself. I could see that he was still visibly amazed at my revelation.
As we headed back to our seats he thanked me for returning his $20, noting, almost sheepishly, “I never knew that I lost that money. But thanks anyhow. It’s never too late”.
I smiled thinking how providence had graced me with the opportunity for redemption. I felt truly blessed to have unloaded the burden I carried for so very many years and to free myself from that mistake I made so long ago.
It was at then, at that moment punctuated by the simple act of returning a $20 bill to its rightful owner, that I understood it was not Alan’s forgiveness I sought, but my own.