The year was 1914, the first year of World War One. In Jerusalem, which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the situation was dire. With the outbreak of war, the economy had collapsed, and poverty quickly became rampant. Jerusalem was a poor community at the best of times, but now it was a cruel struggle for survival. Inflation soared, and many families were not able to procure basic necessities.

One Jerusalem family had saved up funds over many years, putting away small amounts whenever possible. Eventually, the father traded the sum collected for a large gold Napoleon, considered to be one of the most resilient coins of the time. He stored this precious asset atop his tall dresser, which he considered a secure location.

A while later, his young son discovered the coin and, not realizing its value, took it to buy some sweets. After procuring his treat, the boy returned home happy and thought nothing more of the matter. However, several days later the man discovered that his precious Napoleon was missing and quickly discovered what had transpired.

Fuming, he rushed to the store and demanded that the owner return the coin. “You tricked my son into thinking that he had a miserly penny instead of a highly valuable Napoleon!” The store owner vehemently protested his innocence, insisting that the child had given him a penny. A huge row broke out, with most people assuming that the storekeeper was deceiving the family and defrauding them out of their savings.

The matter was brought before the beth din in Jerusalem, and the judges ruled that since he had admitted to serving the boy on the day in question, and had therefore corroborated one element of the story, the store owner would have to demonstrate his innocence by swearing an oath in court. The store owner reluctantly took the oath, and the matter was closed.

While the legal proceedings were concluded, his troubles did not end. The entire city knew of the story, and people came to their own conclusions. His store suffered from an unofficial boycott, and his livelihood deteriorated. All the while, the terrible war and its impact continued apace.

Finally, in 1918, the war ended, and the situation in Jerusalem—now under British control—began to improve. One day, our protagonist received a letter that sent a shiver down his spine. The author of the letter explained what had really happened to his precious Napoleon.

“As you recall,” he wrote, “those days of war were days of desperation. My family and I were in dire straits, with no discernible way out of calamity. I was wandering the streets, seeking a way out of my predicament. Suddenly, I saw a young boy holding a Napoleon. I thought that if this child was walking around with that kind of fortune, he must be from a very wealthy family. So, under extreme duress, I decided to “borrow” the coin, with the intention of returning it when my situation improved. It was not difficult for me to convince the boy that the shiny copper coin I offered him was no different from the one he held.”

The writer concluded: “I am truly sorry that I caused you so much distress, but I was genuinely desperate. Fortunately, my situation has improved, and I would like to return the money I took from you. I hope you can forgive me.”

While the owner of the Napoleon enjoyed the community’s sympathy and eventually received payment for what he lost, the store owner was not so fortunate. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could regain his livelihood and reputation.

The famed Jerusalem preacher Rabbi Shalom Schwadron (1912-1997), a prolific scholar, was a small child when these events unfolded. Years later, he related1 that he met the grandson of a pious man who had also lived through those times. This person shared his grandfather’s perspective on the story as someone who had experienced the tumult that this story caused firsthand:

“All the main characters in this story were most likely exonerated when they met their maker upon completion of their earthly sojourn – each for their own reason: The poor storekeeper who was entirely innocent unfairly suffered abuse and material harm. He surely received a warm Heavenly welcome. The owner of the Napoleon coin genuinely believed, with good reason, that the storekeeper had robbed him. Given that he was trying to protect his family’s savings in desperate circumstances, his efforts to retrieve his fortune were understandable. There was no way he could have known what had really transpired. He too could be forgiven for his false accusation.

“Even the man who ‘borrowed’ the coin, who was guilty of theft, likely received a sympathetic hearing On High. His crime was committed under extenuating circumstances, with his family’s lives in danger, and the verse says, “Don’t despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite, for he is hungry.”2 Moreover, he ultimately made amends by fulfilling the Biblical command, “You shall return the theft that you have stolen.”3

“The individuals who have no valid defense for their actions are the bystanders who participated in the mistreatment of the store owner. They got involved in a conflict that did not concern them, making a sad and difficult situation much worse. What, possibly, could be their justification? What good did their outrage accomplish? They may have imagined themselves righteous for standing up for what they assumed was correct. In reality, however, they were spilling the blood of an innocent person.”

This story teaches a powerful lesson. Let us all be less quick to assume we have the whole story. There is often more to a situation than meets the eye. Let us also stay out of conflict we have no business getting involved in. No arguments are missing more participants.