This past week, I met an honest man.

The owner of a small clothing store, he is a charming man with a fascinating backstory, and it was a pleasure to get to know him. But what really fascinated me was a throwaway remark he made near the end of our conversation.When he described his business credo, my admiration blossomed

Earlier, he had told me how much he enjoyed building his business and serving his customers. He loves Australia, and is a regular and dedicated member of his synagogue. However, it was when he described his business credo that my admiration truly blossomed:

He lives life honestly.

He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t dissemble. He pays the tax man his due and his suppliers on the dot. He tells the truth to his customers, and is never afraid to point out a fault or flaw in the garments he’s trying to sell. He can look the world in the face and sleep soundly at night.

He wasn’t showing off or skiting for my benefit. He disclosed these details in a matter-of-fact manner—just helping me understand his life and way of thought.

Do you know how I could see he was telling the truth about telling the truth? Because as we were chatting, he pointed to his cash register and described the envelope inside that had been sitting and gathering dust for months. One time, ages ago, he’d inadvertently overcharged a customer. By the time he’d realized his mistake, the man was long gone, so he’d set it aside, hoping to repay the buyer when he would return to complain.

Unfortunately for my new friend, not only did he not know the identity of his customer, but it seemed the man also never realized the mistake. What to do now?

I told him that halachah (Jewish law) discusses this exact scenario and suggests that in a situationHe can look the world in the face and sleep soundly at night where the merchant does not know who exactly he cheated and the customer is not aware that he’d been overcharged, and thus there is no foreseeable prospect of rectifying the wrong, the correct response is to donate the funds in question to a charitable organization that serves the entire community.

Why a tzedakah with such a broad remit, when he could easily direct the money to his local synagogue or other favorite cause? Because this way, every single person benefits—including, in an admittedly indirect manner, the individual to whom the funds truly belong.

Clouds of Glory

I was thinking about this encounter when learning a fascinating idea of the Rebbe on the portion of Chukat. Aaron, the beloved High Priest, passes away, and the Jews gather to mourn. “The whole congregation saw that Aaron had passed away, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days.”1 Immediately thereafter, “the Canaanite king of Arad . . . heard that Israel had come . . . and he waged war against Israel.”2

Rashi makes two points about Aaron’s death:

Aaron was loved by the nation for his efforts as a peacemaker, reconciling family arguments and bringing warring parties back together.

Furthermore, the Canaanite attack was a direct result of Aaron’s death. While Aaron was alive, there were Clouds of Glory that accompanied the nation through the desert, protecting them from their enemies and smoothing their path. Now that Aaron had passed away, the Jews were suddenly vulnerable.

The Rebbe demonstrates a correlation between these two facets of Aaron: his love for all others and the Clouds of Glory that appeared in his honor. Many miracles had occurred during their sojourn in the desert. Manna fell daily from heaven in the merit of Moses, and there was a miraculous thirst-quenching spring of water that accompanied them during Miriam’s lifetime.

However, unlike Moses’ manna and Miriam’s spring—nurturing everyone on an individual basis, and providing each person his or her daily needs—Aaron’s clouds protected us all as one. The entire people sheltered together under the canopy of his shelter.Aaron was loved by teh nation for his peacemaking

Aaron loved us all, and we responded to that love. He spent his life reconciling differences and treated every individual with identical affection. The whole nation was protected in his merit, and we mourned his loss as one.

And that’s why I suggested to my new friend, who cares so deeply about others and wanted only to do the right thing, to give the money to an organization that serves the entire community. The needs of each individual can be subsumed into the service of the public, and by giving to all, every single person is protected as one.