There is a story in the Talmud about a rabbi who had purchased a donkey from an Arab and subsequently found a large precious jewel in its saddlebag. Purportedly overI realized I hadn’t paid for the case of water the objections of his students, the rabbi held fast to the Torah law of returning lost objects and brought the jewel back to the Arab, who effusively praised the rabbi for his integrity and honesty—and upon his G‑d, who so commands it.

Once I was loading groceries into my car, and I realized that a case of water that I had put on the lower rack of my shopping cart hadn’t been scanned and paid for. With me was a friend who had needed a ride to the market, and she suggested that I just keep the water. “Who’s gonna know?” she reasoned.

Remembering the story of the rabbi and the lost jewel, however, I returned to the supermarket, back to the same cashier who had checked me out, and explained what had happened. And then I waited. For the heaps of praise for me—and for my God, who instructs me to act with the utmost integrity and honesty. Instead, the cashier wordlessly and without so much as changing the expression on her face scanned the case of water and waited for me to slide my credit card. This wasn’t exactly the reaction I was hoping for, but I had to laugh at myself. Wow, Hanna, you were expecting a congressional medal of honor ... for not stealing?

And if this behavior made no impression on the cashier, who, after all, had nothing to gain by it, was it noted, I wondered, in the Heavenly annals above?

The Need for External Validation

While we hope that someone, somewhere, takes notice whenever we “do the right thing,” as long as we are driven by the need for that external recognition, we are vulnerable and can be inconsistent. For example, whenever possible, I try to make way for drivers who need to get in my lane or make turns, sometimes incurring the anger of drivers behind me as I hold up traffic momentarily. But when that driver then fails to acknowledge my “kindness” by so much as a wave of the hand, I feel “used.” Such disappointments can lead to thoughts as silly as “I was nice for nothing” to shifting my behavior in relation to other people or external events. That’s not a good thing.

The Case for Internal Validation

And so, returning a case of water to the supermarket shouldn’t be about scoring brownie points in heaven or even getting any acknowledgment here on earth. The deepest answer to the question “Who’s gonna know?” is me. I would have known that I had acted inappropriately. I would have known that my behavior was out of sync with my G‑d-given values. And I would have known that I was making the world a tiny bit darker.

In the Torah portion, Va’etchanan, MosesMoses only has a few weeks left to teach and inspire the Jewish people has only a few weeks left to teach and inspire the Jewish people, who were about to cross over to the Land of Israel, without him. Like a father imparting his last words of wisdom to a child who is about to journey away from home, so did Moses teach the Jewish people the deepest lesson of them all: “Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is One.”

And so should we strive to be. One with G‑d. Inside and out. No matter what. And this applies to when we get what we want, and even, if not more so, when we don’t. Keep in mind that Moses had wanted to enter the Land of Israel more than anything. But he accepted that it was not meant to be. And rather than being bitter or hurt, he focused on the need for unity among the Jewish people and the unity of the Jewish people with G‑d.

Unlike living in the miraculous and protected cocoon of the desert, where G‑d overtly provided everything for the Jewish people, they were going to be living so-called “normal lives.” They would be on the battlefield, in the marketplace and in the privacy of their own homes. Unlike being under the watchful eye of Moses, the Jewish people would find themselves in many situations where they could reasonably ask themselves, “Who’s gonna know?” Moses wanted every individual to have the strength of inner conviction to be able to answer that question unwaveringly: “I will.” And, of course, “G‑d will.”

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. What is something you have done or do that you hope others don’t know about? If you were to get caught in the “act” of thinking, saying or doing this thing, how would it make you feel?
  2. What is something you have done or do that you do because it is inherently good, positive or helpful? How does it make you feel when you do this? Does it matter to you if others know that you are doing this?
  3. Commit to adding one positive action to your day that you do for another person with complete anonymity. You are doing this solely because it is positive and not for external recognition. What is it that you can begin doing immediately, and how will it help the other? Record over the course of the week how it makes you feel. (It can be small, like getting someone a coffee at work or making sure to say “good morning” to someone you don’t always speak to ...).