When we are lucky, there are unexpected moments in life that suddenly present us with the opportunity to find out who we really are. I recall one such moment during my time as a rabbi in the Los Angeles area. It involved then-22-year-old Ascension Franco Gonzales, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who came to this country from Hidalgo with one goal in mind: to send back enough money to build a two-story cinder-block house for his parents.
“They don’t live in misery, but they are humble people who struggle sometimes,” he said. So every four weeks he sent $800 of his monthly $1,300 salary that he makes as a dishwasher back home to help his parents. At the time of the incident I’ll recount, his scrimping and saving and sacrificing hds paid for an indoor bathroom, telephone service, and some of his parents monthly bills. Most recently he had helped pay for a cousin’s funeral expenses as well.
But one week was different. One week he was presented with one of those defining moments in life, where one’s values and upbringing come face to face with the stark realities of moral choice and decision making. And it is ultimately the choices we make in those moments that can define our character for the rest of our lives.
For Ascension Gonzales it happened on a Monday night as he was sitting alone at a bus stop at Grand Avenue and 7th Street in Los Angeles (since he didn’t make enough to own a car). While he waited for this bus, an armored truck rumbled by and out of the back tumbled a clear, plastic bag filled with $203,000 in bundles of $20 bills.
By the time he ran to pick up the bag, the truck was already long gone.
Life is filled with moral challenges, but usually the stakes don’t seem quite so high. Gonzales held the dream of his parents’ new home in his hands. All he had to do was walk away with the money, and no one would ever know.
No one of course, except Gonzales and the still, small voice we experience as the voice of God within us all. So he took the money home and stayed up late into the night discussing the moral dilemma with eight of his friends. Without trying to persuade him one way or another, they simply asked him, “Are you going to keep it or are you going to return it?”
It was such a heavy decision to make that he decided to go to sleep and decide in the morning, During the night he dreamed about the money and the looming question, “What should I do?”
When he awoke in the morning, he turned on the radio and heard an announcer ask the question, “Is there anyone in Los Angeles honest enough to hand in so much money?” As soon as he heard the question, he knew there was only one answer.
“I was brought up in an honest Catholic family,” said Gonzales, so he called the police and turned in the money.
“Every once in awhile you see something like this,” said the detective who headed up the search for the money. “I am surprised and pleased.”
Chapter 22 of Deuteronomy, which we read this week, begins, “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep driven off and hide yourself from him. You shall bring them back to your brother…and you shall do that with any lost thing of your brother’s that will be lost by him and you find it. You may not hide yourself.” (Deut. 21:1-3)
The temptation must have been great for such a poor and struggling young man. $203,000 is a lot of money. The temptation would be great for anyone. And that is why the Torah is so specific in its moral challenge. For the challenge to us is not to hide ourselves from the difficult moral dilemmas of life, but to have the courage to face them squarely and search for our inner moral compass to give us direction. For when we listen to that still, small voice of the sacred that whispers in each of our souls, we always know the right thing to do.
That is surely why one of the most famous and difficult quotations from the Talmud in Pirkay Avot reminds us that the greatest demonstration of strength is not through physical prowess, but lies in the overcoming of our natural selfish drives and inclinations. “Who is strong? Those who conquer their base desires.”
It is not surprising then, that Ascension made reference to being brought up in an honest Catholic family. That is the true power of the spiritual gift that the Jewish people gave to the world. Catholic or Protestant or Jew – it is the fundamental moral certainty of the Torah which has formed the foundation of western ethics for the past 3,000 years. And from that moral certainty, none of us can truly hide.