MY career as a criminal began one hot summer afternoon when I was six years old and my mother suggested I help her clean out the closets. I was thrilled at the thought of spending time alone with her, lining the dresser drawers with perfumed tissue paper for her perfectly folded scarves and soft, cashmere sweaters. But as the afternoon wore on, I got bored and looked for something more exciting to do. That’s when the trouble began.
From the corner of my eye, I saw it peaking out from underneath the wooden shoe rack; her oversized, I-can-fit–anything-in-it pocketbook, the one that smelled like new leather and coins.
I surreptitiously took it into my room and emptied its contents onto my bed. A jumble of treasures tumbled out; a lost earring, an old report card, a misplaced glove and a roll of half-eaten butterscotch lifesavers.
But my heart raced when I saw the camel colored wallet bulging with paper bills and coins. I knew at the time it was wrong, but I did it anyway. I took about a dollars worth of change and stashed it behind the ceramic clown on my bookshelf.
Before you indict and convict me, let me explain. More than anything else, I wanted to belong to a group of “cool” older girls on my block called the Goodwin Girls (named after our street, Goodwin Terrace).
To my first grade mind, they were incredibly grown-up because they rode two-wheeler bikes, stayed out past dark and played freeze tag with the boys. My life as a six year old consisted of sitting on the curb in front of my house popping tar bubbles with a stick.
Most of the girls came from big families where money was tight. They scrimped and scraped to come up with the nickel it cost for an ice cream bar whenever the Good Humor Man drove by. Surely, I thought, if I gave them money to buy ice cream or candy, they would let me become a Goodwin Girl.
It worked. My popularity soared overnight as I doled out the funds I had stolen the day before. But word got out. One of the mothers called my parents and told them I was giving away more money than a bank. I don’t remember what was worse, the look of utter disappointment on my mother’s face or the spanking my father gave me that night. My response was profound: I developed a lifetime aversion to the smell of leather and promised myself that I would never, ever steal again.
I WOULD like to think that I have made good on that promise. But I have learned over the years that there are many forms of stealing and most of them have very little to do with the wrongful taking of money or property.
Most of us are familiar with the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” While its meaning may be clear to us, what is less clear and unfamiliar is how expansive the prohibition against stealing truly is.
Traditional Jewish thought establishes that in addition to outright robbery of money or physical property, stealing can take the form of “robbery of the mind.” Theft of the mind (or genevat da’at in Hebrew) is tantamount to taking away a person’s true understanding of what is going on around him or her.
When we intentionally deceive a person and profit from the deception, either financially, socially or psychologically, we steal his ability to determine the truth of a situation.
When we defraud a person into believing that we care when we don’t or that we would like to work together when we don’t, we steal something other than money or property: We steal that person’s ability to trust in others.
“Theft of the mind” comes in many sizes and shapes.
It is found when we make insincere offers to help others, or falsely flatter a person to gain an advantage or when we take someone else’s ideas and use them as our own.
It comes when we give unworthy compliments or praise to a boss to get a promotion or to a teacher to get a better grade.
It is hidden in the misleading information we give about the products we sell, the services we offer or the skills that we have.
It can be as egregious as deceptive advertising practices or as subtle as a disingenuous dinner invitation when you know the person will be out of town.
Many years have passed since my first big heist on Goodwin Terrace, but I have never forgotten the feelings of guilt and shame that accompanied my petty theft. I remind myself of those feelings every time I am tempted to take false credit for an idea that is not mine or to give a compliment when I don’t truly mean it.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News