by Rabbi Shawn Zell
As one who grew up very much aware of what we call the “shmatte business” (all four females in my mother’s family were married to men who owned a clothing store) I always associated the last week of December along with the first weeks of January as “return season”. It was a period of time when disgruntled female customers (forgive the sexism) brought back the blouse or negligee or pantsuit that Santa brought them, asking for cash instead. Even though it has been several decades, the scars do not seem to have healed. The return season that bedeviled the previous generation of clothiers in my family continues to haunt me, as a man of the cloth. As such, I feel that would do us well to ponder a deeper meaning of the term: “returns” and along with it oft mistaken synonyms “payback” and “what goes around comes around” in the hope of gaining a better understanding and a deeper appreciation of that which seems to be destined our way, in life.
Human memory is short when it comes to favors and acts of kindness. The difference between a benefactor and a malefactor is that the former is seldom remembered, while the latter is seldom forgotten. Divine memory however is not human memory. Any daily davener paying attention to the prayers will tell you that G-d remembers the kindnesses of previous generations and repays in kind, at times to subsequent generations. The great sage Shimon ben Azzai understood this implicitly when he taught that “a mitzvah draws a mitzvah”. Notice if you will, that the sage never said that a mitzvah “brings about” a mitzvah. In using the Hebrew term “gorreret” – drags – he intimated that the return for the mitzvah might take far longer than we would like. The return could very well come about after one’s lifetime. Should it ever occur to someone that G-d is inexplicably kind or good to him, it might very well be that G-d is simply returning the favor from a previous generation.
So too is the case with cruelty. Only instead of returning any favor, we choose to understand this as “payback”. Return suggests reward; payback suggests punishment. Humans, with a keen sense of justice, are not likely to let bygones be bygones when they have been unjustly wronged. Given the choice of being happy or feeling vindicated, most humans will choose to feel vindicated, even if it costs them, time, energy, and peace of mind. G-d also believes in “payback”. Not content to let bygones be bygones, we are taught (Exodus 34:7) G-d will “pay a little visit” even to the third and fourth generation, to set the record straight, when it comes to an indiscretion of a long-gone family member. Our culture is one, where we are taught and conditioned to “leave something” to the next generation after we depart this world. Typically, we understand this to mean money as well as other assets of monetary value. For those of us who take “payback” seriously, we would well be careful not to leave behind any loose ends or unfinished business before taking leave of this world. Just because we are safe from any earthly court, doesn’t mean we or our descendants are safe from a heavenly court.
Favors and “payback” are time-release responses. Favors and “payback” test our patience as well as our belief in G-d. We question why our descendants ought to receive punishments that should have been directed toward us personally. We neglect to question why our descendants receive the rewards that we deserve. Not so, “what goes around comes around”. As we sow, so too do we reap. In Christian theology, this is seen as the Golden Rule. Gold however loses its value, when we are repaid in kind for cruelty and insensitivity. Perhaps this should be referred to as the Human Rule. Perhaps Hillel (and Confucius) understood it better in the negative, by warning us what not to do, in that what goes around comes around. Unlike favors and “payback”, what goes around comes around guarantees us “same life service”. We, and not previous or future generations receive what is due us. Because of what we did, we – and no one else – have been punished or rewarded. Much to our delight or chagrin, we are secure in the knowledge that a system of fairness and equity exists after all.
Reports indicate that items purchased on-line have been sent back in epic proportions this season. Perhaps so. Merchandise however must never be confused with conduct or deeds. Unlike merchandise, there are neither refunds nor exchanges for conduct or deeds. When it comes to behavior, there are only returns, “payback” and what goes around comes around.