Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - What Do You Do With Dirty Money?
I heard a story (second hand, but originating with someone who was there):
An Israeli fellow had spent many years involved in some kinds of criminal activity. Recently, he has become a baal teshuva and changed his ways, becoming somewhat close to a certain Rov (who I respect greatly).
He told this Rov that he would like to give him $120,000 tzedoka to help with this Rov's mosdos (who desperately need funds). To this, the Rov asked, "How did you come to have this money?" The fellow said that the money was made through his criminal activity (I believe sale of illegal drugs) in the past - but that he no longer has anything to do with that stuff.
The Rov told him that he wouldn't accept any money that was earned that way - to which the fellow said that he would like to give it to someone who will use it for good, but the Rov said that dirty money can't really be used for anything good.
The fellow asked the Rov, "So what can I do with it?"
And the Rov said, "I think you should burn it."
The man told the Rov, "I can't burn it - but if you'd like, I'll give it to you, and you can burn it."
So the Rov did. He took the money, lit a match, and burned it right then and there.
If that's the halacha (If profit from the sale of illegal drugs is technically assur behanoh - that it's forbidden to derive pleasure from it) than the Rov is clearly right and this whole conversation is over. But if it's not the halacha, I would have to admit that I have a hard time with this. I can think of half a dozen explanations for the Rov's decision, but as they say in Yiddish, "ich ken es heren, ubur nisht der-heren." I can understand it in theory, but honestly, I can't help but be bothered that this is somewhat being frum at the expense of others...
My initial reaction was to think of countless ideas for what I would have thought are better uses for this money, and while I can understand intellectually that ill-gotten gains may be impacted negatively from a spiritual perspective, does the money halachically have to be destroyed? And how do we know if the dollar that we got for change in the grocery wasn't once used in a crime? So, sure, I think that this fellow should get rid of the money, but shouldn't someone else - even the police dept or the local drug rehab center - be able to use that money for something positive? When people have no food on their tables, shouldn't this money be able to at least help people who have real struggles just surviving? Or, rather than burn it, couldn't he just hand it to the first homeless guy he sees?
This reminds me of a story about three talmidim of the Mezritcher Maggid that were - as was their custom - preparing for a Rosh Chodesh seuda. They asked each other, who has some money for the expenses? The Hafloh replied that he would donate the couple rubles to cover the food - but another talmid said, "How do we know that money is 'kosher' - where did you get it?"
The Hafloh said, "I received it from litigants that had come to me with a shaylo and I paskened."
The other talmidim said, "Perhaps the litigants were unhappy with your psak. We cannot use such tainted money,"
So, (I think it was) R' Shmelke (later of Nikolsburg) said, "I worked for someone today and earned a couple rubles. I will cover the costs."
The talmidim said, "No, perhaps you didn't work as hard as you should have, or maybe you worked slow, or maybe your employer wasn't happy with your performance - we cannot use money that has been possibly tainted as ill-gotten"
Finally, R' Zushe said, "I will cover it."
"What?!", said the talmidim, "Where do YOU have money from?"
"I borrowed it," said R' Zushe.
"Very well!" said the talmidim, "In that case it can't be tainted. We will use your funds!"
It seems that all money can be considered tainted - and what about the origin of the money that R' Zushe borrowed? We don't know where the lender got the money - which was probably at least as ill-gotten as the money of the Hafloh and R' Shmelke. Rather, it seems to me that they were making a point about honesty, but more than that, it seems that lending (a form of charity) sort-of "cleans" the money (yeah, I don't like that word either), or let's say, it ends the need for investigation. Couldn't this fellow's $120,000 have been used in some legitimate way?
Again, if that's the halacha, then I am fine with it, but if it's not, maybe you can explain it to me?