For the week ending 4 September 2021 / 27 Elul 5781

Hero or Thief? by Rabbi Gavriel Rubin

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The case: It was a sunny Friday afternoon, June 20th, 1997, to be exact, at approximately 1:40 p.m. Suddenly, Motti Ashkenazi burst into the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv, rushed over to the reception desk and blurted out hysterically, “There’s a suspicious bag in the entrance to number 6 Geula Street!” — referring to an apartment building not far away.

The clerk wasted no time in calling the police and a patrol car arrived shortly. After examining the object in question, the officers confirmed Motti’s suspicions — it was a bomb.

Reinforcements headed by the precinct captain soon arrived to close off all the surrounding streets and the sappers went to work. Fortunately, with the help of a robot, they were able to disarm the device before any harm was done, other than to the bag of course.

“The charge was found in a black bag,” reported one of the policemen, “which also contained bottles of liquor, a large hairbrush, a bundle of keys, a beret and a plastic box filled with cookies. Concealed beneath these items was a six-and-a-half pound explosive device, comprised of over two pounds of plastic explosives, plus four pounds of nails, shot and dumdum bullets.”

According to a senior officer, if the device had exploded on a crowded beach, as are all beaches in Israel on a Friday afternoon in the beginning of the summer, it would have cut short the lives of dozens of people within a radius of a hundred feet.

At first, Motti claimed that he just “happened” to enter the apartment building when he spied the bag. But, after he was sent home, a routine background check revealed that Motti had a “colorful” past, which prompted the investigators to call him back in for further questioning.

This time, Motti confessed that he himself had taken the bag from “Jerusalem Beach” in Tel Aviv, where it was sitting on the ground next to the lifeguard’s tower. In his words, he took it “just out of curiosity,” after first making sure that it did not belong to any of the people around, of course. When he reached number 6 Geula Street, Motti ducked into the courtyard of the building to examine his find. That is when he heard the ticking….

Motti’s action saved the lives of many people. “I hope this is my last ‘bag,’” he told an interviewer. “When I heard it was a bomb on the verge of exploding, I began to tremble. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe I had just been saved from death. I have a custom of asking the One above to protect me every day before I leave the house,” Motti the thief added, parenthetically. I feel that I was born anew.

“The truth is that if I had known what the bag contained, I would have run the other way. But now I’m glad that because of me so many lives were saved. They told me at the end of the investigation that I would receive a certificate of merit from the police department. They also promised me a free treatment program for my…uh…‘problem.’”

Do we say that although he did an act of stealing, the result was the saving of human life, and so the reward he received was deserved?

Or, perhaps, Motti should really be seen as nothing but a lowly thief, through whom something good happened by chance, and what he really deserved is punishment.

(*Editor’s note: See the answer in Rabbi Rubin’s new sefer available via Amazon: The Bomb Thief and Other Curious Cases: Leaves from the Jewish Logic Tree)

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