Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Do the Math

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Operation Inspiration

While going shopping for my wife, I picked up a bag of something she needed. I noticed the price on it and then looked for what I knew to be a brand with a reputation for being less pricey than the first. Sure enough, it was a significant amount cheaper than the one I had in my hand.

I then took a moment to examine the two bags and noted that the “cheaper” one was slightly smaller than the “expensive” brand. Still, there was a significant price difference and I figured it would outweigh the smaller size. Then I did the math. When I actually calculated the per-ounce price and multiplied it by the size of the smaller bag, the “expensive” brand turned out to be more cost-effective!

My gut reaction to the prices had been wrong and only because I took the time to think about it did I make the right decision. It reminded me of my grandfather’s story of the man selling herrings in a New York fish market in the early 1920’s. Women would ask how much the herrings cost and the man would motion them to come closer. Then in a hushed voice he would say, “They’re 8 cents apiece, but for you, three for a quarter!” The women would stealthily glance around and quickly tell him they’d take three. They would then rush off, proud of the “steal” they’d gotten.

Once again, because they thought they were getting a bargain they didn’t take the time to think it through and they ended up losing out. But I think this happens with a lot more than shopping.

When it comes to calculating, we as Jews have something called “cheshbono shel olam,” the age-old reckoning. That is the reward we get for a Mitzvah matched against the difficulty or trouble involved in doing it. Usually the former dramatically outweighs the latter since the benefit is eternal and the challenge is temporal.

The other side of the coin is comparing the temporary benefit of a sin compared to the long-term loss in which it results.

Let’s use a real-life example: “Sam” has a good job with great benefits. The work isn’t too difficult and the pay is good. The boss keeps her office locked and one day when she leaves early for a meeting, she forgets to lock it. Being a conscientious employee, at the end of the day, Sam goes to lock it for her. He notices employee review files on her desk and is curious what she thinks about him. As the office has now emptied out, he takes the opportunity to look through the pile. He notices the name of a co-worker he doesn’t particularly like and starts to read his file. Suddenly, the boss comes back and catches him in the act of going through her confidential files. He has betrayed her trust, violated company policy, and is summarily terminated from his job.

At the time, nobody was around and it didn’t seem to be a big deal to look at the files. However, in truth, it was a huge deal and because he was caught in the act, he lost everything. Had he done the math and asked himself, “Is it worth looking at the files if it could make everything else come crashing down around me?” he would likely have shut the door and walked away, proving he was trustworthy. Because he didn’t, he paid the price.

If the “Boss” is Hashem and the files are the desire or sin Sam gave in to, we can see that the benefit of the short-term sin, fulfilling his curiosity, is nothing compared to what he lost. We find the same thing in relationships, where people choose a temporary connection and throw away something much more valuable.

How about when we have a disagreement with someone? How much is it worth to be right rather than to make peace? Say you went shopping and asked your husband to put the milk in the refrigerator. He forgot. The milk spoiled and you couldn’t have your coffee in the morning. You really needed it because you had an important meeting and had to drive somewhere. It threw off your whole day.

When you get home, do you give him a tongue-lashing about how thoughtless and stupid he is? Do you tell him that he’s the reason your meeting went south and you had a terrible day? If you do, I can guarantee you that you’re going to lose more than just that day. You’ve just decided that your long-term relationship is worth less than the short-lived feeling of righteous indignation (a misnomer to be sure) and you’ve miscalculated.

If you get into a full-blown fight, you’ll lose the night and probably more than that, throwing away good time after bad and causing damage you may never be able to fix. That makes no sense. Just do the math! They say that children tend to make up quicker than adults because they prefer to be happy than right. Think about that…

The lesson I learned is that we need to make sure that before we take action and make decisions we’re carefully considering the product of those choices. If what we’re going to do will simply multiply the divisions and maybe lead to a total loss, then that just doesn’t add up.

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