The hour was late when I strode out of the wedding hall and walked briskly through the dim parking lot. Most of the guests had already left and the lot was virtually empty. I spotted my car immediately and fished through my pockets. Now, where had I put my car keys? Maybe they were in my pants pocket. I looked around sharply when I felt a sudden tap on the shoulder. Even in the shadows I recognized who had approached me; it was Pinny Gross,* a former employee who had worked at my restaurant years before. I hadn’t even heard his footsteps. I glanced around the parking lot but it was deserted. Pushing aside my uneasiness, I smiled and said, “Shalom aleichem, Pinny!” I found the keys in my pants pocket and gave his hand a quick shake before unlocking the door. “Mr. Greenberg,* I need to talk to you.” Pinny pulled his jacket tightly around his slight frame and stood there awkwardly. “Um, do you mind if we sit in the car for a few minutes?” “Sure, Pinny,” I replied. I opened the passenger door for him. “Great to see you. It’s been a long time.” As I walked around to the driver’s side, I wondered why he was acting so peculiarly. Was he in trouble? Perhaps he was in debt and needed a job.
Actually, that wouldn’t surprise me, I thought. Although over a decade had passed since Pinny was the manager of my restaurant, I’d heard that the intervening years had not been kind to him. One business venture after another had failed miserably. “Whew!” I said as I turned on the heat and rubbed my hands together in an attempt to warm them. The temperature in the car was frigid. “You were one of the greatest employees I ever had. Thank G-d, Greenberg’s Café is doing well these days. I’d be happy to offer you a job.” Pinny was shivering. “Thanks, Mr. Greenberg, but that’s not why I wanted to speak to you. I have something important to say.” A knot was beginning to form in my stomach; the conversation was taking a decidedly odd turn. I remained silent, waiting for him to begin. Pinny looked down at the floorboards. “Mr. Greenberg, do you remember the first couple of years I worked for you? “Of course,” I nodded solemnly. “Things weren’t easy back then. Business was very rough in the beginning.” “No, not really,” Pinny said, glancing up in time to catch the look of confusion on my face. “Mr. Greenberg,” he said slowly, looking me in the eye. “It was me.” “I don’t understand.” “Mr. Greenberg, I stole money from you. From the restaurant’s bank account and from the cash register.” It took a moment for his words to sink in. “Oh,” I replied rather stupidly, not knowing what else to say. “Er, how much did you…take?” Pinny looked straight ahead, as though gazing into the past. “Mr. Greenberg, I was skimming money. You never knew about it because I was very clever at covering up my tracks. And sometimes customers paid me and I only pretended to ring it up. You didn’t catch on because the business was new and you didn’t really have a sense of how much it should have been making.” I thought back to that painful period in my life.
For years I had run a successful catering business, but I was ambitious; I wanted to expand and own my own restaurant too. With loans from my uncle and older brother, I’d opened Greenberg’s Café—and regretted it almost immediately. I had been forced to borrow even more money and use credit cards in order to stay afloat. Prior to this venture I’d been a successful businessman, but the new restaurant changed everything. My family life suffered. I recalled the bittersweet occasion of my eldest son’s bar mitzvah. I usually tried not to think about it, but now, sitting beside Pinny in the darkness, it all came flooding back. At that point in my life I couldn’t pay my bills, let alone the expenses of a bar mitzvah. I couldn’t even afford to buy a pair of tefillin for the bar mitzvah bachur! A close friend of mine collected a small sum of money so I was able to get him an inexpensive pair. The seudah, which had also been paid for with the help of others, was small and subdued. What should have been a joyous milestone had been marred by mixed emotions. It was especially difficult because I felt responsible for bringing the hardship upon myself, jumping irresponsibly into a new venture at my family’s expense.
Thankfully, my mazal had turned around since then, but the painful memories remained. Pinny cleared this throat, and I snapped back into the present. “Pinny, how much did you stea—I mean, take from the business?” He blurted out an amount, which was very large indeed. My mouth fell open. I couldn’t believe it! How had he managed to steal such an enormous sum of money? Then I thought about it again. Come to think of it, it was possible. Things snapped into place as I recalled my bewilderment in the early days of the fledgling establishment. I suddenly remembered sitting in my office, looking down at the figures in red at the bottom of the page. How could Greenberg’s Café be running at a deficit? I couldn’t understand it; the place was always packed. Why was I losing money? My accountant had no answers. About a year after the restaurant opened, my wife and I were instrumental in making Pinny’s shidduch. I knew he had a rough family background, but I recognized his fine character traits and thought the world of him. I focused on his potential rather than on his past and trusted him implicitly. All he’d needed was a chance in life. I’d danced enthusiastically at his wedding. When Pinny left his job at the restaurant, it was on good terms; he and his new wife were moving to another city. Again I served as a glowing reference, this time for prospective employers. Then a funny thing happened; as soon as he was gone, my business mysteriously improved.
Now, ten years later, I understood what had happened. It wasn’t because my restaurant had finally taken off; it was because all the profits were staying in the till. “I know you trusted me,” Pinny was saying. “I’m so sorry.” “I don’t know what to say,” I mumbled. “I feel terrible,” he went on. “For years it’s been weighing heavily on my heart; I’ve been haunted by my secret. It cast an ugly shadow on my entire life. Everything I touched fell apart. Every job or business venture ended on a sour note. My personal life became a disaster. And I always knew that the stolen money was the cause.” At that moment the silence in the car was interrupted by a lively tune from my cell phone. “It’s my wife,” I said as I picked it up, glancing at the time on the dashboard. It was nearly 1:30 in the morning. “Hi, Raizy,” I said into the phone. “Sorry I’m so late. Baruch Hashem, everything’s fine. I’m just sitting in the car talking to someone. Do you remember Pinny Gross? He used to work in the restaurant.” Pause. “Yeah, he’s doing okay. Sure. Will do. See you soon.” I closed the phone. “My wife sends her warmest regards.” Pinny began to cry. “I can’t believe I did that to you! You’re such nice people. You always treated me so well, better than anyone else ever did…”My chin shot up. “So then why did you do it?” “I’m not sure,” he stammered. “I guess I was desperate for money and the temptation was too great. It seemed like such an easy way to supplement my income.” I felt sick to my stomach by the betrayal. “But I always felt horrible,” he continued, his voice rising. “Deep down, I liked you very much and hated myself for what I was doing.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. “From the very beginning I wanted to pay you back—and I can prove it with this.” When he smoothed out the paper, I immediately recognized it as the café’s very first menu, which had since been improved and updated. He turned it over.
Numbers were scrawled all over the back of the menu, tiny handwritten calculations. Some had circles around them; others were crossed out. At the very bottom was a number written in bold lettering with a star next to it—the total amount he claimed to have stolen. “Each time I took money, I wrote it down,” he explained. “I was very careful with my arithmetic. I was disgusted by what I was doing and hoped that one day I would be able to make restitution. In my heart of hearts, I always wanted to, and I held on to this paper. “Unfortunately, my employment history was spotty and I was never able to come up with the money. It wasn’t until my personal life began to fall apart that I decided enough was enough. I had to confront my past. I had to pay back the money. So I began to save up. It wasn’t easy; no matter what I put aside from each paycheck, it seemed like a drop in the bucket. I even opened a special account.” Pinny reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope. “Yesterday I made my final deposit at the bank. I couldn’t believe it when I pulled out the old menu and checked the numbers; the balance in the account was exactly what I owed you. I had reached my goal.The time had come to pay you back in full. “I feel like a bird that’s been freed!” he declared with emotion. “I’m sure my mazal is going to change for the better—I just know it! Things have already begun to look brighter.” I looked at the envelope he was holding in midair. “I thought about dropping it off at your house with a note,” he continued. “I even wrote you a letter, but I knew I had to give it to you in person. It was the right thing to do. When I heard that your friend was making a wedding tonight, I jumped at the opportunity. “I knew I would find you here.
For hours I tried to muster up the courage to approach you but I couldn’t do it; I was too much of a coward. It wasn’t until I saw you leaving that I realized it was now or never. So I ran after you—and here I am.” Averting his gaze, he added, “I also felt I had to deliver it in person because I still had to ask you for forgiveness.” He wiped away a tear. “Mr. Greenberg, please understand that this was my way of doing teshuvah. I don’t even know how I have the nerve to ask you. For years you put your trust in me—and I blew it. Still, I hope you can find it in your heart to grant me mechilah.” His voice cracked. Outside, the wind was blowing, but inside the car it was warm. “Pinny,” I said slowly, “listen to me carefully.” He looked up, his eyes glistening with hope. “Yes, I forgive you wholeheartedly. Back then I thought the world of you. Now, after the conversation we just had, I still think the world of you—and even more than before.”