Over the past years, I have written stories, speeches, articles, poems and books, but never had I been asked to write a letter as this. When the man first called me to talk about the situation, I could not imagine that he was serious, but I came to realize that he was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.
I first met Yosef Herter*, a chassidishe Yid from Brooklyn, at a weekend resort in the summer of 2018. Over Shabbos, we became quite friendly and exchanged many divrei Torah and stories.
I had not heard from him in months, but in November of 2018, he surprised me with an unforgettable phone call. Reb Yosef told me that he was involved in something epic, and although he knew that most people would probably disagree with his actions, he was firmly convinced that he had to do what he was about to do.
“This is especially so,” he said, “since my father’s first yahrtzeit is coming up and I want to do what’s right as a zechus for his neshomah.”
Most readers will find the following hard to believe.
Reb Yosef is an insurance broker who has been working for Montana Life* for more than twenty years. In 2015, he sold two life insurance policies that were surrendered at the end of the first policy year. Yet, in August 2016, Montana Life sent him a commission of $49,668.31. Reb Yosef felt it was an error and so he called the company.
They assured him that he deserved the commission and should keep the money. He was not convinced; the next morning, he had his bookkeeper call Montana Life telling them that Mr. Herter had reservations about taking this money, since he felt it was a gross error. The company replied that it was he making the mistake, and that the money was his.
Remarkably, a year later in August 2017, Montana Life sent him another commission on the same lapsed policies. It was for the same amount: $49,668.31. The astronomical total that he had been given was $99,336.62. Again, he contacted company personnel, who assured him the money was his.
In August 2018, he received a letter from Montana Life that rattled him. In essence, they wrote, “We now realize that the two commission payments of $49,668.31 we paid you were mistakes. We ask you now to return the entire $99,336.62.”
On August 30, Reb Yosef called Mr. Thomas Hanley*, Director of Operations at Montana Life, and told him that they could check their recorded conversations of the two calls both he and his bookkeeper had with Montana Life in 2016, which would show that he was hesitant in keeping the money as he believed they erred in dispensing it. Yet Montana Life, at the time of the calls, insisted that he could keep it.
For the next two months, Reb Yosef waited for a reply. On Friday, November 9, 2018, he heard from Montana Life, who wrote that in deference to their error, he could keep $49,668.31 and return the other half. Reb Yosef called his friend, Mr. Ira Lipsius, a renowned attorney and expert in insurance matters, who told him that legally, Montana Life was on weak grounds to insist upon any refund and therefore, if he would like, a better deal could be negotiated.
However, to Reb Yosef, the timing was incredible. Two days later, November 11, would be the day that he was to finish saying Kaddish for his late father. It was then that Reb Yosef called me and said, “For 11 months I have been saying Yisgadal v’yiskadash shemei rabbah, (May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified) – now, I have to fulfill it. I am going to return the entire amount and I need you to write me the letter that will accompany the check.”
“I want to make a kiddush Hashem,” he added emphatically. “I want them to know that a Jew is honest and would not keep a penny that is not rightfully his, and I need you to stress that in the letter.”
Though I was astounded by his integrity, I protested, “But they are allowing you to keep half of it! Why not give it to various mosdos and needy people, and it’ll be a zechus for your father? In this manner, you are not keeping the money for yourself and simultaneously many will benefit. I am not asking you to do anything against the law and halacha. They are giving it to you on their own volition.”
However, Reb Yosef, with the full support and encouragement of his wife Rivka*, would not hear of it. He sought the counsel of his rov, Rav Avrohom Hersh Wosner of the Satmar kehillah in Monsey, who told him that because the company was only asking for half the money, he was not obligated to return any more than what they requested. However, there was a great opportunity for kiddush Hashem by paying the full $99,336.62, because Montana Life really knew that the whole amount had been paid in error.
Rav Wosner cited the well-known Be’er HaGolah in Choshen Mishpat, 348:2, which he often heard from his late grandfather, the renowned posek Rav Shmuel Wosner, when he counseled people about honesty in business: “I write this for future generations…many have sanctified Hashem’s name and have returned [funds] where gentiles erred in significant amounts, they prospered, became wealthy and were successful and left substantial amounts to their descendants.”
The rov stressed the importance of an accompanying letter that would clarify the honesty and integrity involved in making this decision.
And that is exactly what he did…well, almost. I took Reb Yosef to a prominent talmid chochom, who advised him to go in person to return the money to the Director of Operations. The rov said, “Let them see a chassidishe Yid who is scrupulous to the penny. That indeed will make a great kiddush Hashem.”
Reb Yosef set up an appointment, travelled more than three hours to the Montana Life office from where he was getting his correspondence, and personally handed the check and letter to Mr. Thomas Hanley*, Director of Operations. He explained the nature of the visit and Mr. Hanley was flabbergasted. Never had anything like this ever happened to Montana Life. The two men, the chossid from Brooklyn and the corporate man from Montana Life, chatted amicably for half an hour.
Two weeks later, Reb Yosef received a glowing letter from the Head of Advisor Operations, Donald Vinten*, which included these sentences:
“For me, this is a once in a career type of letter, realizing the type of professionalism and integrity we so desperately need in our profession, culture, neighborhoods and families….I wanted to take this opportunity to recognize the outstanding characteristics you possess and convey how moved and proud I was reading your letter…Thank you again for the inspiration you have delivered through your decision and letter…You certainly have set a very high bar for others to follow and shown the power of honesty and integrity in our society.”
For these words to be written by the head of operations of one of the Fortune 500 companies – with more than 10,000 agents and brokers throughout the United States – is simply remarkable.
Reb Yosef was correct. He made a kiddush Hashem in a magnitude that few had ever witnessed before. He did it in honor of his late father, who was his role model ever since he was a child. Remarkably, the letter from Montana Life was written just two days after his father’s first yahrtzeit. He feels it’s a message to continue his father’s legacy of honesty, integrity and kiddush shem shomayim.
Few of us will ever get opportunities to be mekadesh shem shomayim on that scale, but we must learn from the incident to always weigh our actions in our daily lives, so that we sanctify the Name of Hashem in all that we do.