The Wallet Test


What do people do when they find wallets on the floor, for real?

Expectations vs. Reality

In 2013, three universities joined forces to conduct a rare experiment. Researchers from the universities of Michigan, Utah, and Zurich “lost” 17,000 wallets in 355 cities in 40 countries around the world, to see whether the finders of those wallets would be honest enough to return them to their owners.

Each wallet included a key, a grocery list, and business cards, and half of them contained roughly 13 US dollars. They were clear wallets, to ensure that the finders would realize that they held money even without opening them. These wallets were left out in lobbies and other public locations, awaiting unsuspecting finders.

The sociologists and economists were polled before the study, and they all believed that the more money there would be in the wallet, the less likely it was to be returned. However, the very opposite turned out to be the case: 46% of the wallets without money were returned to their owners, while more than sixty percent of the wallets with money were returned.

This was not what they expected.

The next step was to leave larger amounts in the wallet, up to a hundred dollars, to increase the temptation. But, to everyone’s surprise, the trend continued: the larger the amount, the greater the chance of the wallet being returned to its owner. 72 percent of those wallets were returned — and this was true across the board, in most countries included in the experiment.

Interestingly, this was most pronounced in Western, democratic countries, where there is a strong sense that every person is given the freedom and trusted to make the right decisions.

The researchers tried hard to explain this phenomenon; one claimed that people tend to care about the well-being of others, so the more money there was, the higher the motivation to return it. Another said that people do not want to see themselves as thieves, so the more money there is, the less of a chance the fellow will keep it.

But maybe there is something deeper here, something about the human soul.


In this week’s Torah portion, we read for the first time about a nisayon, a test of character. At the end of the portion, the story of Isaac’s binding takes place, and it begins with the words, “And G-d tested Abraham” (Vayera 22:1). G-d put Abraham through a test to determine how dedicated he would be and how far he was willing to go for G-d’s command.

Now, our sages in the Ethics of our Fathers tell us that this was not the first test of character. He underwent 10 such tests, and he passed them all with flying colors (5:3).

When we take a look at Abraham’s life and the long list of tests he experienced, we find the same tendency: the harder the test, the greater Abraham worked to withstand it and demonstrates his faith in G-d. You would think that with each test of faith, his faith would weaken and waver, but the opposite seems to be the case.

When he was 75 years old, G-d told him to pick up everything and leave his homeland for a new place — without even telling him the destination. Abraham didn’t ask questions; he took his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot, and headed out onto the road. At some point on his way, he understood that he was meant to reach the land of Canaan.

He arrives at Canaan and he discovers something that he had never seen before. The land was undergoing a famine (Lech Lecha 13:10). This is the first time the Torah describes a famine, and according to Pirkei D’Rabbi Elazar (Chapter 26), this was the first ever famine in history, and it took place only in Canaan.

Again, Abraham didn’t complain; he didn’t accuse G-d of sending him into a difficult situation. Instead, he got up and traveled to Egypt.

That wasn’t simple either. When he arrived in Egypt, his wife was taken to the house of pharaoh. He must have felt as if G-d had abandoned him; he had been promised to be the father of a nation, but no children were born to him and his only close family member, his wife, was taken from him. He had nobody else in the world; aside from his nephew, all his family members had been left behind in Haran.

Finally, he receives his wife back and returns to Canaan. But at that point, problems begin with his only nephew, Lot. His nephew’s shepherds were unbecoming individuals, and were casting a pall on Abraham’s reputation. He had no choice but to separate from them — and his dear nephew decided to settle down in Sodom, the most corrupt place on the planet.

Not long afterwards, a world war erupted between all the kings of the area, and his nephew was taken captive. Abraham gathers his own private army and goes to war, risking his own life, to save… the very nephew he couldn’t get along with. In the end, he rescues Lot — who immediately returns to his home in Sodom. (According to some opinions, the whole war was orchestrated in order to take Lot captive, because he was the nephew of the famous Abraham (Midrash Hagadol)).

In between all of these stories, G-d makes repeated promises to Abraham. “Don’t worry Abraham, I am your shield, your reward is very great.” “Look up at the sky and count the stars … so will be your offspring” (Lech Lecha 15:1, 5). But those promises were not reflected in reality. Nonetheless, Abraham did not lose his faith; instead, his faith only got stronger.

The tests didn’t get easier. When he was 99, the real drama started: G-d told him, at that advanced age, to circumcise himself. Again, he didn’t ask questions and proceeded to circumcise himself and Ishmael his son, who was 13 years old at the time.

A year later, a miracle happened. Isaac was born. But then, the story takes a very difficult turn. Sarah forces Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael. Whoever reads the story feels uncomfortable. Abraham, himself, clearly wasn’t happy about it. But G-d tells him to listen to his wife and banish his child.

What was behind the story? Why did G-d tell Abraham to banish his oldest son? Rashi explains (21:9), based on the Midrash, that Sarah caught Ishmael trying to murder Isaac with a bow and arrow, and a reported it to Abraham (Bireishis Rabbah 53, Tosefta Sotah 6)).

And finally, the last test — the sacrifice of Isaac. That too, Abraham was willing to follow G-d’s instructions.

The Lesson

This entire story teaches us that while conventional wisdom might assume that people will choose to do the easier tasks and leave the difficult ones alone, the truth is the opposite. The greater the challenge, the more one is inspired to engage with it. The more money there was in a wallet, the greater chance there was that it would be returned to its owner. 

The same is true in Judaism. The conventional wisdom might say that Jews will agree to do easy mitzvot but refuse to do the difficult ones, but reality has indicated the opposite. The most difficult mitzvahs are those which are kept. Everyone does circumcision; countless Jews fast on Yom Kippur. More people come to synagogue fasting on Yom Kippur than come to synagogue on a regular Shabbat to eat cholent. You’re right, Yom Kippur might be just once a year, but they don’t come to eat cholent once a year either.

We saw the same idea with Russian Jewry as the Rebbe mentioned many times — when faced with obstacles, they went above and beyond to observe Judaism, but when they reached the free world and nobody was blocking their way, they were not so enthusiastic.

Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, or someone else, to a difficult mitzvah. The greater the challenge, the more enthusiasm you will uncover.

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