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Dear Jido,

When I was much younger, I made a terrible mistake. I stole about $500 worth of clothing and accessories from a store near my home. I had long since forgotten about it until one day recently I went by the store and felt a terrible sense of guilt. I can't even walk past the store anymore without feeling ashamed. I am thinking about going to the store and “confessing” and giving them the value of the items taken, but I don't want to go to jail for theft or have a criminal record. I am really torn up inside about the right thing to do. Can you give me some advice?

Feeling Guilty

Dear Feeling Guilty,

What a tremendous kindness Hashem as done for you. The Torah says – “V’hasheev et hagezelah asher gazal”–and you must return the stolen item that you stole. You now have the opportunity to perform a positive commandment that you might otherwise
have overlooked.

So, let’s take it step by step. I will assume that even when you were “much younger”you were still above bar/bat mitzvah and therefore fully responsible for your actions.

There is something called a statute of limitations. That means that after a certain amount of time, a person cannot be prosecuted for having committed a crime. For shoplifting under $1,000, the statute of limitations is two years in New York. For a felony (over $1,000) the statute of limitations is five years, and for grand larceny, well, let’s not think about it.

Shamayimhas another set of standards. The statute of limitations is forever. Hence, the kindness that has been shown to you.

It would seem obvious that you no longer have the clothing or accessories you took. And if you did, they probably wouldn’t be worth the same value as when they were taken. Therefore, you should return the $500 in cash.

Embarrassing to have to confront the store owner? Perhaps. Praiseworthy? You bet.
He might quickly forgive the debt. (Make sure he is an owner or a manager that is authorized
to do so.) He might also give you a hug and a kiss or even invite you over for dinner to show his children what it means to be a Jew.

We have all made mistakes as we were growing up. No question, it was wrong to steal. Taking advantage of the opportunity to mend your ways and pay back for your mistake is a great Kiddush Hashem.