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Payback Time

Yonatan had access to unlimited funds. Then what was the lying, stealing, and manipulating about?


Yonatan Levi, a boy from a wealthy family in the Five Towns, had been implicated in several thefts at his Jerusalem yeshivah. Although my suspicion of antisocial personality disorder made me wary of how much he could really be helped, especially after getting off to a bumpy start by telling me a series of lies and petty pilfering, he showed a desire to change. PART III


After our session, to which Yonatan actually showed up, I was cautiously optimistic that Yonatan would be willing to put in the necessary work to begin healing. Yonatan didn’t need any of the things he’d apparently stolen from other bochurim, and with his dad’s open credit card, he could certainly have afforded the five-shekel iced tea he pilfered from my office fridge. Those escapades were giving him some kind of thrill, although when he finally faced himself and broke down in real tears, it was clear that underneath his cool, charming veneer, he was miserable and full of self-loathing.

Following our session, I called Rav King, the longtime mashgiach at Yonatan’s yeshivah. We discussed my recommendations for ongoing treatment — which was mostly about showing up for the therapeutic process — as well as a clear set of rules if he planned to stay in the dorms.

“Basic stuff,” Rav King said. “Not asking for a doctorate in derech eretz or the latter perakim of Mesilas Yesharim, just that he not steal anything or get drunk and disorderly.”

“And if he does?”

Rav King had to make a decision on this, because habitual rule-breakers habitually break the rules, and having clear consequences provides a framework for success. Defining those consequences clearly and objectively allows for less wiggle room in the manipulation department.

Rav King and I both realized that unless Yonatan was dedicated to making some serious changes in his life, things were only going to get more complicated and frustrating for him, as the doors of opportunity were already beginning to close.

“By the way,” said Rav King, “I just want to make sure the money transfer for the sessions went through.”

Actually, I told him, I didn’t see any money yet.

“Oy, you never got the transfer? Yonatan’s father assured me that he made it a few days ago. I’ll contact him to make sure he had the right account information.”

Somehow, I had the sinking suspicion that this wasn’t an issue of knowing the SWIFT banking code. During our session, Yonatan mentioned — quite proudly —  how his father always manages to wheedle his way out of paying for things, how he always managed to wind up on top in any deal. That being said, I wanted to judge favorably and a few hundred bucks wasn’t going to get in the way of giving Yonatan the chance to turn his life around. Meanwhile, I’d let Rav King handle it.

The next day, my secretary told me Mr. Levi wanted to book a slot to call me. I assumed we’d be having a “family conference.”

“Dr. Freedman, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me,” he said heartily over the phone. “But as you can imagine, we’re both very busy and it’s time to talk tachlis.”

I reassured him that he’d have the time he needed. “Actually, Mr. Levi, my secretary booked us for a full 45-minute conversation. So all I need to do before we get started is to confirm that you’ve made the initial payment, as it still hasn’t shown up in the account.”

“That’s ridiculous. I sent it this morning, I’m a three-screen guy and I’m looking at the transfer for my son’s appointment right now.”

“Okay, great to hear. And just a reminder that we’re talking about two sessions, just like it appears on the statement you received.”

Mr. Levi sounded pretty upset — and aggressive. “You’re going to charge me for the first appointment he missed because of traffic? How’s that his fault? And anyway, he couldn’t find the place!”

Hmm… this was beginning to sound familiar, almost like Yonatan himself. I referred him to the explicit practice policies that he’d been provided with prior to Yonatan’s initial appointment where his financial responsibilities were explicitly spelled out, including payment for a no-show.

I took a deep breath and asked Hashem for help in changing the trajectory of the conversation.

“Actually, Mr. Levi, this is the fundamental issue. Your son missed his appointment because he wasn’t responsible, because he was trying to see what he could get away with, not because of nonexistent traffic.”

“You’re calling my son a liar?! First, these punks in yeshivah accuse him of being a thief, even though he has more than enough money to buy anything they falsely accused him of taking! And if we want to talk about geneivah, let’s talk about how the yeshivah treats him like a crook and sends him to a psychiatrist for no reason, even after I made a donation of $18,000 during their Purim campaign!”

So it was true — Yonatan had access to unlimited funds. Then what was the lying, stealing, and manipulating about? It’s like “rich shoplifter syndrome,” a social phenomenon where statistically, a shockingly high percent of shoplifters are actually wealthy. Is it a coping mechanism for repressed trauma, unresolved losses, a secret call for attention, the need to challenge themselves when all other areas of life seem to be handed to them on a silver platter? A thrill to outsmart the establishment?

There’s a theory that high-income people are more likely to cheat and steal because they harbor feelings of entitlement and self-interest, which sabotages their moral compass. In one experiment at a busy four-way intersection, the drivers of luxury cars were less likely to obey the right-of-way laws than the drivers of cheaper or older model cars.

“Mr. Levi, I would say that honesty is a big theme here. Your son invented excuses, and then took an iced tea out of my fridge and lied to my face about it—”

“And you want me to pay for that, too?! What are you, broke?! I think you’ve wasted enough of my time!”

“I’m not wasting your time with iced tea, Mr. Levi,” I said in my most soothing professional voice, although I was getting a bit rattled myself. “I’m letting you know that your son needs to own up to his problematic behavior before he becomes a problematic adult, ruining his professional and personal life with a web of lies and broken promises.”

“I’m hanging up, Freedman. Thanks for wasting my time. Don’t expect me to pay for this mussar derashah and don’t expect me to wire you any money for the traffic jam that made my son late to your appointment!”

I didn’t expect a dime from him. He was a grown-up version of his kid. Luckily, Rav King had a keen grasp of the situation and agreed to cover ongoing treatment for his student.

A few days later, Yonatan arrived to my office approximately 14 minutes late for his appointment.

He smiled sheepishly. “Don’t worry, Dr. Freedman, I’m not making up any stories this time. I was just late.”

I noticed the skin around his left eye was an interesting shade of purple.

“Oh, looking at this black eye? Yep, won’t try to tell you a story this time. Definitely deserved that one.” He told me how, while everyone was in seder, he’d climbed up to a storage area above a bochur’s top bunk in order to snatch a new set of mini-speakers and somehow lost his footing.

“You know,” he told me, “I would always feel rotten about myself after I’d taken something, after the rush wore off. This time, I actually felt sort of good.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 904)

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