November 15, 2018

Struggling to be Human and Holy

By Rabbi Mark Borovitz

10:00am – I have finished my last counseling session and I meet a new resident who is a compulsive gambler. We begin to talk and he is in some denial regarding his issues. Kyle (a fictitious name) is aware that he has suffered losses in his life, materially and emotionally; he is just bewildered that he is considered a compulsive gambler. I ask him why and he starts to tell me his story. He doesn't go to casinos or racetracks, he does not have a bookie or bet on sports events. He is a serious “investor” in the stock market. Yes, he says, he has had a lot of losses but, he proudly proclaims, he has really hit it big at times. I ask him if he ever saved any of his “winnings” from when he hit it big and he drops his head and says no in an embarrassed tone. I ask him what he means by “serious investor” and who's money he invested?

Kyle tells me that it was his money as well as money from his family and the real problem is that none of his family, including his wife, sees the brilliance of his strategy! What is the strategy, I ask. He proudly proclaims: ” I am a shorter.” “Huh?” I ask. Kyle tells me that he looks for companies that he thinks will go down in the market, they are being overvalued, execs not as good as they think they are, etc. and bets against them. I ask him how he finds these companies and he doesn't give me a clear response. I am intrigued by this. He tells me that Hedge Funds do this all the time, they invest long term and short the companies they invest in as well, hence Hedge Funds. I don't go into that area with Kyle, rather I ask him what he does to determine these “bad” companies and why not to invest in companies he believes in? Kyle's response is outrageous to me.

“Rabbi, you don't get it! I go out and find these companies and then I start talking smack about them on the Internet. I never actually accuse them of wrong-doing, I just ask questions that can undermine the investor confidence and then watch the stock go down! It is like being King of the World when that happens, it is a process that has been around for a long time. I just think I am an artist about it!”

My mouth is hanging open and I feel my blood boiling! I am about to erupt like Mount Vesuvius. I am livid and agree with Kyle. “You may or may not be a compulsive gambler, Kyle. You are, without a doubt, a person who perpetrates evil on others, however. Your glee at the misfortunes of a company is disgusting and your attempts to cause the downfall of others is ethically, morally and spiritually criminal. No wonder your family threw you out of their home and don't want anything to do with you. You are bankrupt financially, you and I agree. You are also bankrupt in your soul, mind and emotions.”

I am on a roll and I feel myself wanting to go ballistic, to Defcon 5! I am trying to hold it back, yet I am so angry it is hard. I take a breath and look at Kyle and his bewildered looking at me and I realize I am a looking at myself 25+ years ago. I was that guy who revelled in the misfortunes of others as long as I profited. I stopped myself from DEFCON5 by remembering that Kyle wasn't me and I didn't have to be mad at myself or him for my past errors. I remembered that I was redeemed and Kyle could redeem himself! I engaged with Kyle in a different discussion. I talked to him about the difference between legal and ethical living. I explained to him that what he was doing was evil because he was using the vulnerabilities of another, the companies he was shorting, against them. He was appealing to the lowest part of himself and others, the desire to “win at any cost.”

He wanted to be “king of the world” at someone else's demise, not based on his own merits. Kyle argued with me, of course, and I continued to explain to him that God created the world and brought order to chaos. Judaism is a way of living that does the same. We are created in the Image of God and our responsibility is to bring order to chaos, distinguish between right and wrong, light and dark, etc. When I told him that I learned from Meir Tamari, a leading financial ethicist in Israel, that there are 28 laws about Kosher Food and over 100 laws about Kosher Money, Kyle was shocked. How we make money, how we spend it, how we save it, how we do righteous acts (Tzedakah), etc. are what is important.

I was struck at how easy it is for so many people to revel in the demise of others rather than helping others succeed. I am always sad at the people who attack me, Beit T’Shuvah, their own families, Israel, Judaism, other people all of whom try in our own imperfect way to lift others up to their highest selves. I ask you all to consider these two questions with me: 1) What is the pleasure I/we get out of watching/helping the demise of good people? 2) How can all of us help ourselves and others be focused on creating goodness rather than promoting destruction and evil?