Madoff’s Redemption


If you’re an active member of the Jewish community — and perhaps even if you’re not — there’s almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It’slike a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.

First, of course, there’s the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.

More than dry numbers, though, there’s the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people — Jews and non-Jews — who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life’s savings overnight.

Then there’s the fear of the uncertain — what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.

Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all “one big lie” — and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?

Well, never.

Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that’s reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can’t speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual “my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges” response — so that at least we would have been broken in gently.

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.

But let’s remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.

Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?

How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he’s not an epidemic.

Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don’t hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There’s no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I’m sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let’s not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.

Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose — it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.

Complete Madoff CoverageFrankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.

I’m talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone — maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person — maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?

Madoff’s “swindle of the century” is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.

Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students — many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers — that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a “spiritual experience” or contribute to the shul’s building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.

This is the Judaism of ethics — the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.

It’s the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.

Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Meditating spies


Ah, so much chaos, so little time.

In this parsha we deal with the message of the spies; insecurity leading to depression and fear; rebellion and anger by the people, Moses and God; and several severe punishments, including the major one of wandering in the desert for an additional 40 years and the minor one (in size and scope, but not in significance) of killing the Shabbat wood collector. We end with a collective breath, and more importantly, a call for awareness and attention to the inner workings of our soul, with the final paragraph instructing us about tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of our garments and tallitot (prayer shawls), which is said daily as the third paragraph of the Shema prayer.

Why is there so much disillusionment, fear and unsettling behavior in this parsha? And what can we learn from the chaos?

In practicing and teaching Jewish meditation — a central focus of my rabbinate work alongside my passion for social justice and peace — I have come to understand that an awareness of our inner spirit can greatly affect how we interpret events in the world around us, as well as how we perceive ourselves and how Judaism can help ground us in lives of meaning and fortitude. After 12 years of almost daily practice, I understand that each day brings new challenges and new barriers, along with old habits and lifelong obstacles, all of which are trying to thwart my progress.

As we say in the liturgy: Just as God renews each day, so, too, must we renew. And this is what I see happening in Shelach Lecha, albeit in reverse order.

The lack of confidence that the spies bring back — embodied in the famous line, “And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33) — is a classic case of not being fully aware and awake. The fear that the spies bring back, which may have been justified, overtakes them and causes the entire Israelite people to lose faith, lose hope and react with chaotic perplexity.

In meditation, one can begin to develop a sense of connection to God, one’s own heart and the notion that the more awareness we have in our life, the better decisions we are able to make. We don’t read of the spies taking any time to process their findings, meditate on their experience before sharing it; rather, they blow into the camp, rally the fears of the people and cause a scene that cannot be stopped, one that will climax next week with the rebellion of Korah.

I find it fascinating that this one line about the grasshoppers speaks volumes about the inner life of the spies. Their real mistake was not in sharing their fears, but rather in not being present in their sharing, such that they conveyed not only physical fears, but also their own unprocessed and undifferentiated emotional and spiritual fears.

Moses loses control of the people and almost loses control of the whole exodus enterprise. According to the Talmud, the spies, and thereby the entire people, actually think that not only can’t they overcome the inhabitants of the land, but that even God is outmatched.

In a challenging reading of the text, Sotah 35a says that Numbers 13:31, which reads, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than we,” should be read, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than Him [God].” They translate the word memenu, as “than him,” rather than the traditional reading “than us.” So, in their fear, the spies not only reject the notion of conquering the land, they reject the whole premise that God is with them at all. Without a sense of presence and consciousness, God is lost to them.

And, it is this mentality that causes the overreaction to the man collecting wood on Shabbat. There is so much fear, so much confusion and lack of confidence that the people, including Moses, don’t know how to respond.

I don’t see this story as one telling us that we should kill all those who break rules on Shabbat — we would all be dead! Rather, it’s a parable of what happens when we don’t bring ourselves fully present to any situation in our lives, including religious practice. When we act out of fear, we don’t make good decisions.

It is for this reason that I see the final portion about the tzitzit fitting in. When we stop to contemplate the higher meaning and value in life, a connection to God and our souls, we find ourselves making more healthy decisions. Reading back the idea of tzitzit into the rest of the parsha, I see it as coming as a corrective to the series of fear-induced decisions that plague the people, leading to chaos, 40 years of wandering in the desert and killing someone for a small violation of a newfound religious practice. By taking time to breathe and notice the tzitzit, we find a way to operate more calmly, with greater confidence coupled with greater humility. This combination is a hallmark of Jewish meditation, one that is signified by the gathering of the tzitzit. Certainly, if our ancestors had practiced a bit more awareness meditation, imagine how differently things might have turned out.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He welcomes your comments at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

+