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.

Blessing Management


This week’s Torah portion describes the bountiful blessings promised to our people by God, if (ekev) we obey the laws of Torah.

  • God will love you, multiply you, “bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil…” (Deuteronomy 7:13, 8:1).
  • God will bless you above all other peoples, protect your fertility and guard your health (7:14-15).
  • Divine power will secure your conquest of the land (7:18).
  • Adonai will lead the crossing (9:3).
  • The Promised Land is “a good land, flowing with streams and springs and fountains … a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing….” (8:7-9).
  • The land, like the people, is blessed with Divine protection (11:12).
  • God will cause rain in due season, resulting in abundant grass, cattle and produce (11:13-15).
  • Every spot on which your foot treads shall be yours (11:24).

Together with these blessings, of course, come the warnings. Failure to observe Torah laws doesn’t just mean a lack of reward. It means that the world becomes a more dangerous, chaotic place. We become more vulnerable to external forces — be they military enemies or nature itself — without the guidance and protection of Torah.

People often struggle with the Deuteronomic perspective on loyalty to mitzvot and its consequences. Obviously, subverters of Torah can and do prosper, at least temporarily. By the same token, the righteous suffer, and Ekev itself testifies that God tests, even afflicts, His beloveds (8:16). It’s a vast oversimplification to read the Torah text as a rigid statement of reward and punishment. Ekev is championing the rewards of Torah, but its theology is nuanced.

According to Ekev, even blessings present a certain danger. When “your silver and gold have increased and everything you own prospers” (8:13), you may forget God and disregard your Source. Don’t become haughty and say, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (8:17). Nor dare you say to yourself, “I am blessed because of my righteousness” (9:4). Instead, “remember that God is the One who gives you power to be prosperous and victorious, in fulfillment of the covenant made with your ancestors” (8:18).

People tend to believe that they have earned their own good fortune. Ekev insists that it is neither our prowess nor our goodness that prospers us. It is God’s power and grace. Prosperity is the major theme and blessing in this Torah portion. And that is precisely why this portion urges us to guard against both arrogance and self-righteousness in the face of abundance.

We who live in Los Angeles — the City of Angels and, too often, of excess — ought to know something about the dangers of prosperity. We can testify that radical blessings are more difficult to handle than one might expect. Abundance can — and does — inspire gratitude and tzedakah. The more people have, the more they can use their blessings for positive and spiritual ends. But it’s also true that abundance is used to justify self-importance, jadedness and materialism. The more people have, the more they can squander their blessings on negative and corrupting influences. This perspective is reflected in one reading of the priestly blessing: “May God bless you and protect you” (Numbers 6:24) has been interpreted to mean, “May God bless you — and also protect you from your blessings.”

When you talk to people who have achieved radical blessings, very often they speak warmly about the days when they struggled. There was a purity, a simplicity, a potential before the blessing that cannot be completely owned or recaptured once it arrives. This attitude may stem partly from misplaced nostalgia; the “good old days” weren’t always as good as we remember. But there is at least a germ of truth in the nostalgia.

The days when you are hungry (physically or spiritually) are often more rewarding, more full of life, somehow, than the days when you can “eat without stint.” The rabbis of the Talmud debate why “affliction of the soul” on Yom Kippur should necessarily mean fasting (Yoma 74b). Sometimes, eating is an affliction. Manna, a food, is called an affliction in Ekev (8:16).

The Torah portion and this section of Talmud hold similar views of human nature. Left to our own devices, we will take our blessings for granted. We may convince ourselves that we have earned them, and we will surely go looking for the proverbial “more” — which is never enough.

A key solution suggested in both Ekev and Yoma is what I would dub “blessing management.” We need to consciously notice and respond to our blessings. We may occasionally need to renounce or forgo them (as in fasting on Yom Kippur) to regain appreciation. We have to be vigilant against arrogance, self-righteousness, abuse of power and all the other potential pitfalls of prosperity. Above all, we must remember and connect with the Source from which all blessings come.

These strategies can sound like clichés, until you think of your own blessings and really wake up to how much you have. Then a deep gratitude comes … and then, with the realization of all the grace bestowed on you, humility. Then, perhaps, embarrassment arises over foolish pride of “ownership” in your blessings. And, sometimes, we are able to determine a best next step. What is each blessing calling us to do, to give, to share? Our blessings are talking to us. Ekev tishmeun, if only we would listen.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom (www.makom.org) and a frequent scholar-in-residence. Her new Web site (www.rabbidebra.com) offers teachings and daily meditations on preparing for the High Holy Days.

Bogeymen Unmasked


“Promises” is a beautiful documentary and, in light of thedaily body count of Israeli and Palestinian victims, a heartbreaking film.

A nominee for best documentary at last year’s AcademyAwards, “Promises” was filmed in and around Jerusalem between 1997 and 2000,while the Oslo treaty hopes for peace were still flickering.

Its “stars” are seven kids, four Israelis and threePalestinians, between the ages of 9 and 13, whose normal childhood pursuits andproblems are overlaid by the suspicions and hatred of the “other,” transmittedby parents, teachers and religious guides. The children live in West and East Jerusalem, in a religious Jewish settlement and in a Palestinian refugee camp.And although their homes are within a few miles of each other, none has evermet a youngster from the other side.

As the 106-minute film introduces us to the homes, schoolsand playgrounds of each of the children, it dawns on the American Jewish viewerhow little is known, not only of the lifestyle of an Arab family, but even ofthe daily ritual in a strictly Orthodox home.

Co-director B.Z. Goldberg (with Justine Shapiro), a youngAmerican raised in Jerusalem, has a rare knack of bonding with the youngsters,and they reciprocate by unaffectedly telling their stories, often with brutalhonesty. We meet Sanabel, a lovely Arab girl, whose journalist father has beenheld for two years in an Israeli prison as a security risk; Mahmoud, a blond,blue-eyed Hamas supporter, and Faraj, who lives in the Daheishe refugee camp.

Their Israeli counterparts are Yarko and Daniel, bright andhandsome twins living in a secular home; Shlomo, a fervently Orthodox yeshivastudent, and Moishe, who grows up in a Jewish settlement surrounded by Arabs.

Though separated by generations of hostility, some of thekids express a natural curiosity to meet the fabled bogeymen on the other side.With Goldberg as the intermediary, Yako and Daniel visit Faraj, and, speakingin halting English, the boys soon find a more common language in their sharedenthusiasm for soccer and volleyball. This scene was shot in 1997 and during arevisit two years later, the small spark of tentative friendship had all butatrophied, more by neglect than animosity.

Looking at the situation in Israel today, the precariousmoment when the children saw each other as human beings, rather than enemies,has passed again.

It may well take another generation to rekindle the spark,but “Promises” is a needed reminder that there can be an alternative in the Middle East to hatred and bloodshed.

“Promises” will be screening Sunday,Feb. 23, at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. at Tarbut V’Torah, 5200 Bonita Canyon Drive,Irvine. For more information, call (714) 755-0340, ext. 134, or visit www.pjff.org .  

Bogeymen Unmasked


"Promises" is a beautiful documentary and, in light of the daily body count of Israeli and Palestinian victims, a heartbreaking film.

Considered a favorite for best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards, "Promises" was filmed in and around Jerusalem between 1997 and 2000, while the Oslo treaty hopes for peace were still flickering.

Its "stars" are seven children, four Israelis and three Palestinians, between the ages of 9 and 13, whose normal childhood pursuits and problems are overlaid by the suspicions and hatred of the "other," transmitted by parents, teachers and religious guides. The children live in West and East Jerusalem, in a religious Jewish settlement and in a Palestinian refugee camp. And although their homes are within a few miles of each other, none has ever met a youngster from the other side.

As the 106-minute film introduces us to the homes, schools and playgrounds of each of the children, it dawns on the American Jewish viewer how little is known, not only of the lifestyle of an Arab family but even of the daily ritual in a strictly Orthodox home.

Co-director B.Z. Goldberg (with Justine Shapiro), a young American raised in Jerusalem, who also narrates the film, has a rare knack of bonding with the youngsters, and they reciprocate by unaffectedly telling their stories, often with brutal honesty. We meet Sanabel, a lovely Arab girl, whose journalist father has been held for two years in an Israeli prison as a security risk; Mahmoud, a blond, blue-eyed Hamas supporter, and Faraj, who lives in the Daheishe refugee camp.

Their Israeli counterparts are Yarko and Daniel, bright and handsome twins living in a secular home; Shlomo, a fervently Orthodox yeshiva student, and Moishe, who grows up in a Jewish settlement surrounded by Arabs.

Though separated by generations of hostility, some of the kids express a natural curiosity to meet the fabled bogeymen on the other side. With Goldberg as the intermediary, Yarko and Daniel visit Faraj, and, speaking in halting English, the boys soon find a more common language in their shared enthusiasm for soccer and volleyball. This scene was shot in 1997, and during a revisit two years later, the small spark of tentative friendship had all but atrophied, more by neglect than animosity.

Looking at the situation in Israel today, the precarious moment when the children saw each other as human beings, rather than enemies, has passed again.

It may well take another generation to rekindle the spark, but "Promises" is a needed reminder that there can be an alternative in the Middle East to hatred and bloodshed.

"Promises" opens March 22 at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theater, 9036 Wilshire Blvd. Beverly Hills. Call (310) 274-6869 for times.