Friday, December 19, 2008

ON FAITH AND THE POWER OF ONE; Chanukah reflections on the Madoff Scandal

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

The financial world is reeling from the Madoff scandal. Countless individuals and institutions have been hurt, their finances erased, by the actions of one man, who, over decades, abused the trust of relationships and the bonds of community to feed an insatiable materialistic need to fill an empty spiritual void.

True, he was not the only culprit in the financial scandals which plague us today. And individuals of all backgrounds and creeds had some role to play in the current economic morass. But the sheer scale and grandiosity of his malfeasance serves as a lightning rod for many to cast blame on the Jewish people as a group for our collective national pain.

Where did the $50 billion go? Most of it was paid off as monthly dividends to prior investors, to keep feeding the beast. As there was never a single negative month in payouts, hence the allure despite all common sense, over decades and decades not so much could logically remain left over. So no, there was no "Jewish plot" to send $50 billion to Israel, as many hatemongers claim. How absurd.

In fact, many Jewish charitable and educational programs must now shutter their doors as approximately a billion dollars worth of Jewish communal funds have been obliterated by the selfish actions of a single individual. Funds to send teens to Israel -decimated. Loans and grants to help Jewish students attend Jewish study programs- evaporated. Funds to help train Jewish teachers- erased. Not to mention the other $49 billion swindled from trusting individuals and groups of all backgrounds, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Both Jews and gentiles died in the Black Death, when nearly half of Europe's population was wiped out, and yet the Jews were blamed as a whole, the few marked for slaughter as a scapegoat for the agony of the many.

And yet, it is an inexact analogy, as many Jews indeed were involved in the financial meltdown, even as they jointly suffered in the pain and suffering. Jewish tradition understands human nature as a daily tug of war between two competing impulses- that of good and evil wrestling within the souls of each us. Some of us win hands down while some of us are wicked, but most of us fall somewhere in the vast middle. This is human nature, whatever one's racial or national or religious origin or allegiance.

The Madoff scandal is the direct counterpoint to the saintly martyred rabbi and rebbetzin of Mumbai. Where all eyes were focused on the chesed (kindness) and selflessness of a couple devoted to glorifying the Torah's way of life and extolling the values of Judaism, and thus became through their deaths a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God's name, the opposite scenario obtains in the case of the Madoff scandal. In one fell swoop he degraded the glory and majesty of the Jewish people, besmirched the legacy of a unique heritage and brought to new lows the faith and belief in God and His Torah which all Jewish people represent in the eyes of the world.

Whether he was religious or not (which he wasn't), whether he was learned or not (which he wasn't), whether he cared or not for the image of his people and God (which he didn't), he abused the trust placed in him to become an eternal monument to the notion of Chilul Hashem, the degradation of God's name. Our greatest teachers and leaders were murdered in the Holocaust. It will take a full three generations to recover the greatness of the learning, the observance and the ethical sensitivity that was lost. Woe is us. We are today, many of us, but empty vessels, Jewish in name only, compared to those who came before us.

Isaiah teaches that the Jewish people are an or la goyim, a "light unto the nations." The eyes of all are upon us and are watching us, whether we want the scrutiny and attendant judgment or not. It is our eternal burden which we carry as living descendants of the people of God's holy living word- the Torah.

There is much darkness in the world. Our task is to bring light and moral clarity to the world, to chase away the darkness, not to add to it. How can we bring people closer to God when we, His firstborn of the world's believers in His unity, all too often repudiate His teachings? While most people are indeed honest, all it takes is one individual to do enormous damage to our sense of trust and faith, to our sense of communal obligation and of our belief in our spiritual calling.

This Chanukah, as the candles are lit, let each of us reflect on the power of the individual to change the world and to make a difference. Chanukah represents the fight for the values of ethical monotheism- that righteousness and justice and a belief in a God who has a unified standard and high expectations and demands ethical conduct, must triumph over a worldview devoted to ego and vainglory. Chanukah indeed represents the ongoing battle against self-interest, self-aggrandizement and the worship of superficial aesthetic beauty over and against that of the deeper calling for a refinement of moral character.

Multiple gods implies multiple standards, or rather no ethical standards at all. Chanukah represents the lonely battle of the Jewish people, over eons of time, to alone carry the torch of ethical monotheism in a world of chaos and moral darkness, epitomized by the cruelty and immorality of first the Syrian Greeks, then the Romans.

But most of all, the story of Chanukah is about a civil war, a war within. It began with the courage of a single individual, Matisyahu, the father of five courageous sons- the Maccabees, and the movement he ignited, to assert the validity of the Torah against a fellow Jew and his ilk who betrayed both tradition and community. Assimilation into the dominant, misplaced values of world culture was as alluring then as it is now. Let us stand together again to fight the war within each of us. Let us stand together as one to repudiate the selfishness and greed which has the power to debase us as even lower than the animals, and thus to affirm in our own day the values of mutual trust and ethical conduct which has the power to raise us up even higher than the angels themselves. One God. One standard. Let us raise them both high

COPYRIGHT 2008 by Rabbi Baruch Melman

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About Me

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I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!