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WHAT WE ARE MADE OF

Rabbi Rafi RankBy the CyberRav—Rabbi Rafi Rank

These are tough times. The anxiety, worry, and in some cases, desperation, have never been more acute than in this period of economic downturn and recession. And now the Jewish community has been dealt a very personal blow with the arrest of Bernie Madoff, one of our own who is accused of running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. Although his clientele included the rich and famous, his sins will impact on middle-income folk and poor classes, as major bank investments were misappropriated, retirement funds were sucked dry, and charitable endowments entrusted to his care vanished. Total losses are said to run as high as $50 billion, but until the Madoff racket is thoroughly investigated and researched, who really knows? Whatever the number, media descriptions like “financial tsunami” certainly seem to apply.

The Torah so often directs our attention to the poor, the assumption being that we are positioned to alleviate their pain. But what happens when we ourselves are feeling the pain? Who will take care of us? In some cases, the “who” is going to be government, and we have seen the mommy instinct in government rise to the surface as government has bailed out troubled industries whose bankruptcy would do more damage to the country than is tolerable. But government is not nor can it take care of us all, and so many of us will turn to a more dependable agency: the buoyant and resilient self.

You may regard this approach as small comfort, but think again. Right now, the biggest enemy is our jaded imaginations, the mental predictions of doom and poverty that our minds schlep us to in times of crisis or emergency. These fantasies are as real as, well—Madoff’s made-up annual capital gains. Now is not the time to indulge in self-pitying fantasies, but to redefine our short and long term goals both professionally and financially. We are all much more talented than we give ourselves credit for. God teaches us to “Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19), and there is no more important time to embrace that than when the carnage, real or perceived, lies around us. Economic crises, by definition, cannot last forever. We will get out of this if only we pledge to have faith in God and in ourselves.

We also have the right to expect change from government, including steps that would create a regulatory system that actually works. As some cry for more government regulation, I wonder if the more reasonable demand should not be simply effective government regulation of the financial markets. As Americans, our enjoyment of fundamental civil liberties does not preclude the need for a strong and effective police network. It is often the police and their ability to interfere that assures us continued enjoyment of those civil liberties. There is an agency, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), the police of our financial world, that should have been overseeing operations of the big banking firms or investment firms like the one headed by Bernie Madoff. Sadly, a portrait of this agency is emerging that amounts to no more than a bunch of indolent paper pushers answering phones, drinking coffee and eating donuts. The answer may not be more government regulation that could hamper the liberty needed within markets to grow, as much as simply a call for the existing agency to effectively do the job it was created for. Calls for the firing of Christopher Cox, chair of the SEC, are not without warrant.

I actually have thought of firing someone from Jewish peoplehood: Bernie Madoff. I know I can’t do that, nor should I even wish it, but the criminal role he played in this fiasco forces us all to reflect on what it means to be a Jew. Madoff was, presumably, an outstanding Jew: a Jew who subscribed to traditional practice; a Jew who gave to Jewish philanthropies; a Jew who supported and gave of himself to communal affairs by, for example, sitting on the Board of Yeshiva University, etc. But all this truly means nothing if, in the end, his life’s work was based on fraud and theft. How does one reconcile an intimate relationship with God with swindling millions of dollars from people on a routine basis? It is truly is mind-boggling.

In the end, all we have are our names, for better or for worst. We now know what Bernie Madoff’s name is all about—fraud and deceit. His name is forever connected with God’s name in a most ignominious way, for his life has been a hillul HaShem (literally: a desecration of “God’s Name”). Let’s be sure that whatever Madoff is made of is not what we make of ourselves. These are trying times. We have lost much but with time, we will recoup some of those losses, and we will do it honestly, with clean hands and a pure heart. We need to be courageous when the world is trembling, demand standards when the regulatory agencies are floundering, and be ethical when others around us are cheating. There is no other Jewish way. I hope Madoff does teshuvah—he’s got a lot of confessing to do before his fellow man and God.

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