Bernie Madoff — Placing a Stumbling Block Before the Blind

  Who is he anyhow, an actor?" "No." "A dentist?" "…No, he's a gambler." Gatsby hesitated, then added cooly: "He's the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919." "Fixed the World Series?" I repeated. The idea staggered me. I remembered, of course, that the World Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as something that merely happened, the end of an inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people–with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe. "How did he happen to do that?" I asked after a minute. "He just saw the opportunity."   This passage, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby aptly describes the Bernie Madoff scandal.  Madoff stole $50 billion dollars from investors, most of them Jewish, in the largest Ponzi scam ever uncovered.  The numbers are staggering.  Yeshiva University, where Madoff served as a trustee reportedly  lost $110 million dollars; Haddassah, the women’s Zionist organization, $90 million; The American Technion Society, which aids Israel’s Institute of Technology in Haifa, $72 million; the American Jewish Congress, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, family foundations, individual investors who were befriended by Mr. Madoff, banks – the list goes on and on.  The non-profits that rely on these philanthropies are also feeling the effects of the scandal. The Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, which was supported by the Madoff family foundation itself, will be unable to expand its registry of bone-marrow donors in the coming year.   Many others believed they could rely on their most generous donors to continue their good work in these hard economic times.  Madoff’s  fraud and the cascading losses have dashed those hopes, increasing their vulnerability and limiting their options as the economic slide continues.

The current economic world crisis is the “end of an inevitable chain of events” as Fitzgerald wrote above, part of an economic cycle that has no one person or group of people at its center.   People make foolish decisions because we are part of a free society and we are free to do so;  we grasp higher than we can reach because we are ambitious, and that’s a good thing, and we suffer when we fall short; we take risks that sometimes work out spectacularly well and sometimes don’t and we fall on our faces.  But in America we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start over again.  But Bernie Madoff played with the faith of those closest to him – with the single mindedness of one blowing a safe!   Why did he do it?  We might be tempted to put Madoff on the couch to understand his motivations, but “he just saw the opportunity” may be as close as we can get to understand this colossal betrayal of trust.

On Thursdays from 11-12 a group of us gather to study Maimonides list of the 613 commandments that are found in the Torah.  We wondered how many of these commandments Madoff had broken.  Thou shall not steal?  Thou shall not murder?  There has already been at least one suicide as a direct result of the financial losses that he caused.  How many will die indirectly as a result of this stolen money not getting to its intended recipients?  My personal vote goes to a commandment found in Leviticus:  “You shall not curse the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God – I am your Lord."  The rabbis asked what it meant to put a “stumbling block before the blind”.  They concluded that this meant that one is prohibited from taking advantage of any person or group who is are unaware, unsuspecting, ignorant, or morally blind.  The irony is that we usually think of “the blind” as being the naïve, uneducated, unsophisticated, and poorest members of society who are most likely to be preyed upon by the unscrupulous.  But the “blind” in this case turned out to come from the most sophisticated, best educated, most powerful and most successful strata of our society!      The verse from Leviticus concludes with the words “You shall fear your G-d – I am the Lord.”  The rabbis wondered why these words were there.  Wasn’t it enough to just say “do not put a stumbling block before the blind.”  Turns out, G-d is warning us against the very kind of fraud that Madoff perpetuated – affinity fraud.  These words are there, says the midrash, because human beings do not know whether advice proffered to them by friends is good or bad. Often, advice is given with an ulterior motive. Only God knows the true motive of the advice giver. Rabbi Elliot Dorf, who has written on ethics and Jewish law, noted that it was both illegal and immoral for Madoff to have stolen from individual investors.  “But”, he said, “To do it to Jewish federations representing the Jewish community is just unconscionable. What happened to Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZe—all Jews are responsible for each other?” I get worried about how young people will be affected by scandals when they involve respected members of the Jewish community.  We have had several quite recently – The prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, is leaving office under a cloud a suspicion regarding his business dealings, the Agriprocessor debacle, where the leading provider of kosher meat is arrested for labor and immigration violations, and now this.  If accomplishments of prominent Jews in our society can make our young people proud to be Jews and make them more committed to the Jewish community, can the misbehavior and crimes of prominent Jews make them ashamed of their religion and heritage and push them away?  I was reassured by the email I received last week from a representative of our confirmation class.  Speaking of their concern for the workers who had lost their jobs when the Agriproccesor plant closed, they wrote: “We, the confirmation class, feel partially responsible for the horrifying ways the workers were treated. These workers did not have the right to due process or the right to a fair trial. As Jews, we're taught to   believe that the treatment the workers received is unprincipled. We want to do something to help, something to make a difference.” How can a group of upper middle class 10th graders in Naperville feel even partially responsible for the crimes of a Lubavitch family in New York City?  The fact that they do feel partially responsible is an indication that we have done something right in our education.  “Kol yisrael arevim zeh l bazeh” — all Jews are responsible for each other, say the sages.  The very principal that Madoff so egregiously violated in his crime against Jewish communal institutions is the principal that motivates our children to want to right the wrongs perpetrated by other Jews.  Of this, we can all be proud. Shabbat Shalom