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Choose Light or Choose Darkness

Choose Light or Choose Darkness

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MADOFF AND HOLTZBERG
Choose Light or Choose Darkness

By Simon Jacobson

 

A case study in contrast.

Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg. Bernard L. Madoff.

Gavriel and Rivka brought light into people’s lives, and created a global Kiddush Hashem(sanctifying G‑d’s name) when they were brutally butchered by agents of darkness simply for being Jewish. They personified the Jewish virtues of charity and kindness, illuminating everyone they could reach. In the wake of their murders, which touched a deep chord, a wave of good deeds reverberated around the world.

Bernard Madoff brought darkness into people’s lives, and created a global Chilul Hashem(desecrating G‑d’s name) when he massacred the financial security – and trust – of many individuals and organizations, killing in one fell swoop various charities and damaging many others, and destroying the trust in the future of all investments. He personifies greed, selfishness and self-indulgence. In the wake of his contemptible behavior, in which he single handedly eroded the confidence necessary to keep markets alive, people are left stunned and distraught. We are wondering how far this will unravel, how many others will be implicated, and above all, what will be the resulting consequences – how will this affect the future of the entire nature of investments, hedge funds and trust in money managers?

We could not have found a starker example epitomizing the two diametric extremes on the spectrum of human behavior: the heights of ultimate nobility and self-sacrifice in Mumbai, being killed in the service of others; the depths of ignobility and self-interest in New York, hurting others in the service of oneself, cheating his own people, friends and colleagues, exploiting the trust of holocaust survivors and confidantes.

What makes some people choose a life of serving others, and others a self-serving life? Exactly that: choice. We each have the power to choose which way to be.

And make no mistake about it: Each of us must choose between these two paths every moment of our lives. Either we will serve others or we will serve ourselves.

Not to minimize Madoff’s crimes, or to suggest that every self-serving person will become a Madoff, but his behavior is a symptom, not a cause, of social forces that orbit around selfish, material gain. And, whenever you are self-absorbed, thinking about yourself exclusively – “me and nothing else” – you are one step away from pulling off a scheme like Madoff did. Perhaps not on the scale of $50 billion – not everyone has that opportunity – but who’s counting?

And indeed, this choice has become only more amplified in our modern times. The comforts and freedoms of prosperity have allowed for a climate of self-indulgence. When Bernie Madoff’s grandparents were running for their lives together with the grandparents of those he cheated, there wasn’t much time to develop schemes, buy yachts, jet-set and run from Park Avenue to the south of France to the Hamptons to Palm Beach chasing a dollar and spending two. There were greedy people then too, those with power and wealth abusing the rest of the population, but for Jews at least, fighting for their lives, retirement accounts and hedge funds were the last thing they were concerned with. They gave their lives so that their children would grow up good Jews, virtuous individuals, who would carry on the baton passed on from generation to generation beginning with Abraham – to transform human ! ! society, to fight for social justice, to help the poor and the oppressed and to respect every person’s innate human dignity.

How did we go off course? And what transpired to create a climate that breeds a Bernie Madoff, and who knows how many more like him? One caught, but how many got away?

Should we feel bad for the funds and fund managers who trusted Madoff with other people’s money? Should we empathize with the wealthy individuals who trusted him with their life fortunes? Should we be saddened by the fact that some charities today invest altogether, instead of giving the money to the needy? Regardless of Madoff’s appalling crimes, are his investors innocent? After all, when they were making money on other people’s backs, they didn’t complain.

If materialism rules your life, than you are bound by its laws. And its cardinal law is this: Born by the almighty dollar; die by the almighty dollar. If money is the source of your power and security, than money will also be your source of destruction and disgrace. Because after all, money is transient, and anything transient can never provide the firm foundation of security.

How much money was made “legally” by money managers – who are protected by the fine-print disclaimers – with the same driving greed? How many charged percentages just to pass on their investors money to Madoff’s accounts?

And this scandal just refocuses attention to our current economic meltdown and global recession. What role did greed and personal gain play in creating today’s overall financial crisis? Selfish interests and short-term gains at the expense of the masses have been identified as the primary culprit. Who will pay for this selfishness? The perpetrators or the victims? A government bailout is nothing more than the burden of a few individuals being carried by American taxpayers. But what other choice do we now have?

Obscene bonuses at financial firms dominated December headlines in the last few years. Now, this December, we know that these actual cash bonuses were paid on the backs of false and illusory returns. The billions of dollars in bonuses have been exposed as essentially a rip-off of the masses who invested that money and saw nothing in return. Do these managers have to return the money they essentially stole from the investors?

Mr. Madoff did disgraceful things, but he is part and parcel, and a product of a climate of greed, where self-interest drives the markets, not their inherent value. And now, the chickens have come home to roost, and we are all left reeling.

But, using the terms of the financial sectors, every scandal has a potential to serve as a “market correction.” Firstly, by exposing the abuses of the system we recognize its inherent flaws. Secondly, it allows us to recognize how far we have fallen and wandered away from our calling, and gives us the opportunity to realign ourselves and our priorities.

This is the only redeeming factor in today’s economic meltdown: It has revealed how greed kills. First others; than yourself. How the love of money and power has vanquished the power of love. How beyond all our technological advances we are no supermen. Far from it. Humans are humans and left to their own devices will be controlled by their selfishness and consumed by their greed, to the point that they will, without hesitation nor compunction, hurt the innocent and even their own families.

And right in middle of the great global economic crisis – rooted in human greed – two servants of society (among many other innocent souls) are massacred in Mumbai – shining a glaring light, for a moment at least, demonstrating that we all have a choice: Here are the Holtzberg’s who dedicated their lives not their own needs and bank accounts, but to serve others.

If ever there were a spotlight on our inadequacies, here we have it. Why Gabi and Rivka had to suffer, we will never know. But in their deaths, as in their lives, they have taught us a critical lesson. The least we can do to honor them is to learn from them. Maybe the Holtzberg’s will give Mr. Madoff something to think about in prison.

What is their lesson?

The ultimate antidote to the greed and corruption inherent in self-indulgence is to become other-driven, instead of self-driven.

I once heard a Chassid explain why Jews shine brightly when they are spread around the world and stand alone amongst their neighbors. Yet, when they live together and build self-contained, insulated ghettos, they become petty, divisive and stoop to disgraceful behavior. He explained: It’s like manure. Gathered in one location it gives off an unbearable stench. Only when you spread it out in the fields does it fertilize the ground and make things grow…

Jews are natural leaders. A light unto nations. From the time of Abraham they have the quality of challenging the status quo and bringing positive change to their environments. When they become self-contained, focused on self-interest, instead of serving others, they can deteriorate, and ultimately turn on each other. Powerful people who do not serve society, left on their own, can and will turn into appalling creatures, as we have now witnessed with Mr. Madoff.

Our only immunity to such behavior is to become other-driven, instead of self-driven.

What can this teach us about the future of our economy?

We are at a crossroads. We now have seen capitalism at its worst, where greed has dominated and eliminated the fair play – which is held together by intense, objective regulation – necessary for a free market system to survive.

As the indulgences of capitalism are bringing down the house, and trust has been shattered, I would like to believe that we now stand at the rare threshold of a new paradigm shift: When the house burns down will we build the same house in its place, or will we be wise, learn from the past and build a new type of economy, one which fundamentally balances and integrates personal gain and virtue.

Listening to most people talk today, you hear the weak voice of a victim, saying that this turndown will soon be over, the markets will jump back into place – isn’t that what we have been taught: Wall Street always prevails over the long term; value always rises – and we’ll go on as if nothing happened.

Or will we learn from our experiences and actually create a new climate of true trust, based on giving and charity, and absolute zero tolerance for greed. Will we insist on new economic leaders, who do not make choices based on rewarding themselves?

Will we learn? Will we everlearn?

I guess some people will learn their lessons. Some who have been burned will choose to move away from and insulate themselves from Wall Street’s lions den, and just life an austere life, giving up hope that selfish people will ever change.

But what we want to see is nothing less than an economic revolution: Not just an awakening about the vices of money and materialism left untamed, that money can destroy, but by a new way of looking at our financial systems, of recognizing that money is a means to a higher end.

Over a century ago, Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in the world of his time and the great philanthropist, wrote in a memo:

Man does not live by bread alone. I have known millionaires starving for lack of the nutriment which alone can sustain all that is human in man, and I know workmen, and many so-called poor men, who revel in luxuries beyond the power of those millionaires to reach. It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. Money can only be the useful drudge of things immeasurably higher than itself. Exalted beyond this, as it sometimes is, it remains Caliban still and still plays the beast. My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.”

Carnegie later wrote an essay called “The Gospel of Wealth,” which strongly influenced the philanthropic philosophy of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet (the two wealthiest men in our times), who collectively are giving away over 50 billion dollars. Buffet alone made a noble pledge two years ago of over $37 billion at the time (what it amounts to today I do not know) – an unprecedented act of charity and one that will go down in history (see Givers and Takers).

In his essay, Carnegie lays out his approach to countering the greed inherent to wealth and selfish gain that is the incentive of capitalism:

There remains, then, only one mode of using great fortunes; but in this we have the true antidote for the temporary unequal distribution of wealth, the reconciliation of the rich and the poor—a reign of harmony—another ideal, differing, indeed, from that of the Communist in requiring only the further evolution of existing conditions, not the total overthrow of our civilization. It is founded upon the present most intense individualism, and the race is projected to put it in practice by degree whenever it pleases. Under its sway we shall have an ideal state, in which the surplus wealth of the few will become, in the best sense the property of the many, because administered for the common good, and this wealth, passing through the hands of the few, can be made a much more potent force for the elevation of our race than if it had been distributed in small sums to the people ! ! themselves…

“This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community—the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

I submit, that with today’s global economic meltdown, we actually stand at the threshold of a new economic paradigm. And based in part on Carnegie’s formula we can create a blueprint how to implement this new paradigm.

In good economic times, with gains blinding us all, it would be quite difficult to suggest any new changes. But with the current breakdown, an opportunity opens up.

As we witness the carnage left by the abuse of money and self-interest, we are faced with three options: One option would be to just escape from this dirty world of finance. Another would be to wait it out and then go back tight into the fray right where we left off, until the next scandal breaks.

However there is a third option: To entirely remake our financial systems and introduce a new economy of the future; the final frontier of the history of money and wealth: To see the acquisition of wealth as a means for giving and fuel for spiritual growth.

Wealth, in short, will finally realize its true value: soul energy, elevating and transforming all of existence. One can say that the futuristic economy will be an elegant synthesis of a free economy choosing to behave in some way like a socialist one, with the key distinction being, that the collective sharing will come from within, self initiated rather than imposed. Recognizing the true nature of wealth will drive men to create systems that will honor and express the inner purpose of our wealth: creating a home for G‑d. We will begin to see the acquisition of wealth as a means for spiritual growth, for understanding ourselves and G‑d, for filling the world with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea (see Money and Spirituality).

Finance and economy is a place where self-interest can meet selflessness – but only when the driving engine is a higher cause. We are not asked to annihilate our individuality and unique personality. We are asked to direct it.

In this life we are always presented with two choices: either we will be driven by self-interest or by serving others.

The Holtzberg’s chose the path of others, and paid the price. Mr. Madoff chose the path of self, and also ultimately paid the price, but in his case, so did many others.

The greatest tribute to the Holtzberg’s would be to use their illuminating example of light to emulate their ways. To serve as leaders whose primary drive and focus is: Serving others. Illuminating and warming the world around them, and not just themselves.

The challenge is greatest when it comes to wealth: Will it feed our selfishness or will we see it for the gift it was meant to be: to help others and build a world of higher consciousness.

Will we learn our lessons from the current financial meltdown or will we hold on to old habits and routines?

As we enter Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, which will you choose: darkness or light?

Rabbi Simon Jacobson is the director of mlc | Meaningful Life Center and author of Towards a Meaningful LIfe

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