Choose Light or Choose Darkness
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
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
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
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
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
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?