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Why Obama Retook the Oath

January 23, 2009

Thirty-one hours after he spoke the words before more than a million people gathered at the National Mall, and many tens if not hundreds of millions more watching from around the word, President Obama retook his inaugural oath, accepting the responsibility to "faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States . . . preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." In the first go-around, Chief Justice John Roberts confused the wording, causing the President to also slightly deviate from the text prescribed by the Constitution.

From what I've read, constitutional experts, as well as the White House's counsel, insisted that a repeat of the oath was not necessary, but the President felt that a retake would be appropriate—if only to calm all the bloggers and pundits who jumped upon what would seem to be a meaningless mistake. The oath of commitment to what is possibly the most important position in the world must follow the words of the Founding Fathers—to the finest detail.

This morning, as I prepared to recite the blessings that are recited upon awakening, I was reminded of a story:

In the fall of 1974, a venerated Chabad chassid and scholar, Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, passed away. A few days after his demise, the Rebbe recounted at a public gathering something that Reb Shmuel had told him years back.

Reb Shmuel spent eight years of his life in Siberian exile, sent there by the Soviets as punishment for his religious activities. "But what pained him most," the Rebbe told the crowd gathered, "was that he had no siddur (prayer book) with him, and could not remember the precise pronunciation of one of the words used in the morning blessings." One of these blessings thanks G‑d "who gives strength to the weary." The Hebrew word for weary can be pronounced "ayef" or "ya'ef," and the chassid could not remember which one was chosen by the sages for the recitation of this blessing. This, the Rebbe explained, was emblematic of a person whose primary concern in life was his worship of the Almighty.

Prayer is called "the service of the heart," as the most important aspect of prayer is our concentration, sincerity, and the emotional experience. Why then would the chassid be so disturbed about such a seemingly trivial detail?

When President Obama took the oath for the second time, I had a new appreciation and understanding for this anecdote.

If every mitzvah or prayer is an eternal moment, an opportunity to commit and connect to the infinite G‑d, Creator of heaven and earth, a deed that brings light and meaning to the entire cosmos, then the details chosen by the Jewish "Founding Fathers" are of invaluable importance.

And thus the story of a man's anguish over a detail in the prayer book captured his identity: an individual who truly viewed every moment and mitzvah as a G‑dly mission in this world, a moment of cosmic – and even infinite – importance.

A side note:

As a child I had the privilege of attending the farbrengens – public gatherings – led by the Rebbe on several occasions. At the conclusion the farbrengens, the Rebbe would recite the after-eating blessing or blessings. The Rebbe always recited these blessings from the prayer book, even the two-liners. This despite the fact that this is a blessing that the Rebbe must have recited thousands of times, blessings that any five year old child reared in an observant home can say by heart in his sleep. (Click here to watch this, :57-1:15 of the video.)

Chief Justice Roberts is yet young, and in all probability will be administering the presidential oath for years to come. Perhaps he should take a lesson from the Rebbe...and bring along a copy...

The Difference between Republicans and Democrats

January 21, 2009

Together with many of my coworkers, I huddled around the computer screen watching as President Obama took the oath of office and delivered his inaugural address. He didn't disappoint—after all, no one ever questioned his oratory skills. One thing, however, was gnawing at me, yet I couldn't put my finger on it. Afterwards I printed out the address and read it, and then it hit me...

Here's a challenge: Read the speech, beginning to end. And find a paragraph or sentence that couldn't have been part of a speech delivered by McCain, had he won the elections. Or even a speech by George Bush, had he somehow been reelected for a third term.

Did you find one? I didn't. And I read it closely a few times.

It's all in how you "sing" the wordsThe story is told about a boy and girl who went out on a date. After the meeting, the matchmaker called the boy's father to find out how things went. Ehr vill zee nisht ("He wants her not"), was the response. A short while later the matchmaker called back. He had just spoken to the girl's parents, and they insisted that it was she who had decided that the boy was not for her! "That's exactly what I said!" the boy's father responded. "He wants. Her, not." (Trust me, the Yiddish is much smoother sounding than the English translation...)

It's all in how you "sing" the words. Which you choose to stress, and which you mumble over...

It seems to me that the difference between the two parties is about the same. I admit that the following assessment is a bit simplistic, but sometimes simplistic gets a point across quite well.

Let's identify the principal sticking issues separating the parties in domestic and foreign policy.

On the domestic front, the Democrats emphasize the value of social programs and the role government should play in ensuring that all the citizens receive basic benefits. Republicans stress the imperativeness of a free market, low taxes and the elimination of unneeded legislation and waste.

When discussing foreign policy, liberals expound on the importance of dialogue and negotiation, while conservative talking points revolve around the importance of a strong military and the readiness to forcefully strike out at evil and those that pose a threat to our national interest.

But ask almost any Democrat whether it is important to preserve the economic private sector, lower taxes, have a strong military, etc., and he'd surely agree.

And you'll be hard-pressed to find a Republican who will say that negotiation, artful diplomacy and responsibility for the less fortunate citizens of the land are not part and parcel of the American ideal.

(Yes, there are some issues, abortion is an example, that seemingly find the two sides of the aisle irreconcilably apart. But I think that these issues are the exception rather than the rule.)

So what is the real difference between the two parties? I'd venture to say that it is mostly a matter of emphasis and application.

The efficient management of a nation requires many – and sometimes contradictory – components. Kindness and discipline. Idealism and pragmatism. Flexibility and rigid commitment to principle. Each party chooses to champion one side of the coin—while not denying the validity of the other.

In this sense, partisanship is not a negative phenomenon. One person (or party) cannot have a passion for two sometimes opposing positions. It is important to have different people championing different platforms.

(In this sense, the American people are not at all "hypocritical" for their vacillations: sometimes voting in conservative candidates and at other times liberal ones. I don't think this represents a real shift in values, I think it's a matter of which values they want to see stressed at a given time.)

In this sense, partisanship is not a negative phenomenonThe real challenge is for the parties to view one another as complementary to each other, rather than opponents. To understand that there is a time and place for everything, and working in harmony, incorporating all the valid viewpoints in both foreign and domestic policy, is the recipe for wise, compassionate and effective governing.

If this is true regarding the political arena, it's also true in our interpersonal relationships—whether they be filial, marital or business.

How much pleasanter and more respectful would our homes and workplaces be if we could view opposing opinions as complementary rather than antagonistic?

All Eyes on President Obama

January 20, 2009 1:00 PM

"More than ever before the civilized world of today will look up to the United States of America for guidance as behooves the world's foremost Super Power—not merely in the ordinary sense of this term but even more importantly, as a moral and spiritual Super Power, whose real strength must ultimately derive from an unalterable commitment to the universal moral code of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, it is this commitment to the same Divine truths and values that, more than anything else, unites all Americans in the true sense of E Pluribus Unum."

—The Rebbe, in a letter to President Reagan, 1982.

I'd personally like to congratulate our new President, Barack Obama, and wish him much success.

The Talmud (Bava Batra 91b) tells us that "even the official responsible for the town well, is appointed by Heaven."

If this is what our sages say regarding the lowly post of a village well administrator, how much more so regarding the position of president of United States, the person regarded by many to be the leader of the Free World.

G‑d has deemed our newly elected President worthy and capable of standing at the helm of this great nation. He has endowed him with the necessary qualities to take a country already legendary for its kindness and blazing the trail in the areas of morality, human rights and trust in G‑d, and bring it to even greater heights.

My hopes and prayers stand behind President Obama. May he lead with strength, conviction, and, as the Rebbe says, a commitment to divine truths and values.

President Obama: Advice from a Great Jewish Leader

In connection with today’s inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, we offer an excerpt of a talk that the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, delivered on April 18, 1978. The Rebbe’s address was in response to the designation of the Rebbe’s birthday, the 11th of Nissan, by President Jimmy Carter and the U.S. Congress as “Education Day U.S.A.”

The Rebbe's words to President Carter are as relevant today, and to the incoming administration, as they were three decades ago:

Education, in general, should not be limited to the acquisition of knowledge and preparation for a career, or, in common parlance, "to make a better living." And we must think in terms of a '"better living" not only for the individual, but also for the society as a whole. The educational system must, therefore, pay more attention, indeed the main attention, to the building of character, with emphasis on moral and ethical values. (Need one be reminded of what happened in our lifetime in a country that ranked among the foremost in science, technology, philosophy, etc.?)

Education must put greater emphasis on the promotion of fundamental human rights and obligations of justice and morality, which are the basis of any human society, if it is to be truly human and not turn into a jungle.

The United States of America has a long-standing policy of foreign aid to developing countries, through direct grants and through U.N. agencies. Economic aid to foreign countries includes also cultural aid for the promotion and support of cultural programs, etc.

It is generally recognized, at any rate among the free and democratic nations, that each nation is a member of the family of nations, and all must live together in "the world" which is like one organism. When any part of an organism ails, it affects the whole body; strengthening any part of the body strengthens the whole.

The record of this Nation's foreign aid is unexcelled in the annals of history, which is as it should be for a Nation so generously blessed by the Al-mighty. One would wish, however, for more affirmative action in the area of cultural, particularly educational, programs.

Economic aid given to a developing country is meant to be used most efficiently and productively. While the conditions attached to such aid must necessarily be limited and circumspect, there are certain conditions which are considered prerequisites. To cite a recent example. President Carter has taken a courageous stand on Human Rights, dismissing the notion that it is an "internal matter," and he has made it also a condition of Foreign Aid. It is to the President's credit that he has not only raised this issue, but has succeeded in arousing the world's "interest" in behalf of this cause. "Unofficially," however, there is a great deal more that the U.S. government can do to make foreign aid even more productive.

This Nation, with a healthy intuition, indeed, conviction, recognized that its economic system must not be based on crass materialism. Nothing expresses this idea more eloquently and forcefully than the motto on the American Dollar—"In God We Trust."

In giving out billions of dollars in foreign aid, many discreet ways can be found to have the beneficiaries take a look and ponder on this inscription, with a view to encouraging them to recognize the importance of Trust in G‑d, of appropriate education, with particular emphasis on moral values and genera, humanitarian principles, as mentioned above.

Carrying this train of thought further brings us also to the question of military aid.

Ideally, education should lead to a world state where "Nation shall not lift up sword against Nation, neither shall they train for war" (Isaiah 2:4). Until such an ideal state is reached, there will be a need—in the Nation's own interest—to provide friendly, democratic nations with military aid for self defense, but not to provide military aid to nations that will use it to start war. It would surely be in the best interests of those countries themselves, as well as of the United States and the world at large, if, instead, goodwill and benevolence towards them were expressed in terms of economic and cultural aid, to help them raise a new generation free from hatred and violence and bent on channeling their youthful energies and ambitions towards all that is good, good for them and for their countries, and the common good of humanity both materially and spiritually.

In light of all that has been said above, it is most gratifying indeed that President Carter, Vice-President Mondale, and the eminent members of the United States Congress. G‑d bless each and all of them, have thoughtfully and graciously initiated and associated themselves with the Proclamation of "Education Day, U.S.A." It augurs well for the vital cause of education in the United States. It will, we hope and pray, also have a beneficial impact on education in all countries which look up to the United States of America for leadership and inspiration in all vital matters that transcend national boundaries, and conduce to a better human society and a better world.

Thank You, President Bush

January 19, 2009

The story is told that during a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Mr. Kissinger – a Jew – remarked to Mrs. Meir, "I just want to make it clear that I represent the interests of the United States. I am first an American citizen; second, the U.S. Secretary of State; and third, a Jew."

She responded, "In Israel, we read from right to left."

Rating presidents is one of historians' favorite pastimes. Do a Google search for "best and worst presidents," and, if you are a political junkie, get ready for hours of perusing different polls, surveys and studies. It is a fascinating topic because so many factors go into these ratings. Leadership qualities, vision, integrity, and more—and, of course, the political biases of the ones conducting the study...

All the issues, domestic and foreign, that are important to all American citizens are important to its Jewish citizens too. "And seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray for it to G‑d, for in its peace you shall have peace" (Jeremiah 29:7).

But while an administration's policies vis-à-vis the Holy Land is only one factor among many considered by all others, to me, personally, it is the most significant one. For no matter the emblem on my passport, my truest homeland is Israel, and the concern for the welfare of its inhabitants is foremost on my mind.

As the famed 12th century Spanish philosopher and poet Yehudah Halevi eloquently wrote, "My heart is in the East, [though] I am at the ends of the West."

So let the much-more-qualified-than-me political scientists, historians and expert analysts debate the overall efficacy and success of the current administration. No matter the consensus they may or may not reach on this matter, as a Jew, I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Bush.

Thank you, Mr. President for standing beside Israel and time and again reiterating your concern for its safety and your firm belief that she has the right to defend itself against the "thugs" – that's the word you used – that threaten her.

Thank you, Mr. President for repeatedly vetoing insane resolutions aimed against Israel proposed by the UN Security Council.

Thank you, Mr. President for being a beacon of light amongst world leaders; for standing up for the cause of righteousness, even when it was unpopular in other capitals.

It's nothing short of miraculous that in a world that is so hostile, the greatest superpower steadfastly – and so often singularly – stands at Israel's side. Thank you, Mr. President for continuing this wonderful legacy.

There's a chassidic aphorism, "G‑d does not remain in debt." He repays with bountiful blessings those who are kind to us—as He told Abraham, "And I will bless those who bless you."

May G‑d bless you in all your future endeavors.

Miracle on the Hudson

January 18, 2009 12:00 PM

You know it's a miracle when even the press refers to it as one. The whole nation beamed with pride at the heroic efforts of the pilot and crew of US Airways flight 1549 that averted disaster, when the pilot directed the damaged jet into the Hudson. The quick thinking, the deft maneuvering, the evacuation – even women and children first; who wasn't proud that some element of chivalry has survived! – the immediacy of the first responders including numerous private water vessels that took the passengers to safety.

Yet they were just following procedure, doing what they were trained to do. It was a textbook water landing and evacuation.

Judaism has its basic training as well, what may seem like tedious repetition of never-to-be-used drills that, when applied, are a thing of beauty.

Basic training may seems worthless until the crisis hits, and then it is pricelessWhen children spend day after day in the classroom studying about G‑d's plan vs. the temptations of evil, it may seem bizarre and foreign to them; after all they spend the bulk of their day cloistered in school and under the watchful eye of teachers and principals. The worst they consider is skipping the line to lunch. Someday, however, the lessons they learn in school will be called upon in their life, and that training will be applied seamlessly thus averting disaster. It will be the difference between being a mentsch or a Madoff.

Each morning when we pray, we load up on spirituality, while repeating the same words over and over. Sometimes it seems monotonous and even pointless. Then, in a manner almost unnoticed, later in the day we hold our tongue when we want to lash out, we help someone whom everyone else ignored. That's where our basic training manifests in improving the world, that's when we are heroes.

So next time you're staring at your prayer book, eyes glossing over the same pages, wondering what the point of doing this "again" is, remember that basic training may seems worthless until the crisis hits, and then it is priceless.

When the flight attendant reviews the safety features, including teaching how to buckle your seat belt – I might have though that if you couldn't do that one by yourself you probably couldn't figure out how to purchase an airline ticket, but who am I to judge – pay a little closer attention. You never know when a routine repeated lesson will save your life.

Airplane in the Hudson

Reaching Beyond our Limits

January 18, 2009

Many Americans, myself included, spent much time this past Thursday glued to their TVs, or, as was my case, to their computers, watching, praying and hoping that there would be a happy ending to the passenger plane that landed in the Hudson River in New York. Indeed it did.

Try to picture the fear experienced, and the elation that followed, by all parties. For many Americans, the immediate thought was: Uh oh, here we go again, another terrorist attack... For the passengers on board the flight, this could only have been the most surreal moment of their lives, wondering whether they'd live to tell the tale.

I must imagine, however, that more than anyone else, this was most frightening for the pilot. The knowledge that not only was his own life in his hands, but the lives of over 150 others was dependent on his quick thinking and skillful decision making and maneuvering, is more than I can contemplate.

The pilot reached beyond not only his norm, but the norm of anyone before himAnd yet, miracles of miracles: a decision was made and executed, and we can all breathe easier because G‑d was gracious once again and everything ended well.

As a follower of Chassidic thought, I am taught to find the message or lesson in every event in life, including and especially current news events.

According to news reports I've seen, the pilot was instructed to try to make it to a nearby airport, some fifteen miles away, rather than try to return to LaGuardia. Communications being down, and that option being uncertain at best and risking the lives of those on board the plane and many more on the ground if there wasn't enough lift to get them to that airport, the pilot had another thought. He decided that he would attempt to do something that was rarely if ever successfully done previously with a commercial airliner, and make a successful water landing.

[In December 2002, The Economist quoted an expert as claiming that "No large airliner has ever made an emergency landing on water" in an article that goes on to charge, "So the life jackets...have little purpose other than to make passengers feel better." This claim was repeated in The Economist in September 2006 in an article which reported that "in the history of aviation the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have made successful landings on water is zero..."]

The pilot had to ensure that the plane doesn't break up in pieces on impact, and hope and pray that there would be enough sea vessels nearby to save the stranded passengers before the frigid air and water snuffed the lives of the survivors.

The pilot reached beyond not only his norm, but the norm of anyone before him, and decided that he needed to do the undoable. He strove for higher and he succeeded.

The lesson is so clear and has such clear application to us all. Very often in life we find ourselves in a situation were we are seemingly faced with no good options. Particularly now, with the crisis in the Middle East, financial meltdown, the more personal challenges of loss of loved ones and health etc., we often feel like throwing our hands up in the air and crying, "I have no good options so I will just give up, or pick the better of the two (or more) bad options, curl up in a ball and cry, or worse.

Yet here we see a perfect example of what Chassidism holds to be a basic axiom: there is always, always, another better option. To think outside the box, reach higher and further than one might ordinarily contemplate. Do the undoable, accomplish the unthinkable, make a genuine effort at doing more than was previously imaginable and ask G‑d to fill in the blanks when mankind's efforts come up short. When we have that kind of bitachon, that kind of faith, Kabbalah teaches that we open up completely new channels of Divine energy that allows a completely different, and better, reality to enter our realm of possibilities.

That is what that pilot did. He gave it his best effort and G‑d, the Master of the universe, rewarded his efforts by opening a new and uncharted channel of Divine participation and brought a happy ending to what could have been a catastrophe of major proportions.

Reach high. Reach for the sky. Because "nothing stands in the way of our will."

Thank you to Rabbi Daniel Moskowitz for planting the seed that led to this article.

Prince Harry's Slur and the War in Gaza

January 13, 2009 11:12 AM

The Top Stories tab is a great feature. I don't have the time to follow every piece of news, but if it's important for me to know, it will be in the Top Stories section of my favorite news site. Today's features: the war in Gaza, Obama's stimulus package, Hillary's confirmation hearings, the Somali pirates, and Prince Harry's racial slur.

Prince Harry's racial slur? What's that about? What could a 21 year old cadet – the incident occurred in 2006 – have said that was so inappropriate and offensive that it should draw headlines like "British PM Condemns Offensive Slur"?

So here it is. He referred to a fellow cadet of Pakistani descent as a "Paki."

(His other reference to a "raghead" was apparently mocking the insurgents in Afghanistan, so it isn't being held against him.)

Nobody is suggesting that Israel react "proportionately"—i.e. that they randomly shoot rockets into civilian neighborhoods...While the online dictionaries vary on whether the use is just slang, or also disparaging, I'd think that this infraction is relatively slight. I have no doubt that the vernacular in the British military is abundant with unsavory words and assorted expletives, and I'm sure that nicknames – including racially disparaging ones – are pretty common too.

But the UK is in an uproar; they hold him to a higher standard. "We expect better from our Royal Family," the editorials postulate.

This might explain something else I've recently noticed in the news.

While many are calling Israel's efforts in Gaza disproportionate, nobody is suggesting that they reply "proportionately"—i.e. that they randomly shoot rockets and missiles into civilian neighborhoods in Gaza. And 39 people dying in a school in Gaza gets much more media attention than 40 people killed by a suicide bomber in a mosque in Iraq.

Because the world holds the Jewish state to a higher standard. Everyone expects better from the "chosen nation."

On a similar vein:

I'll admit, at times I have a hard time with all the rules. The Torah's rulebook doesn't stop: what to wear and what and when to eat, how to treat your own body and how to speak to others, when to work and when to rest.

True, Jewish philosophers throughout the ages have written countless pages explaining how the Torah's code of conduct ensures that a holy nation adheres to the highest moral standard. It is a code meant to develop the self-respect and moral integrity of a nation that will serve as the "light upon the nations." But sometimes I just want to live my own life. "Can't I be allowed to fail here and there—just like all the others," my instinct says.

But the world expects better from the Royal Family. I have to step up to the plate. The eyes of 6.7 billion people are on me.

Is Madoff a Villain?

January 4, 2009

"I am just a businessman, giving the people what they want."

"All I do is satisfy a public demand."

"I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man."

That was Al Capone speaking, one of the most ruthless sociopaths of American history, who corrupted law and order of America's then second-largest city and destroyed lives at whim so that he could live in opulent luxury.

How does Bernard Madoff justify himself? How does he rationalize bringing a wonderful cause like the Fair Food Foundation to forced closure or emptying out the funds of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity? What will he say to the teachers of the Korea Teachers' Pension when it comes their time to retire? Does it shake him when he hears that the CEO of a fund that invested with him it's entire 1.5 billion was found dead, having committed suicide? How does a Jewish man who sat on the board of Yeshiva University defend robbing 140 million dollars of that institution's charitable funds, along with those of Maimonides School of Boston, the Ramaz School, the Technion, the LA Jewish Community Foundation, the United Jewish Endowment Fund, Yad Sarah and Hadassah?

It wasn't as though these were innocent bystanders. Madoff's strategy relied on a strong base of charitable endowment funds—since they are guaranteed to keep their money in there forever (in case you didn't know, forever ended this past fall). How does a man live with himself and with those he is ripping off in such a pernicious manner?

My guess is that he doesn't have much trouble at all. Like almost everyone else, he was infected with the same mad, unbridled optimism that the market would keep expanding forever, the Dow index would keep rising to the sky and beyond, and investors would always continue knocking on his door, begging him to take their money.

Which meant that he was doing everyone such a wonderful service. Large charitable funds, especially educational institutions, believe that investing their endowments makes best long-term use of their funds. (Yes, it's a little inconsistent—if the future will always be better, then the present needs the money more, and if so why are you saving your principal for the future? [This seems to be the principal reason that the Rebbe was opposed to endowment funds.] But who am I to dispute the wisdom of those that manage large charitable funds?) Enter Bernie, the hedge-fund wizard, who, rather than a measly 3%, can return to any investor a whopping 5 or even 15% return every year without fail. How does he do it? And how does he sustain it? Because Bernie is smart enough to realize that charitable funds are unlikely to pull out. As long as they get their 5% per year as dictated by federal regulations, they're with you forever.

And as long as the other personal investors keep coming to him—and why shouldn't they?--he could keep dishing out those same dividends. Everyone will be happy, all because of Bernie.

"So," Bernie says, "what's it my fault the fools let Lehman Bros. fall, and everyone else collapsed with them, and then they came for redemptions?"

Don't trust me: Barry Minkow ran a Ponzi scheme for five years in the 80s, served seven years in prison and now investigates corporate fraud for a living. He says, "The irony of white collar crime is we believe that we're one good week in trading away and we'll get enough to pay it all back."

No, Bernard Madoff is not a rabid terrorist. Neither is he a ruthless gangster or a sociopath. I doubt that he's more narcissistic or avaricious than many other "successful" financiers on Wall Street. What's frightening is that he's not much different than many of us, madly believing that, "Whatever I do, I'm still a good person."

Optimism is a good thing. "Think good," goes the Chassidic adage, "and things will be good." Optimism is a path to heaven on earth. Problem is, the same stuff paves the way to the most tragic depths. Including life behind bars.

"No person commits a crime," the Talmud asserts, "until he is infected with insanity." What form of insanity? Eternal optimism. Also known as blindness to our own vulnerability, faults and failures. It's the blind faith of the adolescent skateboarder that he can skate down three flights on a thin metal bannister without fracturing a single bone; of the father and husband who runs off with his secretary, believing that their love will last forever and heal all things (even though the love for his wife and children certainly did not); and of the embezzling accountant who believes he really deserves this money after he saved the company so much more with his genius.

Sometimes, these people are religious, even spiritually-minded believers. There's no vaccination, after all, against insanity. "G_d still loves me," they tell their hearts, "because He understands."

And then there's the killer rationale for any crime: "Look at the charity I do and all the wonderful mitzvahs! I am just so good. You can't expect so much good without a little touch of failure, can you?"

Madoff is no anomaly. He is an icon of an era. An era driven by fanatical, rabid faith in growth, progress and, most of all, the power of "me". An era that has seen its time.

And now, we run to the opposite extreme. No one will lend, no one will invest. Everyone is terrified of some accountant turning up a bond that "marked to market" turns out another billion dollar loss. You can't buy a car because there's no one to finance it. You can't sell a house because there's no one to buy. Unbridled optimism has been replaced with bottomless pessimism.

Hey, c'mon guys, isn't there something in between? Like, maybe, reality? In reality, we're never as good as we think we are, but neither are we ever hopeless. In reality, America is far from a depression, there are still honest people out there earning a living, and technology and modern know-how still show a lot of promise. In potential, each of us has powers to reach the sky. It's just a matter of knowing, that, nope, you haven't quite reached the sky yet.

Madoff was a genius at "a big lie"--fooling himself and infecting others with the same illness. And now the lie is over, for him and for all of us. It's time to know who we are, where we are, and what we can achieve—but haven't yet. Call that "sustainable optimism."

To quote Minkow, the reformed scammer, once again, "The first good night sleep I got was in prison. It was over. I didn't have to lie anymore."

Are Jews Allowed to Steal?

January 2, 2009

So a Jewish guy allegedly steals $50 billion from his friends and associates—most of them Jewish. Without fail, the predictable stereotypes involving Jews and money begin to pop up on blogs and chat rooms all over. They recycle the old calumny that Jewish tradition allows people to deal dishonestly with others as long as they live otherwise pious lives.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, Jewish tradition teaches that how you deal with your fellows is perhaps the most important aspect of your relation with your Creator. This idea has been expressed both in Jewish teachings as well as in personal example since almost the beginning of time.

Let us take a look at a small sampling of these teachings and anecdotes.

4,100 years ago:

The people are so bad that G‑d has no choice but to wipe the world clean and start all over again, with Noah and his children. What was the sin of that generation? To quote the Torah (Genesis 6:11): "The earth was corrupt before G‑d, and the earth became full of robbery." The Talmud tells us (Sanhedrin 108a) that despite all their depravity, their verdict was sealed only because of their robbery.

A few centuries later, the world is again in hot water (this time only figurative). Noah's descendents build a tower (Genesis 11:1-9), in order to combat G‑d (Rashi ad loc). What does G‑d do? How many does He kill? None. All He did was disperse them.

The Sages (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 38:6) explain that though they had the audacity to conspire against G‑d, they worked together in harmony. This as opposed to "the Generation of the Flood who were robbers and there was strife between them, and therefore they were destroyed."

3,700 years ago:

Abraham and Sarah arrive in the Land of Canaan, along with their nephew Lot. Shortly thereafter, a quarrel breaks out between Abraham's and Lot's shepherds (Genesis 13:7). What caused this fall out? Again the Midrash (Rabbah Genesis 41:5) sheds light: Lot's herdsmen pastured their animals in fields belonging to others, Abraham's herdsmen kept their cattle muzzled, and rebuked their counterparts for committing robbery...

3,300 years ago:

Seven weeks after their Exodus from Egypt, the nascent Jewish nation gathers at Sinai to enter into a covenant with G‑d. He chose ten of His 613 commandments to personally communicate to the nation. Five of them deal with interpersonal issues, and three of those discuss the importance of honesty: Thou shall not steal, thou shall not bear false witness, and thou shall not covet.

This sets the tone for all times to come.

2,900 years ago:

King David writes (Psalms 24:3-4), "Who will ascend upon G‑d's mountain and who will stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken My name in vain and has not sworn deceitfully."

2,600 years ago:

G‑d admonishes the people regarding their fasting ways which He found reprehensible (Isaiah 58:2-11):

"Daily they pretend to seek Me, desiring knowledge of My ways . . . 'Why have we fasted and You did not see?' they ask. 'We have afflicted our soul and You do not know?' Behold, on the day of your fast you pursue your affairs, and from all your debtors you forcibly exact payment. Behold, for quarrel and strife you fast, and to strike with a fist of wickedness..."

Instead, Isaiah teaches the Jews the proper way to fast:

"Loosen the fetters of wickedness, untie the bands of perverseness, send the oppressed free, and break every oppressive yoke. Offer your bread to the hungry, bring the wandering poor into your home. When you see someone naked, clothe him . . . Then you shall call and G‑d shall answer, you shall cry and He shall say, 'Here I am.' . . . G‑d will always guide you and satiate your soul with radiance..."

2,000 years ago:

The sage Hillel is approached by a non-Jew. "I am willing to convert to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot."

"That which you detest," Hillel answers, "do not to others. All the rest is commentary" (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

This tradition is exemplified in a teaching by Rabbi Yosi (Ethics 2:12): "The money of your fellow should be as precious to you as your own; prepare yourself to study Torah…"

One must first learn to respect the property of others, and only then can he approach G‑d and the study of His Torah.

1,900 years ago:

One of the holy Ten Martyrs was the great sage Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon. The teaching of Torah is forbidden by the Roman regime, a capital offense, but he is undeterred. He publicly gathers disciples and, with a Torah scroll in his bosom, heroically teaches them Torah. Eventually he is captured while in the midst of a Torah lecture and burned alive for his deeds.

Shortly before his capture he visits a colleague, Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma. Rabbi Chanina turns to his friend and asks, "Will I be deserving of a portion in the World to Come?"

Rabbi Yosi's asks Rabbi Chanina whether he had done anything special in his lifetime. Rabbi Chanina responds that he once had two pouches of money—one earmarked for charity, and the other for his personal holiday expenses. He later discovered that he had accidentally given his holiday money to charity. Although he could have reimbursed himself from the other pouch, he chose not to and gave the second pouch to the poor as well.

"In that case," answers Rabbi Yosi, "may my portion be like your portion; my lot like your lot" (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 18a).

This is beyond astonishing. Rabbi Yosi knew very well that Rabbi Chanina devoted his life to the advancement of Torah, with utter disregard for his personal safety. Yet he only assured him that he would be admitted to the World to Come when he ascertained that he dealt honestly with public funds!

1,700 years ago:

Rabbah, the leading Talmudic sage of his day, teaches (Talmud, Shabbat 31a) that when a soul ascends to heaven, the very first question she is asked is: "Did you conduct your business honestly?"

1,000 years ago:

Rabbeinu Gershom "the Light of the Diaspora" forbids opening letters addressed to others. A millennium before the advent of the civil rights movement, the rabbis of old understood the importance of individual rights and how important it is to be utterly honest in all one's dealings.

700 years ago:

Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, the "Baal Haturim," reworks the entire body of Jewish law into four sections. This structure will eventually become the framework for the Code of Jewish Law. One of the sections, Choshen Mishpat, is entirely devoted to the laws of interpersonal relationships and the minutiae of honest business practice.

65 years ago:

The Lubavitcher Rebbe publishes a calendar, the "Hayom Yom," that contained a chassidic aphorism for every day of the year. For the 8th of Av, the Rebbe writes:

"What good is Chassidic teaching and piety if the main quality, love of a fellow Jew, is lacking—even to the extent of, G‑d forbid, causing anguish to another!"

Anyone who thinks otherwise simply slept through Hebrew school.

What's the latest news? For that information, check your local or national news outlet. In this blog we will discuss the "why?"

Not "why did this event occur?" but "why did I find out about it?" There must be a reason. It must contain a lesson I can use to better myself and my surroundings. Together we will find the lessons...
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