"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."