What’s a Jew to do? One positive aspect about the developments in the Mideast is that it has pushed the Bernie Madoff story deeper into the nightly news programs. Now, there might be a remote possibility that the last human to find out about the ganiff of the century has instead switched over to the Food Channel, but I am ashamed to be a Jew. Do you have any ideas for coping with this huge embarrassment?
I can assure you that the humiliation that you are feeling is shared by probably every Jew in America, if not the world. There is an expression for what Bernard Madoff has caused: chilul Hashem. In his diabolical creation of the largest Ponzi scheme in history, Madoff has also brought about perhaps the most colossal chilul Hashem ever. Just Google Shylock and Madoff or Fagin and Madoff and see for yourself. Stereotypical comments that we would usually greet with an appropriate affront are causing us to squirm in a whole new uncomfortable way.
To those he has swindled, he has been deceitful, dishonest and devious; to the rest of the Jewish world he has brought disgrace, dishonor and dismay. But, beyond commiserating and exchanging shocking statistics of the horror that he has wreaked, what can we do? Your question of coping is vital, yet we need to do more. We need to move from kvetching to commitment. A deep understanding of the gravity of the concept of chilul Hashem will move us forward.
As a child, I still remember being warned urgently by our teacher as we were about to embark on a school field trip: “Make sure you behave — you represent a Jewish school, the Jewish people, the Torah — God Himself!”
That was a lot to foist upon a bunch of rambunctious children. Mind you, on those very same field trips we bore constant witnesses to the most splendidly, impeccably behaved public school children ever. Later, they were held up to us as an example of everything we were not — that is, as soon as we had safely returned to the walls of our school where the aforesaid rambunctious behavior was routinely tolerated.
Ahem…that was then, this is now, and some things have changed. That’s the good news. But the “Big Idea” of what our teachers were trying to tell us was that there is a value in making a good impression on the outside world — a kiddush Hashem, if you will.
A kiddush Hashem, which brings honor to God’s name, is the opposite of a chilul Hashem. A field trip of well- behaved Jewish children could, believe it or not, bring honor to God: “Wow, look at those Jewish children. They are so well- behaved; it’s that Torah of theirs, that God of theirs — wow.”
Conversely, a chilul Hashem brings about a desecration of God. In other words, we might behave one way in private, but in public, that would be a shonda — a disgraceful shame. And if not standing in line nicely at the museum can wreak such havoc with heaven, Bernie Madoff, watch out!
From misbehaved kids to Ponzi schemes, and lots in between, chilul Hashem has many faces affording us with trespasses aplenty. The source of these laws and the core text of chilul Hashem and its counterpart are found in Leviticus 22: “And ye shall not profane My holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel: I am the Lord who hallows you. Every Jew is thus commanded to bring honor to God’s name and to prevent disgrace of God’s name.”
On the spectrum of kiddush Hashem, martyrdom, giving one’s life rather than desecrating the Holy One, is the ultimate act while living a respectable life of decency, human kindness and menschlechkite is the everyday kiddush Hashem asked of each of us in the normal course of the world.
All this is well and good, yet something just doesn’t seem right. Why all the fuss about desecrating God’s name? If indeed God is omnipotent, mighty and all-powerful; why all the concern about the honor due to His name? Is it truly possible to dishonor God? Why is God alarmed with His dishonor? Why does Moshe launch his defense of the golden calf-worshipping Israelites and beg God to spare them on account of “What will the Egyptians think if God were to destroy the Israelites now after freeing them from slavery?”
If God is supreme, transcendent and invincible, why care about this very human of arenas? Why do we care about the disgrace of Bernie Madoff? Is his disgrace the disgrace of the Jewish people and by extension God himself? Is Bernie so powerful? Is any human so powerful that he or she can seemingly harm God himself? Why do we care what the Egyptians think?
Torah commentator the Kli Yakar puts it this way: “The righteous ones add power to the strength of the One Above and evil ones weaken the power” of God with their behavior. This reality is empowering. Our actions have great import. As Jews, we are seen by the world in a special way. We may be uncomfortable with this but it is our destiny. As others have said, no one goes around calling the governor of Illinois a Serbian-American or the CEO of Enron a Protestant, but Bernie Madoff is clearly and blatantly identified as a Jew.
As partners with God, we have a unique role. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains this in his book, Abraham’s Journey: “God surrendered so to speak, His power to humanity in general and especially to the covenantal community. He is the King who holds Himself captive…. God the Almighty wills man, the helpless and weak being, to march ahead of him…The covenantal community’s job is to teach — not by word but by deed.”
Boy, has Bernie Madoff blown it. Big time.