Bernie, Sully and Me

17

shafran1By Rabbi Avi Shafran

Something tells me I won’t make any new friends (and might even lose some old ones) if I confess to harboring some admiration for Bernard Madoff.  

And to make things worse, I can’t muster much for Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a full commercial airliner in the Hudson River back in January.

Let me try to explain.  Please. 

Mr. Madoff committed a serious economic crime on an unprecedented scale for such wrongdoing, and in the process ruined the financial futures of numerous people and institutions, including charitable ones, worldwide.  There can be no denying that. 

Yet I can’t quite bring myself to join the large, loud chorus of those who have condemned him to – to take Ralph Blumenthal’s judgment in The New York Times Magazine – the Pit, the deepest circle of Dante’s Inferno.  Others have devised and publicly proclaimed creative and exquisite tortures of their own for the disgraced businessman – Woody Allen fantasized Madoff being attacked by clients reincarnated as lobsters, and Elie Wiesel wished the investor confined to a solitary cell and forced to watch his victims on a screen bewail their changed fortunes.  The fury of the bilked has yielded opprobrium and loathing that isn’t visited on mass murderer.

I think the revulsion may say more about the revolted – and our money-obsessed and vengeance-obsessed society – than it does about Madoff.  His crime, after all, was really remarkable only for its longevity and its scope.  The Torah teaches that stealing is a sin, but it doesn’t differentiate between misappropriating a million dollars and pilfering a dime.  And as to the sheer number of people defrauded by the thief of the moment, well, anyone who cheats on his federal income tax is defrauding 300 million of his fellow citizens.  Few though, in such cases, invoke Dante.

What is more, Madoff likely began his crime spree in the hope of rewarding, not swindling, investors, and by the time it became clear he wouldn’t be able to do that, he was already deeply entangled – and daily becoming more entangled – in the web he wove.

None of that, though, is to belittle the great pain Mr. Madoff caused, and is certainly no cause for affording the iniquitous investment broker respect.  No, what I admire about him has to do with his owning up to his crime.

Think about it.  The man knew for years that his scheme would eventually come apart and that prosecution loomed, yet he took no steps to flee, huge bribe in hand, to some country lacking extradition treaties.   Idi Amin, we might recall, died of old age in luxury.   Madoff’s millions, moreover, could have easily bought him a new face and identity papers; he could spent his senior years tanned and well-fed among the sunbirds of Miami Beach.

Instead, though, he chose to essentially turn himself in and admit guilt.  He apologized to his victims, acknowledging that he had “deeply hurt many, many people,” and adding, “I cannot adequately express how sorry I am for what I have done.”

No one can know if those words reflect the feelings in his heart, but I don’t claim any right to doubt that they do.  And facing one’s sins and regretting them is the essence of teshuvah – which we are all enjoined to do for our personal aveiros, however small or large.

No such sublimity of spirit, though, was in evidence in any of the public acts or words of Mr. Sullenberger.  He saved 155 lives, no doubt about it, and is certainly owed the hakoras hatov of those he saved, and of their families and friends.  And he executed tremendous skill.

But no moral choice was involved in his act.  He was on the plane too, after all; his own life depended on undertaking his feat no less than the lives of others.  He did what anyone in terrible circumstances would do: try to stay alive.  He was fortunate (as were his passengers) that he possessed the talents requisite to the task, but that’s a tribute to his training, and to the One Who instilled such astounding abilities in His creations (and Whose help the captain was not quoted as acknowledging). Basketball players are highly skilled, too – and heroes, in fact, to some.  But I have never managed to understand that latter fact.

Sully has reportedly inked a $3 million book deal with HarperCollins, and is also planning a second book of inspirational poems; Bernie, likely for the rest of his life, will languish in jail.

That may make societal sense, but personally, I’m still unmoved by the pilot, and, at least somewhat, inspired by the penitent.

© 2009 Am Echad Resources

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

17 COMMENTS

  1. 1. Published reports claim that many, if not all, of the stock ‘trades’ that Madoff claims to have executed never were placed. If so, then it seems equally likely that he did not start with good intentions, only to become entangled. Instead, he may have deliberately set out to swindle his victims.
    2. Madoff was reported to have attempted to illegally dispose of millions of dollars worth of jewelry after being confined in his penthouse. His wife is also attempting to claim that many of the assets are really hers, despite never having earned any income on her own, or having inherited much. That doesn’t sound like teshuva.
    3. While its true that Sully saved himself, and you are claiming to extend to him ‘hakarat hatov’, comparing him to Madoff is an insult. The fact is that relatively few people act so well under intense pressure, and I can’t see what ‘aveira’ he commited to make it appropriate to compare him to a disgusting thief, whether you admire him or not. That seems to lack basic menchlichkeit.

  2. But no moral choice was involved in his act. He was on the plane too, after all; his own life depended on undertaking his feat no less than the lives of others. He did what anyone in terrible circumstances would do: try to stay alive. He was fortunate (as were his passengers) that he possessed the talents requisite to the task, but that’s a tribute to his training, and to the One Who instilled such astounding abilities in His creations (and Whose help the captain was not quoted as acknowledging). Basketball players are highly skilled, too – and heroes, in fact, to some. But I have never managed to understand that latter fact.

    Chesley Sullenberger walked through the plane twice to see if anyone was left, rather than getting the heck out of there!

    And as to the sheer number of people defrauded by the thief of the moment, well, anyone who cheats on his federal income tax is defrauding 300 million of his fellow citizens. Few though, in such cases, invoke Dante.

    If someone owes 1 million in unpaid taxes,he has taken the enormous sum of .3¢ from every U.S. resident. This is not even a p’ruta (the amount which a beis din must pass judgment on just like a trillion dollars). Mr. Madoff, on the other hand, has taken an amount which, evenly distributed among 300 million people, equals $166.67. This is more than 50,000 times the amount that someone who withholds $1,000,000 in taxes takes from the populace! (Might I add that few people have $1,000,000 to cheat on?)

    So your argument, Rabbi Shafran, is purely ridiculous.

  3. I am very disappointed in your opinion piece. If you were trying to be “cute” Purim is over, and those who suffered from the hands of Madoff are not rejoicing.

    Your piece lacks sensitivity and trys to equate the theft of a few dollars to the theft of a large sum of money in the Torah. When someone loses their life’s savings and retirement funds and most now spend the rest of their life worrying it is more than the theft of money it is the theft of security and can cause a person to “suffer” and “worry” for the rest of their life.

    As someone who represents himself as a Media person, as stated by your title, you bring a disservice to the organization you represent.

  4. Typical Liberal “goodelygook”!
    BTW, Rabbi Safran, can we criticize Obama yet, or should we still give him a chance? How many more PRO choice people does Obama have to hire?

  5. I wonder if R’ Shafran was worth millions and invested his entire wealth with Madoff, would he still feel the same way for him ?
    How insensitive and dumb. It is one thing to keep your opinion to yourself. But by going public with this twisted theory of yours, denegrates Orthodox Jewry as a whole.

  6. R’ Shafran’s column is just ridiculous. Not only did Madoff willfully and knowingly steal millions from his investors, but also impacted all the good works those investors planned to use their money for. Here in Florida one very generous philanthropist who supports many worthy causes is now close to bankrupt and can’t meet the commitments made to various charities. Who is harmed? Everyone. Madoff is despicable and I wish him poverty and a life in jail with nothing fulfilling to occupy him.
    As for Sully – the man used his training, composure, and humanity to not only land the plane but to be the last to leave making sure everyone was safe. That is a hero. And his modesty just adds to his heroism.
    Shame on the author for denegrating what he did. Very disappointed in you.

  7. Very poor taste, But I also wondered the same thing, why indeed didn’t madoff just run off somewhere instead of turning himself in???

  8. Although being a level headed quiet person normally, and a big fan of anything Aguda, I am shocked by Rabbi Shafran’s article.
    1 It was unneccesary
    2 It shows a lack of feeling for those who lost money
    3 It shows a lack of Hakoras Hatov to the pilot…dont forget megalgelin zchus al ydei zakai…
    4 It strengthens the stereotype amongst any of the Umos Haolam that might read it that the Yid who swindles others is OK.
    I do not understand your agenda Rabbi Shafran it is not your usual standard.

  9. Very disappointing Rabbi Shafran. Is there nothing else going on that deserves commentary? As our government mortgages future generations, and may very well plunge us deeper into a financial abyss, you choose to be malamed zchus on a Yid who publicly seems to have stolen so much from so many, ruined peoples lives, was seeking out pork sausage wherever he traveled, AND then you bring down an seemingly nice guy who saved many peoples lives? Might it be time for a vacation?

  10. not everything that one thinks should be said and not everything that should be said should be printed and not everything that should be printed should be posted online

  11. Rabbi Yair Hoffman says the article should be retracted. SOmeone emailed me this

    I would like to respectfully take issue with Rabbi Avi Shafran’s recent article where he harbors admiration for Bernard Madoff, yet cannot muster admiration for Captain Chelsey “Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who saved so many lives by landing his plane in the Hudson River back in January.

    Rabbi Shafran’s point was that Madoff admitted guilt and apologized and he suggested that the Torah, while teaching that stealing is a sin, “doesn’t differentiate between misappropriating a million dollars and pilfering a dime.” Rabbi Shafran pointed out that Madoff could have left and run away but chose to stay. He further stated that Captain Sullenberger’s actions involved no moral choice and that he also saved his own life in his actions.

    I strongly believe that each of Rabbi Shafran’s points are completely antithetical to the true Torah perspective and that the consequences of printing such an article can have far-reaching and harmful ramifications. Indeed, I am embarrassed that such an article was printed.

    Let’s start with Captain Sullenberger. There is a Torah concept found throughout the Talmud (Shabbos 32a) called, “Megalgelim zechus al yedai zakai- The way G-d runs the world is that He allows great acts to be performed by people who deserved it or are worthy of it.” Captain Sullenberger saved lives true- but his heroism lies in the fact that he had made hundreds of moral choices to save human lives for years. Captain Sullenberger had made the moral choice to work with federal aviation officials in investigating dozens and dozens of crashes so that lives could be saved in the future. It is a heroism and moral choice that is out of the limelight. He spent his time improving training and methods for evacuating aircraft in emergencies. I can think of no greater example of how this important Torah principle can be demonstrated. Captain Sullenberger is a true hero who has rightly earned the admiration of the great masses of people. Hashem has brought about his rise to fame precisely because he had spent his life trying to save human life. The Talmud (Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 4:9) tells us that whomsoever saves one life it is as if he has saved the entire world. Captain “Sully” deserves our complete admiration – both for his action and for a lifetime of care and concern for human life. Let us not forget that he also went back twice, at the risk of his own life to check every aisle and row for anyone that could have been left behind. He checked twice.

    Captain Sullenberger should not be alone in being an object of admiration; we should likewise admire the thousands of other unsung heroes in this country and beyond who are concerned with human safety and the well-being of others.

    As far as Bernie Madoff is concerned, Rabbi Shafran’s point is incorrect. There is a huge Torah difference between stealing a dime and stealing a much larger amount. The Talmud tells us that the great prophet Yirmiyahu prayed to G-d that when evil people do perform acts of charity – it should be worked out that the recipients are undeserving people. We see therefore that the repercussions of an act whether they be positive or negative have enormous weight. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter in Ohr Yisroel letter 31 (“BeMah Yevashe”) makes the same argument that the nature of the sin is indeed a consequence of the extent of the repercussions. Madoff’s crimes caused enormous damage to thousands of victims. Entire savings were wiped out. People lost their homes. Retired people who lost everything had to re-enter the work force – often at menial jobs offering menial wages. Eli Weisel’s life work was destroyed.

    Rabbi Shafran’s terminology is also grossly incorrect. Madoff did not commit one crime. They were a series of thousands and thousands of crimes. The entire Talmudic tractate of Krisus tells us that each and every criminal act is counted separately and individually. True, Madoff admitted guilt as Rabbi Shafran points out, but he never did right by his victims. Investigators had to look for the money themselves, and Madoff never offered to make restitution with what he claimed were properly earned funds. He even sent pieces of jewelry to others. Regarding Madoff’s statement of guilt, Rabbi Shafran writes, “No one can know if those words reflect the feelings in his heart, but I don’t claim any right to doubt that they do. And facing one’s sins and regretting them is the essence of teshuvah – which we are all enjoined to do for our personal aveiros, however small or large.”

    One thing that has always differentiated Judaism from other religions is the recognition that real actions are required to make moral changes within people. One of the reasons for the recitation of blessings is to instill within us a sense of hakaras hatov – recognition of good that was done for us. We are enjoined to recite blessings every day so that we turn into appreciative people and not ingrates. We cannot change our essence and become grateful people by merely saying so. It takes years of practice. This is one of the essential philosophies behind the physical performance of Mitzvos.

    Mr. Madoff’s declaration of guilt and penance with no accompanying actions of restitution or attempts thereof do not comprise the “essence of Teshuva.” The fact that he is not taking actions to rectify his numerous crimes indicates that his statement of guilt is meaningless.

    Rabbi Shafran points out that Mr. Madoff could have bought new identity papers. If so he would have been subjected to the greatest manhunt ever known. He would have lost all communication with his family forever. This was clearly not an option. There is no admiration in order here.

    Generally speaking, Rabbi Shafran’s articles are right on the mark. This article, however, in my view was grossly irresponsible. It should be retracted.

    Rabbi Yair Hoffman is a mechanaich in a Bais Yaakov and is an author of a sefer on Hilchos Mezuzah and on the halachos of Lifnei Iver. He was formerly the Rabbi of a Young Israel in Long Island.

  12. I AGREE WITH ALL THAT SAY SULLEY IS A HERO.HE DID NOT PLAN ON A CRASH SO HE COULD MAKE MONEY,G-D BLESS HIM AND ANY OTHER PERSON WHO SAVE INNOCENT LIVES.ON THE OTHER HAND MADOFF IS A THEIF AND A PIG PERIOD.HOW DO YOU KNOW WHY HE DIDN’T LEAVE THE COUNTRY?I THINK ITS TO SAVE HIS FAMILY FROM BEING EXPOSED.HE SHOULD GO TO WORK LIKE THE 90 YEAR OLD MAN HE ROBBED AND ALL THE GREIF AND POVERTY HE CAUSED PEOPLE.HASHEM WILL PAY HIM HIS DUE.HE IS A NARSISIST.

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