Now that the earthly trial of Bernard Madoff has come to an end with a sentence of 150 years in prison, he will await his next trial — the heavenly one.
Although eschatology is not emphasized in Judaism, there is a recurring metaphor in rabbinic literature of a “heavenly tribunal,” an accounting of one’s actions on earth. For 2,000 years, rabbis have imagined what questions might be asked at such a trial. Astonishingly, one sage, Rava, imagines the very first question you are asked in heaven is: “Were you honest in your business dealings?”
In the months since the Madoff story broke, clergy have weighed in on the lessons of the scandal in hundreds of sermons. Some have focused on the pain of the victims, others on the greed of the perpetrator. Most conclude with exhortations regarding the importance of business ethics. Priests and rabbis, imams and pastors, have used the Madoff case as an opportunity to remind their congregants that trust and accountability are the bedrock values of business.
Why on earth — or rather, why in heaven’s name — would the first question one is asked in heaven be about business? Because it’s not just about business. The question is about honesty, integrity, faithfulness. If you are not honest in your business dealings, can you be trusted to be honest in other relationships? If you are not honest with others, can you be honest with yourself? If you are not faithful with others, can your faith in God be trusted?
The idea that those entrusted with other people’s money have a fiduciary responsibility to safeguard and account for it dates back to the Bible itself. When the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments, God instructs Moses to solicit gifts from “every person whose heart so moves him.” These gifts are then to be used for building a Tabernacle, an elaborate sanctuary fashioned from precious metals, stones and wood.
It is quite the construction project, requiring significant contributions of treasure from the people. When it is completed, Moses gives a detailed public accounting of the expenditures.
Why? Wouldn’t the people have trusted their great leader?
Some commentators imagine that the people did not trust Moses. Others suggest that Moses anticipated the accusations, taking upon himself a process of accountability in order to pre-empt the suspicions of others. In either case, the clear lesson is that leaders of a community must avoid any hint of personal aggrandizement when entrusted with public funds.
Madoff committed another offense, in addition to stealing: He brought shame upon the Jewish people. Many of the charities and nonprofit organizations losing hundreds of millions of dollars served the Jewish community, including the foundation of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
Since the Madoff confession, the Jewish community has gone through much anguish and soul searching. How could a Jew perpetrate this devastating fraud on fellow Jews, including major foundations and institutions that have been obliterated in one fell swoop? Madoff made a mockery of the notion that all Jews are responsible for each other.
These are some of the questions Bernard Madoff will be contemplating in prison as he serves out his sentence. Although we may not witness his next trial, the one before the heavenly court, it is not difficult to imagine what his sentence will be.
Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University, president of Synagogue 3000 and author of the forthcoming book “The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven: Reviewing and Renewing Your Life on Earth” (Jewish Lights Publishing).
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