December 17, 2008
Bernie Madoff won’t ruin my Shabbat
If you want to understand what’s behind the financial and ethical scandals we’re all consumed with these days, go to the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas on any Saturday night, and look for the loudest craps table.
If it’s a loud table, that means the roller’s on a winning streak. The dice keep coming up “winner”. The crowd gets louder. The bets get bigger. The cocktails keep flowing.
Now take a look at the guy rolling the dice. With every winning roll, he’s getting more cocky. He kisses the dice in a certain manner, as if he’s got some unique magical touch that’s creating the winning rolls and making money for everybody. By now, hot babes in skimpy dresses are fawning all over him—because he keeps winning. Off to the side, his mother, who he brought to Vegas for her 70th birthday, is trying to tell him to cash in his winnings and join her for a late tea.
Now, who do you think he’s going to listen to? His sensible mother or the sexy babes? Who makes him feel more powerful? Who makes him feel like he’s on top of the world?
Hint: it’s not the old lady who speaks Yiddish.
America’s gone crazy. Thomas Friedman wrote in a column last week that ever since American capitalism vanquished communism in the late 1980’s, we’ve unraveled. Having an ideological enemy focused our minds and gave us discipline. Absent that opposition, we became a juvenile nation that just wants to party, gamble and celebrate.
A president who makes out with an intern in the same office where Abraham Lincoln toiled to keep our country together. Another president who uses phrases like “bring it on” in the middle of a geopolitical crisis. We turned into a nation where empty swagger became a substitute for serious thought.
On the economic front, the nation became one big craps table. We all wanted to believe. There was a little voice inside of us telling us there’s no way this good luck can continue, but the noise of the crowd was too loud. We fell for the hype of high-rolling politicians who promised us the moon and told us the sky was the limit—because that’s the only way they could get elected.
We saw the captains of Wall Street inflate values with sophisticated schemes few people could understand, even when the schemes were legal. We got seduced by money lenders shouting “no money down, no mortgage payments for two years!”, and failed to notice that by tampering with the integrity of risk, they were creating an economic time bomb.
And we shopped. Boy did we shop. Three hundred million credit cards made it easy.
When we finally woke up from our party at the end of 2008, we had taken on the signs of a third-world nation. We became the world’s largest exporter of raw materials and the largest importer of finished goods. We bought things, but we stopped making them.
All along, whenever sober naysayers would try to warn us about the dangers lurking within, we would look away. Who likes a party pooper, anyway?
The naysayers knew we were getting drunk on two lethal cocktails: One, the crazy idea that we had nowhere to go but up. And two, the crazy idea that we can get something for nothing.
Out of this superficial and immoral cesspool burst forth a Jew who will surely go down as one of the all-time great Jewish villains: Bernie Madoff. Madoff came from the culture of the craps table, but he took it to a whole other level. He was the “counter” who needs a mask to get into any casino because he’s figured out how to game the system. He was the deceiver who got so drunk on his power that he lost all moral bearing.
When his great-great grandchildren Google his name or read any history book on America at the turn of the millennium, they will have many reasons to hold their noses and feel the sting of shame.
We don’t have to wait that long. Jews already feel the sting of shame, and worse, the sting of enormous financial loss that will reverberate to Jewish charities and homes everywhere.
In the advertising business, we always say that we sell optimism. That’s what clients come to us for—to feed their dreams and help them reach higher and higher. When they want sober reality, they can go to their accountants.
On that note, someone asked me at a party the other night how I would counsel someone like Bernie Madoff. I blurted out that from now until the day he goes to jail, he should visit the Jewish communities of every state and not just beg for their forgiveness, but explain how he will spend very waking minute of the rest of his life trying to redeem himself. He can call it the Madoff Redemption Tour.
So yes, America’s in a mess, and the Madoff story is big. It’s bigger than big. It’s so big, in fact, that it can start to own us.
I remember how during the second intifada, when one terror attack after another kept hitting Israel, for months we had pretty much stopped singing at our Shabbat table, or saying words of Torah or telling sweet stories. We were consumed with what was happening in the Holy Land.
One day, I decided that I would no longer let Yasir Arafat destroy my Shabbat table. I would fight for Israel and discuss things like terrorism 24/6, but not 24/7.
I feel the same way about the mess we are in and especially about Bernie Madoff. It’s bad enough that he destroyed so much in the Jewish world and the world at large. But come this Friday night, I will sing songs with my children and tell beautiful stories, and I won’t let him destroy my Shabbat table. You can bet on it.