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“Seeking Brothers”—In the Bernie Madoff Era

December 2008
Shabbat morning sermon, Vayeshev

When Joseph reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields.  The man asked him, “What are you looking for?—” Joseph replies: “I am seeking [looking for] my brothers—Et achai ani m’vakesh.  Can you tell me where they are pasturing?”

Why is Joseph pursuing brothers?  His father tells him to check up on their well‑being.  This is a big mistake.  Dad literally sends him to snake pit of anger and resentment.  Maybe Dad wanted him to spy on them; Joseph had already brought “bad reports.”  Maybe Dad hoped that the brothers would spend quality time together.

Was Joseph pursuing his brothers to lord it over them, to show off his dreams again, or maybe his coat of many colors?  Was it his intention to brag about past and present achievements, about his closeness to their father, about his seemingly endless visions?  It doesn’t seem like much has changed since he bragged before.

The central question for each and every one of us, and for every society, may well come down to how and why we declare: “I am looking for my brothers.”  I would go so far as to say that this may well be the most significant lines in the Bible, with respect to interpersonal ethics.  I’m shocked that the classical commentaries do not deal with it; they are more interested in speculating as to the identity of the mysterious man who “came upon” Joseph, suggesting that he may have been an angel.

But that is the phrase that we all utter at one point or another, and that most of us utter often.  The well-beings of others and of society itself may depend on why we utter it and what we mean by it.

Some people seek their brothers and sisters, their fellow human beings, to exploit them, to take advantage of their weaknesses, their hopes, their desires.  Is that what Bernie Madoff has done?  People who are wealthy wanted the largest possible return on their income.  Bernie obliged them.  He gave them such a large return that little of their investments, if any, can be returned.  He knew that his clients were reared with the importance of zedakah, of giving, as well as of saving money.  Many gave a lot but saved much more.  Some gave $25,000 at a single shot to Bernie’s favorite charity, in honor of Bernie.  He repaid them by misleading them.

“Do not lie to one another.  Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.”  We read these verses in the Torah portion, Kedoshim, in Leviticus.  Do not mislead, misrepre­sent, misappropriate.  Bernie did all these things, it seems, to the tune of fifty billion dollars, one of the biggest scams of all time.  CEOs of Jewish organizations felt they had to bring in the big bucks, groomed to look for easiest way.  The losses from such approved investments were staggering:  Hadassah, $90 million; most of Federation agencies and day schools in DC; Yeshiva University, $100 million.  When one thinks of what most Jewish organizations, even congregations want their staffs to do to bring in the cash, the words of the old jazz classic song come to mind:  “Get out of here and get me some money, too.”

True, it seems that Bernie had psychological problems coupled with greed.  Was it narcissism?  Was there self-hatred to the point that he went after, sought after, Jews of his own age and economic class, Jewish charities of the kind he had always supported, to send a message:  “I feel like a nothing; therefore, I’ll reduce all of us Jews and our charities, even those that serve the general population, to nothing”?  Yes, he bamboozled everyone he could, not only Jews, regardless of religion and ethnic background.  But was there some underlying pattern here to literally void his own Jewish resources and others’?  Is that why he sought out his brothers and sisters?

A lot of media coverage refers to the greed of Madoff’s victims, particularly the Palm Beach set.  But that is a blatant case of blaming the victims.  Sure, greed is a temptation for everyone.  But these are people who, for the most part, worked hard, generated jobs for others, treated employees and customers well, saved, wanted the most for their savings, tried to be responsible and prudent, people who chose a brand name investor, and who gave more than most to worthy causes and remained the best possible prospects to be tapped for even more giving—before they were financially ruined.

Consider the many stories in the press, around the time of Madoff’s arrest, about youth in Greece, rioting, burning, throwing stones.  They were seeking out one another to join in destructive behavior.  One young man said, “When I do this, I feel I love my city, Athens, more than ever.”  Another observed:  “I feel bad when I see property burned, but this is a statement.”  They were like a flash mob called together by cell phone and by e‑mail.  Ostensibly, the chaotic situation began when a sixteen-year-old was shot and killed by police   Other teens saw it as an opportunity to test the officials.  “Will you shoot us too?  Can you shoot all of us?”  They began seeking their brothers and sisters to test to the authorities, to find out whether they will be shot committing destructive acts or whether their destructive acts will be seen as somehow purging society of its aimlessness.  Is physical nihilism the antidote to spiritual nihilism?

Pundits attributed the dangerous rioting in Greece to a general malaise in morale, morality, mission of society.  They described it as youth’s way of expressing their concerns: lack of trust in police, politicians, and in the economy.

These events make us wonder what Americans will trust in.  Something about that is written on our currency:  “In God we trust.”  That is easy to say:  “Trust in God and maybe your trust in society, in fellow human beings, can be restored, your outlook can change.”  But what are the steps to achieving that?  Is it possible to seek one’s brothers and sisters without wanting to take something from them, or to take them to the cleaners, or to stir them in their—and our—discontent?

Let me conclude by suggesting that we can find guidance in how and why to seek out our fellow human beings by looking at some familiar verses of Scripture on that theme of bikesh, seeking, the same Hebrew root employed by Joseph when he said: Et  achai ani m’vakesh—I am seeking my brothers.”

We begin the Jewish New Year each and every year with the words of the psalm attributed to King David:  “Achat sh’alt me’im hashem, ota avakesh:  Shivti b’veit ha-shem kol y’mei chayai—One thing I ask of the Lord and it is this I seek:  to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” (Psalm 27:4)

How do we learn to dwell in God’s house in all our dealings with others?  A psalm that we read every Sabbath and Festival morning provides the formula:

“Mi ha-ish chofetz chayim:
N’tzor ‘shoncha me’ra u’s’fatecha mi-dabber mirmah
Sur me-ra v’aseh tov, bakkesh shalom v’rodfei-hu—

Who is the person who desires life?  Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.  Depart from evil, and do good.  Seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34: 13‑15)

Note that the last word, rodfei-hu, “seek it [peace]” is synonymous with bikkesh, seeking, and is part of our synagogue’s name, rodfei zedek, “pursuers of righteousness” (Isaiah 51:1).

God grant that we learn, as a society and as individuals, that if we can but stop the guile of our lips, the pursuit of our fellow human beings in ways that mislead and misguide, for whatever reason, then we can find ways to depart from evil and to do good.  That is how we seek peace, shalom, and righteousness, zedek (justice and justifiable behavior) for ourselves and others, and dwell in God’s house wherever we are.  Amen.

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