Tag Archives: Holiness

Why Bernie Madoff Didn’t Lurk in Dark Alleys

We all know that one of the Ten Commandments is “Don’t steal.” But it’s also hard for us to imagine Bernie Madoff or Jeffrey Skilling in a hooded sweatshirt in a darkened alley mugging a little old lady. And yet clearly, Madoff and Skilling violated that two-word, easy-to-understand commandment. So we have to ask: how in the world were they able to justify it?

A large part of that justification is because different forms of stealing have different “feels” to them. Physically taking money from another person feels more violent, more immediate, and less justifiable of an action. “Cooking the books,” however, can easily feel explainable by the perpetrator. It’s pretty easy to follow the commandment “Don’t steal” if it simply means, “Don’t go around robbing people in the middle of the night.” But Skilling and Madoff did steal – and stole significantly more money than all the armed robbers in America combined.

In fact, when people don’t deal in cash directly, they actually are able to rationalize their actions, and thus end up stealing significantly more money from people.

Cash Keeps Us (More) Honest

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran a fascinating study in the MIT dorm rooms to examine what might allow people to steal without feeling all that guilty about it. At first, he put six Coke cans in a communal refrigerator. Within three days, all six cans were gone. No doubt, people thought, “No one will notice, and hey – free Coke!”

He then put six one-dollar bills on a plate in the refrigerator. They were left totally untouched.

Why? As Ariely explains:

When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold, hard cash (except occasionally). And that’s my point: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money. (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 218-219)

There seems to be a psychological block that prevents most of us from simply forcibly taking cash from people, but allows us to rationalize small falsifications that ultimately end up being the same thing as stealing. And that is why, in fact, the Torah has more to say about honesty in business beyond just, “Don’t steal.” In Leviticus, the Torah even regulates what might happen one step away from money that might lead people to cheat.

Honest Weights and Measures

Leviticus 19 contains some of the most important and most famous laws in the Torah. The Ten Commandments appear here, as do the verses, “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole chapter is known as the “holiness code,” implying that beyond just being ethical, treating people fairly is truly a sacred obligation that God demands of us.

The very last laws in chapter 19 say, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah (a unit of dry measure) and an honest hin (a unit of liquid measure)…” (Leviticus 19:35-36)

Why did this law have to be written in the first place? The simple answer is: you don’t forbid something from happening unless it has already been occurring. So clearly, there were people who would falsify their weights and measures. Cheating and stealing are nothing new in today’s society!

And that’s what makes this commandment so important and valuable. If the Torah had simply said, “Don’t steal,” our natural ability to rationalize would have given people the opportunity to say, “Well, if I weigh down my grain a little bit, no one will really notice. And after all, everyone else is doing it, so it’s not really stealing.” Instead, the Torah teaches us, “Don’t cheat even – perhaps especially – when you’re one step removed from money.” It’s a lot easier to steal when you’re one step removed – and that’s why that commandment is needed.

The First Thing We Will Be Asked When We Die

The Rabbis even elevated honesty in business to become one of the highest values we need to live up to. In fact, in the Rabbinic mind, the first thing God will ask us when we die is not, “Did you believe in Me?” or “Did you pray?” No – according to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the first question we will be asked when we die is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”

We sometimes say that we know we are acting honestly if we can look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning. But perhaps that is not enough of a judge. After all, our ability to rationalize could make it very easy for us to say, “Well, it’s just a small thing I’m taking.” Moment by moment, we can easily find ways to steal that feel OK and won’t cause us to lose sleep.

So to truly bring ourselves up to our highest standards, the question should not be, “How do we feel about ourselves right now?” It should really be, “How do we want to feel about ourselves at the end of our lives?”

Only by having our day-to-day actions live up to the values we espouse can we truly be proud of the actions we take.


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Creating Holiness

This past Shabbat, my fiancee Heather and I received a blessing at Temple Beth El in honor of our upcoming marriage in August. It was a beautiful evening, and these were the words I shared at that service.

It’s really special for us to be here with my congregational family, and with my colleagues with whom I have become deep and close friends, and especially with our families, as Heather and I, a few months from now, will officially begin to build our life together as husband and wife.

When Heather and I had gotten engaged, we had said to each other and to everyone else, “We’re very low-key people. We’re not so into the whole ‘fairy tale wedding’ thing, and I don’t think we’re going to get too sucked in.” Yeah — that didn’t last long. Two weeks into our engagement, we had e-mailed one of our potential locations saying, “We just have 19 specific questions we wanted to ask you about the way you do things.”

It is hard not to get sucked into the multi-million dollar wedding industry, especially if you watched any of hoopla this morning. Heather actually gets several e-mails a day from “The Knot” an online wedding marketplace, which wants to help her create her “dream wedding,” telling her all about “25 Centerpieces Worth Stealing,” and “The Perfect Date Night,” which apparently involves going to Macy’s to register for cookware.

And yet despite all the craziness that wedding planning does involve, Heather and I have actually found it to be quite meaningful and fun, because we are trying to create a wedding that truly reflects who we are. And what both Heather and I have noticed is that we are viewing our wedding in the same way we are trying to view our marriage — by asking ourselves and by asking each other, “What do we want to create together?”

If you don’t know already, Heather is a very creative person. She’s a fiber artist, creating quilts, wall-hangings and even three-dimensional structures based on Jewish texts. One of the things that drew me to her was the way that she was able to take themes from Jewish prayers, and transform them into a visual medium that speaks to people at a deep level.

Last summer, she had a show at Park Avenue Synagogue called “Text and Texture: Midrash Through Making,” and there was one piece I particularly loved. It was a six-foot spiral that began at the bottom with thick and heavy fabrics, to represent the physical world, and it gradually transformed into light and shear fabrics, to represent the spiritual realm. The message I got from the piece was, “Start with reality as it is, and yet always be striving to move higher and higher towards the ideal.” In fact, that’s what creativity is about — it asks, “what do you envision, and how do you turn into reality?”

Heather and I are asking those same questions as we think about the life we want to create together — what do we envision for our life, and how do we make that a reality? And the idea that we keep coming back to is the idea of “kedushah,” a word that is often translated as “holiness” or “sacredness,” but in fact is quite a hard word to define.

Its root — koph, dalet, shin — actually appears in a variety of forms. There are two that many of us are familiar with —  Kiddush, which is often thought of as the blessing over the wine we drink, but in fact, it’s the sanctification of Shabbat or the holy day on which it we drink it; and Kaddish, which sanctifies God’s name, and we use to remember those we love who have passed away.

And yet there are two other forms that the word “kedushah” that I have been thinking a lot about. One is “kiddushin,” which is the name of the central part of a Jewish wedding ceremony. And while the name “kiddushin” certainly does connote a sense of holiness, what it really involves is another facet namely, separateness. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, when you get married, and say, “I do,” you are really pointing to every other person in the world and saying, “And I don’t, and I don’t, and I don’t.” I think of Kiddushin as a wedding couple saying to each other, “From this moment forward, we are bound together in a way that we are bound to no one else. This person next to me — and no other person — is the one that I am choosing to build my life with.”

Yes, there is love. And yes, there is joy. But what makes a marriage a marriage is two partners are formally saying to each other, “You are the one I want to create my life with.”

The other phrasing of “kedushah” is this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim. It begins with God speaking to Moses, saying, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.’” (Lev. 19:1-2) The portion then continues with a variety of both ethical and ritual laws, outlining some of the rules of the covenant and the obligations the Israelites have towards God and towards each other. Here, the sense of “holiness” is in the day-to-day actions the Israelites are to take. How they are to act in business. How they are treat their parents, the elderly, the poor. Indeed, while big moments are important, it’s the small actions and interactions that can make life truly sacred.

In fact, Rabbi Peter Himmelman had wondered: how long do big, holy moments — weddings, b’nei mitzvah celebrations, even remembering those who have died — really resonate? “For example,” he said,

…how long is one moved by the birth of one’s first child? Certainly, for me, the first half hour as a new father was pure giddiness. I had been transported into a state of mind that was radically different from where I was before…But then, after I’d made the calls to my mother and my siblings, and when I’d gone out to the car to pick up some extra socks for my wife, a little of that transcendent feeling left me. Of course, I was still incredibly happy, but there had been a palpable sense of ‘it’ slipping away. How long, really, is a person moved by anything? (The Modern Men’s Commentary, 183)

And the real answer is — unfortunately, not all that long. Ordinary life soon rears its head, and that “high” starts to lessen.

And so the real question is, how does that moment of holiness affect all the subsequent moments after it? After all, what makes a moment truly special isn’t the moment itself — it’s how that moment changes the future. Holiness is about marking a transition. From the everyday into Shabbat. From being a child in the Jewish ritual community to becoming an adult. From being two single people who love each other very much to two people who are now married. The crucial thing to remember is that the implications of a holy moment can’t end at that moment.

Indeed, as Peter Himmelman continues:

Perhaps holy could be understood as ‘remembrance’ and mundane as ‘forgetfulness.’ What we can remember is that…every moment and every experience is the potential for awe [and wonder]. (ibid)

Holy and joyous moments are about celebration — and they are also about remembering that the real work begins the next day. And that’s why — as much as we can! — Heather and I are trying to focus less on our wedding and more on our marriage.

And that’s why we spent a lot of time drafting the English our ketubah, with the two of us trying to answer the question, “What kind of life do we want to create together?” And so in our ketubah, which we wrote ourselves, we say to each other,

As we walk side by side and hand in hand along life’s path, we pledge to sanctify our lives, as individuals and as partners…

We commit to establishing a home that is a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary, that will be filled with joy, with peace, and with holiness for ourselves and for all who enter it.

That vision, that ideal, is what we hope will guide us as we live each day together as partners. After all, holiness doesn’t just happen — it needs to be acknowledged, and even more importantly, it needs to be created. As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield says, “[Things and times] become sacred because of what we invest in them, and it is our investment that is sacred.” (You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right, 242)

May we all remember to sanctify those most important moments in our life and those most important relationships we cherish, and even more importantly, may we have the strength to bring more joy, more sacredness and more holiness into this world.

Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.


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