For months now, we’ve taken great comfort in reminiscing and sharing in our disgust of Bernard Madoff, and as Rabbi Marc Gellman of “The God Squad” put it in his “Open Letter to Madoff” in Newsweek, his “financial terrorism” against his own, and against charities who do good for others is “an abomination”.
Earlier today, I had a discussion with Deborah Coltin, Executive Director of the Robert I. Lappin Foundation who was one of the charities that was bankrupted by Bernard Madoff. I was interested in speaking to her because I had been intrigued with an article she wrote that I came across on eJewishphilanthropy.com where she discussed in detail how Bernard Madoff came into the life of Lappin, and then bankrupted the foundation. While this is a story that has been repeated over and over, this one was different. It came as no surprise to me, but it was the first one that I had seen that proved to me that I might be onto something. You see, the Robert I. Lapin Foundation is rising like a phoenix from the ashes, fueled purely by the passion of its employees and of Mr. Lappin himself, an 80 something year old man with left with little, who said, “I will not quit”. Shortly after seeing this story, I saw another story about Elie Wiesel’s foundation vow to rebuild from the ashes. From these two stories, I made a gentleman’s bet with my friend Robert Powell who writes for Marketwatch. I bet Bob a dollar that we would continue to see more stories of these charities rebuilding from ruin, and passion overcoming what others see as impossible. What drives these people? What lessons do they have to teach us?
At some point in life, we all will take a look and ask the important questions. Did I lead a good life? How will people remember me? Did I make a difference? What I have I recognized in these stories, and in others like my friend Jim Maclaren, one of my heroes, is that we define our limits in life. Nobody controls our destiny, not even Bernard Madoff.
So the topic of this article was “Can Bernard Madoff Earn Forgiveness?”. Can he? As a member of the Jewish community, I shared the disgust and outrage felt by so many others. It is my opinion that Bernard Madoff did not know or have any ability to comprehend the harm his actions could have on charities, and his own people. To allow my mind to think otherwise would be to go to a place reserved only for the true monsters in history. I cannot allow myself to believe that a man would knowingly line his own pockets at the risk of what has actually come to pass. Ask yourselves, did anyone foresee the financial meltdown in the markets that has actually occurred. While a few people might have, the financial community at large did not. I believe that Madoff’s greed caught up with him when he could no longer hide what he was doing. I don’t believe he ever could have anticipated his greed would have harmed so many people. I have to believe this for my own sanity and peace of mind.
So as Bernard Madoff sits in his cell reflecting on what he has done, I must imagine he is remorseful. It pains me inside to think of what kind of pain he must be going through. For those who have been hurt by him, this is likely the kind of pain they and other members of the Jewish community wish on him for all eternity. I began thinking, regardless of whether one is Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, or Hindu, I believe that religion makes room for those who repent and express remorse for what they have done. From a scholarly perspective, I began to wonder what would God say? What would Bernard Madoff have to do in the eyes of God to be forgiven for perpetrating such harm on his fellow Jews and on his fellow man. My next question is aimed at the Jewish community. If Bernard Madoff consulted with rabbinical leaders and made good in the eyes of what Judiasm deems as acceptable, would it be enough? While we would all be quick to say “no”, think about that one and get back to me.
Are some crimes so outrageous that no good deed can repair the damage, regardless or how much remorse is shown? Is Bernard Madoff doomed to Hell, or can he earn forgiveness? What do you choose to remember, Madoff, or the stories of heroes who are brushing themselves off after being knocked down. Do we in the Jewish community have responsibility to all lend our hand and right the wrong that has been done? We all have a little hero in us don’t we? I prefer to hang in the company of heroes who know that ordinary people achieve the extraordinary and know that one person can make a difference. The secret is, life’s a lot more fun when you let your passion lead the way in good times and bad.