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The Mark Madoff Tragedy
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

The Mark Madoff Tragedy

Do the sins of the fathers get transmitted to the children?


The handsome prince had it all.

It was a life of luxury that knew no limits. Private jets, magnificent mansions, unlimited funds to satisfy every whim. The ending? Death by suicide, hanging from his dog’s leash, the body unceremoniously cremated without so much as a kind word recited by way of final eulogy.

That is the remarkable story of Mark Madoff, son of Bernie Madoff responsible for the multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme that left thousands of unsuspecting investors defrauded of much, if not all, of their life's savings.

Related Article: The Madoff Madness

The life and death of Mark Madoff is truly a powerful morality tale. But there's one part of the story that begs for clarification from a Jewish perspective.

Journalists and media commentators have been all too quick in declaring that what we've seen here is a perfect illustration of "biblical justice." Whether Mark himself was guilty or not is beside the point, they say; doesn't the Bible itself teach us in the Ten Commandments that God “remembers the sins of the fathers upon the children”?

According to the Torah, does liability for sin get transmitted from generation to generation even if the descendents have done no wrong?

Unequivocally no. The Torah itself clearly rejects this approach. When God instructs judges on how to ethically and morally fulfill their divine task he tells them in no uncertain terms, “Fathers shall not be put to death for the sins of children, neither shall children be put to death for the sins of the fathers; every man shall be put to death only for his own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16).

The prophet Ezekiel put it beautifully. “Shall the parents eat sour grapes,” he castigated the people, “and the children's teeth be set on edge?” (Ezekiel 18:1– 3). There is no way God would allow the results of sin to affect the innocent, just as only those who choose to eat sour grapes suffer the natural consequences.

So what is the meaning of the sentence that God “remembers the sins of the fathers upon the children”? While there are a number of different possibilities for what the verse is actually teaching, the explanation that has always spoken most powerfully to me is the one offered by Samson Raphael Hirsch, the prominent 19th century rabbinic scholar.

God takes into account the nature of one's upbringing before passing judgment on the severity of that person's sins.

Whenever God sees someone sin, the Torah tells us the first thing He does is to “remember the sins of the father.” What made the child commit the crime? Was it solely his own fault or was his waywardness due to the fact that he had no proper parental guidance? Was he denied a decent role model by his father and mother? Did he grow up without the benefit of ethical counsel from his elders that could have helped him to lead a life in accord with Torah law? What were the sins of the father that must become part of the total picture determining the extent of the son’s guilt?

In short, what God does is to take into account the nature of one's upbringing before passing judgment on the severity of that person's sins. God remembers - not to punish the innocent but to find a measure of exoneration for the guilty, to mitigate their culpability.

Ironically, the very verse that demonstrates such a great measure of divine compassion is all too often misunderstood as implying a cruel and unjust heavenly system that allows for penalizing the innocent simply because of their biological antecedents.

That is why no one deserves to be condemned for parental crimes, no matter how severe. As of now neither I nor anyone else knows for sure whether Mark Madoff was party to his father's transgressions or not.

We do know that Mark and his brother turned their father into the FBI. We do know that Mark cut off all communication with his father and never spoke to him from the time the Ponzi scheme became public knowledge.

Is it possible that he was a co-conspirator in the greatest theft of private investment funds in history? Of course. But without the certainty we need to withhold our final judgment. Mark did not deserve his horrible end simply because he is his father's son.

Let's try to remember the sins of the father as we think about Mark, and perhaps that will allow us to show a little more compassion for him.

December 19, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 34

(34) Kenan Moss, December 28, 2013 1:32 PM


This reminds me of a quip attributed to Freud: It appears that he was asked if madness was hereditary: "No" he said "but having mad parents helps".

(33) susannah garbutt, December 17, 2012 4:44 AM

response to suicide counsellor (no. 32)

I am very concerned re two comments made by no.32 re suicide, especially as he/she is a suicide prevention counsellor - as a person who saved her spouse from suicide plus attempted suicide 3 years later herself, I feel this person is very ignorant about suicide - motives, mood etc. Firstly, when you attempt suicide you are not thinking rationally - all you can see is pain, pain everywhere you look. Having been totally depleted of strength to fight depression (major depression) any more because of multiple life traumas over two years, to me it seemed the best thing to do - NEVER is suicide carried out for selfish reasons - you are not thinking normally, as I have already stated. Depression and suicidal ideation is an ILLNESS, a VERY SERIOUS ILLNESS. DO NOT blame the victim. Secondly, the idea that it is a sin requiring forgiveness is most cruel and vicious - you may as well have killed the victim yourself - as I stated above - Clinical Depression is an ILLNESS - NOT A SIN!!! Nothing needs forgiving. You are NOT thinking/feeling normally at the time. You need TREATMENT, not MORALISING and punishing.I hope this counsellor re examines their theories, and speaks/listens to those who have intimate encounters with suicide - completed or attempted. If God is merciful, she/he would never punish someone in mental and emotional agony, rather she/he would offer them hope and comfort. Can we not do the same? Shalom

(32) Anonymous, September 5, 2012 2:33 AM

I understand

If I had a father such as he had, I would not want to live either. How does one live with the knowledge that their father had caused so much pain, so much suffering and caused so much poverty? Having lost my life's savings when a bank ignored my order to sell all of my holdings, forcing me into bankruptcy and into poverty. But I did not have a privileged upbringing as Madoff's children had. I did not have private schools, jets, all of the incredible luxuries. To be reduced to being too poor to even support the charities I used to support is, at times, unbearable. But I have to face reality people many people have to face. It is not the tragedy of having had the lifestyle of living a life of luxury and then having nothing. I was used to living a modest life. Killing himself is the most SELFISH thing a person can do. The pain of suicide survivors is akin to cutting their family's and friend's hearts out. Recently, a member of our shul suffered the loss of their son to suicide. Being a suicide prevention counselor, the pain I felt was almost as sharp as his family's. I had attended his Bar Mitzvah...and now... I just pray that our King forgives him for what he and Madoff's son did.

(31) janie garza, July 13, 2011 9:08 PM

i always believed that the sins of the father were passed on to the children * thank you for clearing that up for me *

(30) henry meyerhoff, January 24, 2011 9:46 PM

God remembers the sins of the father upon the children

If the father is an alcoholic or drug addict, and his child is affected at birth therefrom, then the sin of the father is transmitted to the child. Similarly certain genetic illnesses are passed on to the next generation, sometimes not. What God has to do with it is relevant only to those who believe it so. The wonder of life has no equivalent.

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