The news hit fast and hard: rabbis and politicians in New Jersey allegedly involved in a huge money-laundering scam. As if Madoff wasn't enough of an embarrassment for the Jewish community, now this. Such activities are completely forbidden by Torah law and must be condemned in the strongest unequivocal terms.
But besides the legal issues, this is a classic case of what the Talmud calls Chillul Hashem – a desecration of God's Name. Irrespective of whether they are guilty or not, people look at these rabbis being carted off to jail and say, "If this is what Torah observance brings a person to, then I don't want any part of it." This is a dark day for the Jews, indeed.
We live in America and the law of the land states that one is innocent until proven guilty. Let us not assume guilt. But, if in the unfortunate event that the news turns out to be true and some of these people are proven guilty, many will ask: How can this be?
Not to sound callous, jaded, crude or insensitive, but the answer to me is that such a situation is not so difficult to imagine. It's all a function of greed and jealousy. In fact, maybe we should ask the question differently: How come it's such a rarity? Why doesn't this happen more often?
We live in a very materialistic society, comprised of have and have-nots. No matter what a person has in our day and age, it is literally impossible for someone to "have it all." Coupled with the most dazzling ads that Madison Avenue inundates us with daily, everyone is trained from early childhood to see themselves as "have-nots." I don't have this, that and the other thing. This creates an environment of lack and dependency on things.
Years ago I spent a few weeks with my family living in the most modest bungalow that you can imagine in the Catskills. A virtual tenement. We loved it. I asked the senior rabbi, Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, how can it be that we love the bungalow, but we find so many faults with our house that is 100 times more valuable and furnished?
In reality, a run-down shack is enough.
"It's simple," he said. "If it weren't for the neighbors, everyone would be happy with what they have. Here in the mountains, everyone is living in run-down shacks and there's nothing better to compare it to -- yet it's enough, because in reality it is enough. But at home there are many different houses on the block, some are nicer and have bigger backyards, and as we compare ours with the others, we tell ourselves that what we have is not enough. That's how people make themselves miserable."
I believe that Rabbi Feinstein is right. We all have more than enough to live. But we tell ourselves that it's not enough. We want more, like the Jones' or the Schwartz's.
Jealousy and greed are not new emotions and won't disappear that easily. No one is impervious to such feelings. It is particularly upsetting, however, when found amongst observant Jews who are supposed to hold themselves to higher standards and the material aspects of life are supposed to be less important, less valued. Well, they are. I have lived in several cities and countries and have observed firsthand that observant communities are by and large less materialistic. But it's far from perfect.
What's the message? What should we teach our kids as a result of today's news? We should teach them that God gives everyone exactly what s/he needs to live a happy and healthy life. When you see someone possessing something that you don't, you should feel happy for them but not sad for yourself. This is a sign of spiritual maturity that God demands of us. Everyone's situation is tailor-made by The Designer to grant us the ultimate happiness in life -- and no amount of money or goods can enhance that happiness. Happiness is an appreciation of what you have, not the quantity of how much you have.
We should teach our children (and ourselves) to learn to live without certain things, even if they say, "Everyone has one," or "I want it badly," or "People will laugh at me if I don't have my own cell phone," etc. Learning to live without things is a form of spiritual push-ups. They do the job.
There is a struggle at all times between the physical and spiritual worlds, and when one succumbs to his physical desires, he is ipso facto losing his standing in the spiritual realm. These tests come our way to help us grow. By avoiding these temptations, we are growing and meeting life's challenges. That's what we're here for.
The Nine Days
In the New Jersey case, the rabbis were arrested during the period on the Jewish calendar called the "Nine Days" leading up to Tisha B'Av. This is the time of year when we most intensely mourn the loss of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Sages say that the Temple was destroyed because of Jews speaking ill of one another. Surely we are not here to determine the guilt or innocence of those arrested, and it is imperative that we give the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.
But there is another connecton to the Nine Days that may provide an important lesson. Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, explains that not having the Temple today means we have lost a huge degree of spiritual clarity. This void has propelled us further toward materialism, creating an imbalance in our understanding of what makes a healthy human being and a vibrant Jew.
Without the Temple, selfishness becomes ingrained in the very fabric of our existence.
Specifically, the loss of this spiritual sensitivity means a lower degree of interconnectivity and oneness. We live instead with a drive toward competition against others -- the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest. As such, selfishness becomes ingrained in the very fabric of our existence. Instead of realizing that the purpose of our relationships is to be giving and concerned for others, we want to know "what's in it for me."
Without the Holy Temple, we have lost the clarity of how high humanity can reach. We are in a state of darkness, unable to bring forth the full light. What is the solution to this dilemma? Through mourning the loss of the Temple and appreciating how it has impacted us, that will put us on the road back to a future where there will be no more Madoffs and money-laundering schemes.