Sunday, April 05, 2009

Misplaced Attitudes

I am an admirer of Rabbi Avi Shafran and more often than not agree with him on various issues affecting Judaism. In a recent essay on Cross-Currents he wrote about his feelings with respect to two very prominent people and the events by which they became famous. This time I disagree.

Rabbi Shafran acknowledges that he would probably not ‘make any new friends (and might even lose some old ones)’ - but I guess he felt justified in feeling this way and wanted to explain why.

I am told that his essay has provoked outrage on the part of many who read it. Understandably so. He basically said that all the admiration for Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger who piloted an engineless plane to safety and saved the lives of all on board is misplaced. That while doing it skillfully - all he really did he was save himself and the passengers were the inadvertent beneficiaries of that.

Bernard Madoff of the other hand deserved some measure of admiration since he owned up to what he did and apologized to his victims. He could have just left the country before anyone was the wiser when he realized the jig was up – going to a country where there are no extradition treaties.

His point was that in the first instance there was nothing especially altruistic by Captain “Sully” in that he had to save himself anyway. In the second instance - there was at least a semblance of Teshuva – despite the massive nature of the theft. Rabbi Shafran discounts the scale of the fraud in that stealing is stealing - whether a dime or 64 billion dollars.

I hear his point. But he could not be more wrong in his lack of outrage at Mr. Madoff and his lack of admiration for the Captain “Sully”. His points while valid – almost entirely dismisses the impact that these two gentlemen had on society. He does acknowledge that but he seems to place little value on it.

First - one cannot ignore the magnitude of what Mr. Madoff has done. Yes stealing is stealing but the impact of the amount stolen – and from whom - must be considered when evaluating the measure of the man. It not only affected individuals it affected charities (one had to close its doors) and even Yeshivos. Some of his private victims went from the ability to retire in relative comfort to becoming impoverished. One even committed suicide. His crime was deliberate. He purposely defrauded many of his clients of their entire fortunes. He took it all.

He may not have intended it that way to start with. But it became apparent early in his scheme that his financial promises could not be kept. Instead of apologizing then and returning the money that was left - he chose to set up a pyramid scheme that would funnel money from new investors to old investors who were trying to take some of their profits. Of which there were none. When the old investors started demanding more money than he could raise from new investors, his pyramid collapsed.

His subsequent public apology in court – no matter how heartfelt it may have been hardly suffices as a means toward Teshuva. His “Bein Adam L’Chavero’ sin requires that he ask Mechila from each individual that he harmed. He has not done that. Even if he had dome that his victims in many cases would hardly forgive him for causing them to lose their entire life savings.

Mr. Madoff has a lot of work to do if he wants to truly begin the process of real Teshuva that Rabbi Shafran points to with a modicum of admiration. One cannot ignore the very significant point of scale. Would Rabbi Shafran still admire him at all if his entire life savings were destroyed by a man he trusted? I hardly think so. It is impossible to ignore the scale of the crime here and say that a dime stolen is equal to 64 billion dollars stolen. Scale does matter in human relations.

As for Captain “Sully” – here too I see his point. Yes – he had to save himself. But it was not only his desire to save his own life that mattered to this man. It was also his knowledge that others were with him. And after the plane landed safely - he made certain that all the passengers were taken care of before he left the plane.

The fact that the plane had landed safely did not end the danger. Passengers could have panicked and drowned after the fact. It was also the way he handled the accolades afterward of the media and gratitude of the survivors and their relatives.

Here is a man who was modest about his achievement and has used the media platform to urge for better emergency training for all pilots. He was also clearly moved by the many letters of thanks he received. I will never forget the segment on 60 Minutes when he and his wife read some of the letters of the relatives the survivors.

One of them was from a child of a holocaust survivor who was on that plane. That practically moved both Captain “Sully and his wife to tears. They both said that that letter moved them the most. And Rabbi Shafran can’t get himself to admire this man – other than to mention his skills?

So I strongly disagree with this essay. His points – although valid – pale in comparison of the impact these gentlemen had on their fellow human beings. I for one honor Captain “Sully” as a true hero and have little compassion for Mr. Madoff – a man who put his own wealth and prestige ahead of everyone else. So it is with great respect and admiration for Rabbi Shafran that I urge Rabbi Shafran to re-think his attitude.