By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
I would like to respectfully take issue with Rabbi Avi Shafran’s recent article (here) where he harbors admiration for Bernard Madoff, yet cannot muster admiration for Captain Chelsey “Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who saved so many lives by landing his plane in the Hudson River back in January.
Rabbi Shafran’s point was that Madoff admitted guilt and apologized and he suggested that the Torah, while teaching that stealing is a sin, “doesn’t differentiate between misappropriating a million dollars and pilfering a dime.” Rabbi Shafran pointed out that Madoff could have left and run away but chose to stay. He further stated that Captain Sullenberger’s actions involved no moral choice and that he also saved his own life in his actions.
I strongly believe that each of Rabbi Shafran’s points are completely antithetical to the true Torah perspective and that the consequences of printing such an article can have far-reaching and harmful ramifications. Indeed, I am embarrassed that such an article was printed.
Let’s start with Captain Sullenberger. There is a Torah concept found throughout the Talmud (Shabbos 32a) called, “Megalgelim zechus al yedai zakai- The way G-d runs the world is that He allows great acts to be performed by people who deserved it or are worthy of it.” Captain Sullenberger saved lives true- but his heroism lies in the fact that he had made hundreds of moral choices to save human lives for years. Captain Sullenberger had made the moral choice to work with federal aviation officials in investigating dozens and dozens of crashes so that lives could be saved in the future. It is a heroism and moral choice that is out of the limelight. He spent his time improving training and methods for evacuating aircraft in emergencies. I can think of no greater example of how this important Torah principle can be demonstrated. Captain Sullenberger is a true hero who has rightly earned the admiration of the great masses of people. Hashem has brought about his rise to fame precisely because he had spent his life trying to save human life. The Talmud (Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 4:9) tells us that whomsoever saves one life it is as if he has saved the entire world. Captain “Sully” deserves our complete admiration – both for his action and for a lifetime of care and concern for human life. Let us not forget that he also went back twice, at the risk of his own life to check every aisle and row for anyone that could have been left behind. He checked twice.
Captain Sullenberger should not be alone in being an object of admiration; we should likewise admire the thousands of other unsung heroes in this country and beyond who are concerned with human safety and the well-being of others.
As far as Bernie Madoff is concerned, Rabbi Shafran’s point is incorrect. There is a huge Torah difference between stealing a dime and stealing a much larger amount. The Talmud tells us that the great prophet Yirmiyahu prayed to G-d that when evil people do perform acts of charity – it should be worked out that the recipients are undeserving people. We see therefore that the repercussions of an act whether they be positive or negative have enormous weight. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter in Ohr Yisroel letter 31 (“BeMah Yevashe”) makes the same argument that the nature of the sin is indeed a consequence of the extent of the repercussions. Madoff’s crimes caused enormous damage to thousands of victims. Entire savings were wiped out. People lost their homes. Retired people who lost everything had to re-enter the work force – often at menial jobs offering menial wages. Eli Weisel’s life work was destroyed.
Rabbi Shafran’s terminology is also grossly incorrect. Madoff did not commit one crime. They were a series of thousands and thousands of crimes. The entire Talmudic tractate of Krisus tells us that each and every criminal act is counted separately and individually. True, Madoff admitted guilt as Rabbi Shafran points out, but he never did right by his victims. Investigators had to look for the money themselves, and Madoff never offered to make restitution with what he claimed were properly earned funds. He even sent pieces of jewelry to others. Regarding Madoff’s statement of guilt, Rabbi Shafran writes, “No one can know if those words reflect the feelings in his heart, but I don’t claim any right to doubt that they do. And facing one’s sins and regretting them is the essence of teshuvah – which we are all enjoined to do for our personal aveiros, however small or large.”
One thing that has always differentiated Judaism from other religions is the recognition that real actions are required to make moral changes within people. One of the reasons for the recitation of blessings is to instill within us a sense of hakaras hatov – recognition of good that was done for us. We are enjoined to recite blessings every day so that we turn into appreciative people and not ingrates. We cannot change our essence and become grateful people by merely saying so. It takes years of practice. This is one of the essential philosophies behind the physical performance of Mitzvos.
Mr. Madoff’s declaration of guilt and penance with no accompanying actions of restitution or attempts thereof do not comprise the “essence of Teshuva.” The fact that he is not taking actions to rectify his numerous crimes indicates that his statement of guilt is meaningless.
Rabbi Shafran points out that Mr. Madoff could have bought new identity papers. If so he would have been subjected to the greatest manhunt ever known. He would have lost all communication with his family forever. This was clearly not an option. There is no admiration in order here.
Generally speaking, Rabbi Shafran’s articles are right on the mark. This article, however, in my view was grossly irresponsible. It should be retracted.
Rabbi Yair Hoffman is a mechanaich in a Bais Yaakov and is an author of a sefer on Hilchos Mezuzah and on the halachos of Lifnei Iver. He was formerly the Rabbi of a Young Israel in Long Island.