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Bernie Madoff, the Holy Thief: A lesson about Karma

A lot of people are furious at Bernie Madoff who made off with billions upon billions of dollars that were invested with him by numerous non-profit organizations, as well as a handful of actors and other individuals.  I, for one, am grateful to him. Not for squandering what was entrusted to him by corporations and individuals, but for squandering and causing to disappear billions entrusted to him by organizations.


This is why:  Because of the Madoff scandal, we now know that billions of dollars that could have gone to help the poor, rescue foreclosures, support and enhance education, pay for scholarships on behalf of those who couldn’t afford to pay tuition in schools, etc. etc. etc. – were all this time being hoarded by the federations and other communal organizations who saw it more fitting to invest the billions that were donated to them to help others, rather than to use this money for the immediate needs of immediately-needed causes. I had no idea. I and you and others all this time presumed that these organizations, set up for helping humanitarian and educational causes, were suffering because of the economic crises all these years, and so we fell left and right for their emotionally-driven campaigns, sending them more and more of our hard-earned money so we could do what we can in supporting the poor amongst us, help low-income home-bound elderly here and abroad, or help fledgling programs of educational and community support to flourish. And all this time, so much of what could have gone to really significantly help others, individuals and causes alike, was instead being wheel-barrowed by the billions into the pockets of Mr. Madoff.


And now, they cry, they weep, they jump up and down in panic and point their bureaucratic fingers at Bernie whose only crime was that he did to them what they were all along doing to us!  A lot of desperate situations could have used that money, hoarded for years by organizations which conducted themselves – and still do – like business corporations rather than like what they were set up for, and what we have been donating money to them for.


You are waiting for a teaching. It’s right in front of your eyes. It’s called Karma in some traditions. In Judaism it’s called mee’dah k’nehgged mee’dah, or measure for measure (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 90a).  ”What you dole out to others, is doled out to you as well” (Talmud Bav’li, Megilah 12b).  Many of these organizations who lost a lotta lotta money breached the trust we had in them, trust that they would come through for us when we were in need. Instead they breached that trust and preoccupied themselves with investments. As the Talmud says: “A breach invites a thief” (Talmud Bav’li, Sukah 26a), and sure enough their breach of our trust invited Bernie the Holy Thief who in turn breached their trust.


Now some of you may take offense at my lashing out at these fine organizations. After all, they did help some people and some causes some of the time with some of the money. Like the Talmud puts it: “Not the mouse is the thief, but the hole in the wall through which the mouse emerged to begin with, is responsible. Nevertheless, if there were no mouse, how would the hole get filled with stolen goods in the first place?” (Talmud Bav’li, Gittin 45a). If Madoff is guilty, so are the organizations who squandered our hard-earned donations. He is the hole in which they stashed their take.


The ancient rabbis warned us not to be so reckless with trust in general, let alone in trusting other people’s money to someone you don’t really know. “If someone from the town of Naresh kisses you,” taught the 3rd century Rav, “count your teeth.” (Talmud Bavli, Chulin 127a).  


Bottom line, what we learn from all this is that Karma is alive and well, as the Talmud puts it: “He who sets his eyes on that which is not his – what he desires is not given to him, and what he possesses is taken away from him” (Talmud Bav’li, Sotah 9a).