Play Now, Pay Later: Lessons From The Madoff Tragedy

Play Now, Pay Later: Lessons From The Madoff Tragedy

by Baila Olidort - Brooklyn, NY

December 15, 2010

Vanity of vanities says Kohelet . . . because man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets; before the silver cord is loosed, or the gold bowl is shattered, or the pitcher is broken . . . Ecclesiastes 11:5

With the news of Mark Madoff’s suicide, this family’s ruinous fall has grown to make it worthy of Shakespearean tragedy. Like Macbeth, this is the story of how one man’s greed powered a calamity of epic proportions, leaving a trail of consuming, catastrophic grief in its path. 

Much as Bernie Madoff is reviled for his crime, the news about his son’s suicide could not have but triggered feelings of sadness among many, especially parents for whom there can be nothing worse in life than the death, let alone the suicide, of a child. 

Because of the enormous damage he inflicted on so many, Mr. Madoff’s crimes offer no shades of grey that might be picked apart in the hopes of finding some complexity to the story. But until this last, heartbreaking development, it is possible that he himself still felt fine about the trade-off: a few years in prison at the end of his life, in exchange for many decades of life in fantastic luxury, prestige, and family.

With the suicide of his son, even the most cynical—and possibly Mr. Madoff himself—may have a change of heart about his life choices. Of course, they represented an extreme that sets him apart from most of society, but it is precisely this severe contrast to the norm that allows us to see with great clarity what is often otherwise obscured: the motivations that steer us in our daily, even mundane decisions, and how they are related to our respective ideas about ourselves and our relationship to society. 

Our values and ideas about the good life will differ, depending on many factors, especially where we come from, how we were taught to measure good and distinguish it from bad, and most importantly, the examples our elders set for us in the choices they made and the passion they invested in their pursuits. 

But different as our values may be, it is probably true that most of us will measure the wisdom of our decisions by how they will play out over time. For some, satisfaction will come from personal gains. But  when asked what they hope to see when they reflect on their lives at the end of their years, many will surely want to know that they’ve been part of something bigger, and have made choices that  transcend the smallness of their own lives. 

Though it is a very Jewish way to view life, it is not to say that we live only for the future, nor that we shun personal growth or material blessings; Judaism is a tradition that demands engagement with and in the present moment. And it encourages seekers of wealth, fame and power to use these as means to greater ends—society vs. self, spiritual vs. material—if they are to endure at all.

Many individuals lost their lifelong savings to Bernie Madoff’s terrible choices. Mark Madoff lost his life to his father’s passion for wealth and prestige. It is not hard to imagine that in the last days of his tortured existence, this young man would have gladly traded in all those years of life in the lap of luxury, for life in the lap of a father who was motivated differently in the choices he made.

“A sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for their owner to his hurt. But those riches perish by evil adventure: and he begets a son, and there is nothing in his hand. As he came forth from his mother’s womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and he shall take nothing for his labor . . .” Kohelet 4:12

Submit a comment

1000 characters remaining.
Chabad Lubavitch Worldwide

Lubavitch International

Lubavitch International