Another chapter in the Bernard Madoff saga has closed, with a federal judge this week condemning as “extraordinarily evil” the crimes of the once prominent businessman, and imposing on him the maximum sentence of 150 years.
Many questions remain as to how Madoff carried out his elaborate Ponzi scheme, seemingly without the knowledge of his wife and two sons who worked closely with him, or other associates, and where the unaccounted for money is today. But Madoff’s personal fate has been sealed. At 71, any long-term sentence would have assured that he would live out his years in prison. In imposing the 150 years, Judge Denny Chin was sending a powerful message of deterrence, and recognition of the depth of pain and hardship that Madoff brought to thousands of clients who trusted him completely. Among those clients were many Jewish charities, and the impact of their losses on the lives of tens of thousands of beneficiaries in terms of social services and medical, educational and cultural needs is impossible to measure.
In addition, there is the stigma of a Jewish businessman who has come to personify the greed, excess and heartlessness of a society reeling from economic collapse.
In the end, though, this 21st century crime seems grounded in the kind of vanity and lack of self-awareness that has been part of human nature since ancient times. “Even the man with big eyes,” goes an old Jewish saying, “does not see his own failings.”
Indeed, Madoff’s statement to the court shed a bit of light on what went wrong and how his successful, legitimate business veered off to become the largest Ponzi scheme in history. “I believed when I started this problem, this crime,” he said, “that it would be something I would be able to work my way out of, but that became impossible. As hard as I tried, the deeper I dug myself into a hole…I made an error of judgment. I refused to accept the fact that for once in my life I failed. I couldn’t admit that failure and that was a tragic mistake.”
Bernard Madoff has become a pariah, a symbol of a society that measures success in dollars and possessions rather than acts of kindness toward others. His story, and its effect on so many others, is a tragedy of biblical proportions, reminding us once again of the need to restore a sense of ethical values to our increasingly frenetic, multi-tasked lives. “Who is happy?” the rabbis of old asked. “He who is satisfied with his lot.”
It’s a lesson too late for Madoff, but hopefully not for the rest of us.
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