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Rabbi Eli Silberstein
by Published on November 14, 2019

"I thought I would do this [ponzi scheme] for just a short time and then extricate myself and my clients from it"
—Bernie Madoff, during his sentencing hearing in court.

We can imagine the temptation, the first time Madoff's investments turned sour, to use the money from new investors to pay the old. What harm could there be in borrowing in hard times and paying back when things improved?

Most criminals do not start off with the deliberate intent to hurt others. They justify a temporary flirtation with evil with the firm intention of abandoning their imprudence at the first opportunity. They fail to anticipate the mire that will engulf them as soon as they cross to the "other side."

How quickly things change! At first the wrongdoer is immobilized by a sense of guilt and self-loathing at having engaged in the forbidden. Shortly thereafter, the self-preservation instinct kicks in, and the person begins to justify the act. It is hard to muster the motivation to escape evil when it no longer feels evil.

The real cause of moral downfall is not the act of evil itself, but the psychological responses that keep the sinner tethered to the act long after it has ceased to be tempting.

The noted Chasidic mentor, Rabbi Mendel Futerfas, once told his students, "A chassid is not someone who does not sin. A chassid is someone who can commit an egregious offense and muster up the courage the next day to engage in prayer with the same fervor as before."

Rabbi Mendel taught that spiritual growth depends on our ability to feel sorry for our acts without being overcome by feeling sorry for ourselves. It lies in our ability to recognize that in spite of our imperfections, we have the power to connect with G‑d and redirect our lives.

Maimonides writes that there is evidence that one has truly repented only when one encounters the same challenge that one failed at in the past, and yet courageously withstands the temptation. Why is it so important that one face the exact same test and conditions which led to the initial failure?

The commission of a sinful act creates a feeling of vulnerability which haunts the sinner. Having failed once, the perpetrator feels like a failure in the face of temptation, and thus is likely to sin again. Only when the sinner musters up the gumption say "no" to the same circumstances is the sinner able to truly be free from the clutches of that evil deed.

At the Seder, we will read about the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt. How did the respected children of Jacob end up being slaves in Egypt? Originally, Pharaoh hired them as workers. However, once they became dependent on the Egyptians for their livelihood, Pharaoh decreased their wages until eventually, they were slaves.

And yet, even in the face of the cruelest suffering, they could not see the error of having relinquished their own independence. They justified the benefits of slavery to the point that they could not even imagine a different life. According to the Midrash, 80% of the Jewish people refused to leave Egypt, preferring familiar misery to unfamiliar freedoms.

As we approach Passover, it is time to leave behind our Egypt which traps us in prisons born of ancient missteps. We have the ability to be free of our past. We need only muster the courage.

Originally published April 7, 2009 on Chabad.org