Madoff’s Tower of Babel

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13 Mar 2009

Bernie Madoff has just agreed to plead guilty. Even if he were to live out every year of a 150-year sentence he could not make restitution to the scores of people he has betrayed. The aftershocks will have no limit. Save a single life and you save an entire world. Destroy a fellow human being’s life’s savings and you destroy infinite worlds. Madoff’s destruction on the ledger sheets runs into the billions. In human terms the destruction is incalculable. I think of the college students whose Birthright trips have been cancelled, the medical research at Hadassah Hospital that may have been halted, the individuals left with nothing but worthless financial statements. What cures will now go undiscovered? What ember of yiddishkeit that might well have been ignited during a sunrise hike up Masada now lies in ash? How could one person have been so arrogant so misguided, so utterly dishonest? There are not words enough, much less explanation.

Years ago my husband and I visited Moab, Utah. Being out west humbles me. The very topography demands an instant attitude readjustment. Out there, I’m just a speck. Out there, where the sky is so big and the mountains have stood for eons, a single human life seems much less significant than it does back here in the midwest. Surrounded by natural beauty as far as my eye can see, I am reminded in a very big way who is in charge. When I’m out west I’m reminded of how small I really am, how transient my hopes and disappointments, how brief my time on earth is and how carefully I must tread.

One morning we spent hiking in Canyonlands National Park. The wind whipped around us warm and dry; the ground was grainy beneath our feet; a tubmbleweed rolled by like a spiky ball of yarn batted along by an unseen hand. Standing on a dusty plateau I imagined Abraham and Isaac upon Mount Moriah, on the verge of enacting a near-sacrifice whose drama reverberates still today. Where else could the Akeidah have taken place but upon a mountaintop? Would Abraham have heard God’s voice amidst the urban din in whatever passed for a backyard in those times? Canyonlands- vastness was filled with a power that overwhelmed me, batted me into silent reverence.

Madoff, swept up in his own chimeric power, forgot all this. Perhaps living in a tower place, a place of manmade skyscrapers, a Manhattan filled with Babel-like constructions built by and inhabited by humans, made him forget what mattered. There is a disconnect that comes with living in a tower place. We come to think we are in charge. We come to think that we are the source of all that we create. I admit the analogy is a bit simplistic. What led Madoff to pull off history’s biggest financial con is rooted in something deeper than the fact that he lived in a Park Avenue co-op. Nevertheless, living in a place teeming with human achievement has the tendency to make you think human endeavor is the end all and be all in life. Spending time in a place of overwhelming natural vastness reminds you of your puny importance along history’s continuum.

We Jews began life as mountain people. Standing at the base of Mount Sinai amidst thunder and lightning, we were commanded to behave in a certain way, commanded to remember Who brought us out of Egypt, commanded not to cheat or steal or lie. God laid down the Law amidst the vastness of His creation, the very proof of His existence. He did not command Moses to talk it up in a manmade setting over lattes and biscotti.

Bernie Madoff forgot who was boss. Living in a tower of his own making he believed his power was immutable. The tragedy is that so many good people believed in that power, people whose lives have now been reduced to rubble.

© Debra Darvick 2008. Debra Darvick’s most recent work is This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy. The book may be ordered on or by calling the publisher at 800.880.8642. To read personal reflections, musing on the writing life, excerpts from her novel and book reviews, check out Debra’s new blog at

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.