Sunday, June 14, 2009

Get rich quick schemes

Bernie Madoff rocked the financial world last December when his $50 billion Ponzi scheme was exposed. Last week, South Africa uncovered its own ponzi mastermind and the smouldering trail of the billions that he took from investors.

South Africa's Jewish community is hurting as many have lost huge sums in this scam. Some have lost everything. People are shocked at how what looked like a watertight investment, proposed by a decent guy was really a skilfully contrived money-sucking plot.

I suppose this is one of those times to be grateful if you don't have much money. Nobody approached me to invest in this "amazing opportunity".

Timing is everything and G-d always designs events to happen around Torah portions that help you understand what has happened- or at least what you should learn from it.

Yesterday's Torah portion (which we read just hours after the story broke) describes the dangers of greed and worse, of expecting too-good-to-be-true returns on investment. It recalls how the Jews complained to Moses about the food he provided for them in the desert. Now, Jews complaining about food is not too unusual (after all, waiters at kosher restaurants often ask the patrons during the meal if anything is ok), but this fuss went beyond the norm.

Jews in the desert ate manna, a spiritual food that tasted like anything you could imagine and was nutrionally balanced to perfection. Still, that apparently wasn't enough and the Children of Israel insisted they needed meat. Moses wasn't happy, and neither was G-d who warned that the meat would come, but at a hefty price. With meat still stuck between their teeth, the carnivorous faction all died.

Lesson 1: When you have what you need and are still greedy for more, beware! As attractive as it may seem, greed always comes back to bite.

Even more intriguing than their urge to replace manna with meat was the line of argument the rabble-rousers used. "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free!" they exclaimed.

For free? What higher price can there be than paying for something with your independence? They were slaves in Egypt, they paid with their lives for the "free" fish. Technically, the meals in Auschwitz were also free, but who would be as callous as to refer to them that way.

Rashi (the first commentary you consult to decode a Torah verse) solves the mystery. Nobody believed that the food in Egypt was free. They were saying that they missed eating for "free", without any moral responsibility.

Chassidic teachings develop the theme, stating that whatever appears to be "free" belongs to Egypt. Egypt is the antithesis of holiness. To attain spiritual meaning requires effort. Anything that comes too easily belongs to Egypt. It is treif.

If someone tells you to invest money and you will get near-immediate over-the-top returns for doing nothing, know that is Egypt speaking. It is treif.

If they assure you that you can fix your marriage by simply reading a book or attending a seminar, Egypt is at it again. When someone proposes that you can raise wholesome children in a few easy steps, he is coming at you from the Nile Delta. And let nobody assure you that erratic shul visits and an occasional shiur will mature your soul.

Anything valuable in life comes through effort. Nobody should try to convince you otherwise, because only nothing is for nothing.

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