The most shocking aspect of today’s mass arrests of New Jersey politicians, Rabbis, bureaucrats and other scoundrels is that there is nothing that shocking about it at all. These types of shenanigans have become so commonplace – especially in New Jersey, dubbed the “Soprano State” for good reason (in a book by that name) – that they constitute the norm of public life here, and the politician who is not corrupt stands out, and usually by his inability to win elections. The corruption is so rampant and pervasive – in almost every township and in every level of office, from public works to the governor’s office– that anyone with sense has despaired of ever changing it. It is ingrained, and considered a normal part of doing business in New Jersey. No organ of government is uncompromised.
And I think we no longer need to ask how Rabbis can become ensnared in these sordid affairs. (Of course, I show all due deference and respect to the presumption of innocence, and if innocent, I hope they are all acquitted and their reputations restored.) But I know that these individuals – from Brooklyn and New Jersey – are not the first so indicted, and I sense that they will not be the last. The lure of money is extraordinarily powerful, and the good news (small comfort, to be sure) is that this lust apparently transcends the ethnic, religious and racial barriers that seem so insurmountable in the rest of society. Jews allegedly collaborated with non-Jews, Italians and Irish, whites and blacks – a melting pot of vice, a mosaic of sleaze. America truly is the land of opportunity.
How can people succumb to dishonesty and avarice, so chillingly and blatantly ? We miss the point if we highlight the high cost of living Jewishly, the desire to be charitable, the need to underwrite yeshivot and other worthy institutions, the necessity to fund shidduchim, etc. The Torah prohibits Jews – and non-Jews – from stealing, and quite explicitly; one doesn’t need to delve into Rashi and Ramban’s commentary to understand the prohibition. Evidently, the desire for money is extensive and uncontrollable. Money is a sublimated form of desire – it is valueless in itself; its real value lies in its capacity to purchase other things. When it remains as cash, it provides no pleasure at all except for two things: the fantasy of unlimited future pleasures and the reality of an enhanced social status. And the latter, in today’s world, is the real passion, even if thieves usually live well.
As long as we continue to glorify money and its holders – as long as we give prominence to those who have it (and regardless how they attained it) – we will continue to suffer from this malady. The prophet Yeshayahu said, quite tellingly (and in this week’s haftara, of all things): “Your princes are corrupt and associates of thieves; all of them love bribery and pursue illegal gains” (1:23). Undoubtedly, many of the accused are quite stringent about not laundering clothing during the Nine Days. Would that they have been similarly concerned with laundering dollars the rest of the year. We are advised not to enter litigation with non-Jews during the Nine Days, days of misfortune. Perhaps the FBI was briefed on that too ? That would take “cooperating with the authorities” to a new level.
The ethnic hodgepodge of the accused demonstrates that Jews are really no better than anyone else, but we are supposed to be. We were entrusted by G-d with one gift: His moral code. And that we squander, dissipate and abuse – and for what ? Money. How sad…how tragic…how so appropriate for days of mourning, days that remind us that, for all our supposed piety and tearful protestations, we are really quite far from rebuilding the ruins of Yerushalayim, and from building a society based on justice and righteousness. Perhaps this will be a wake-up call ? Perhaps. Until the next one.