Thursday, December 18, 2008

"That Shyster" Bernard Madoff and Joseph's Brothers

As if things in the investment world could have possibly gotten any worse, now we have the Madoff scandal , which, according the Jewish Week, has expanded even more.

So I was in the post office on Tuesday, mailing a package and buying stamps, and the clerk and I got to talking about the tough economic times. As I turned to leave, he added one comment that stuck with me, saying, "and now we have to deal with that shyster." I assume he meant Madoff.

I didn't have my yarmulke on, so I'm pretty sure the clerk wasn't saying that specifically for my ears. It just came out naturally.

I wondered whether I might be too sensitive, ascribing to every insult that sounds remotely Germanic anti-Semitic overtones. So I looked up Shyster on Wikipedia and here's what it said:

A shyster (pronounced /ˈʃaɪstər/) is someone who acts in a disreputable, unethical or unscrupulous way, especially in the practice of law and politics.[1] It is a slang word.


The word is derived from the German verb scheissen, "to defecate" and the English suffix -ster, "one who does". Shyster is an alteration of the German scheißer, which literally means "defecator" or an "incompetent worthless person".[2]

There is no basis to conclude that a possible origin includes Shylock, a character in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and the owner of a stall or shy in a market place.[3]

An example of a modern day shyster would be Bernard L. Madoff, the fund manager and business owner who started the Wall Street firm Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC.[4]

So, while skirting the question of anti-Semitism, Wiki already puts Madoff into the pantheon of all-time great shysters.

If you look up shyster in the dictionary, Madoff's name is already there!

I wondered whether the postal clerk had read Wikipedia - or contributed this entry.

Shyster or not, Madoff is clearly a Shanda - He's both a great embarrassment to the Jews and a crook who stole particularly from the Jews. So we get it on both ends. We're ripped off and then blamed for it. We haven't seen anything like this since the Jews had to pay the Nazis for their own persecution.

In this week's portion, Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers for twenty silver coins. But a close look at the text leads to much confusion as to whom Joseph was really sold, Ishmaelites or Midianites. Looking at Nechama Leibowitz's survey of the traditional commentaries ( reveals a complex series of transactions and non-transactions that might have perplexed even the best SEC investigator.

And there passed by Midianites, merchants; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis 37:28)

This chapter constitutes a turning point in the life of Joseph and the history of the Jewish people; for it marks the descent of the Israelites into Egypt. The interpretation of the above verse has been the subject of much dispute. The accepted explanation is that of Rashi:

This was another caravan, the text informing us that he was sold many times. They drew- refers to the sons of Jacob they took him out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites and the Ishmaelites to the Midianites and the Midianites to the Egyptians.

It might well have been the world's first Ponzi scheme. (Why is it that whenever I hear the word "Ponzi" I think of Henry Winkler spreading his palms and going "Heyyyy!"). But the bottom line is that for that paltry sum (you try and go anywhere on just 20 shekels), a band of brothers sold their brother - and their souls - and as result, a the entire family eventually ended up in Egypt, only to become slaves there a few centuries later.

Of course things went swimmingly for some time, as the scam eluded exposure. Only once the seven years of famine began, following the seven years of plenty, were the fissures exposed. So let's see, we've had about seven years of plenty, since we hit rock bottom just after Sept. 11, 2001. And Lehman Brothers filed for bankrupcy on September 15 of this year. Hmm.... You do the math.

This tale of greed just never ends. Madoff is not the first to have sold out his brothers for a couple of shekels.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

jashar koch'cha, on the article. Only a final thought, Madoff sold his brothers for much more than "a couple of shekels." I like thekL V'CHOMER, NONETHE LESS.