“Whomever has a hundred desires two hundred” our Sages declare with their keen insight into human nature. Tragically we are witness to those who have a million yet are not satisfied until they have tens of millions at which point they are not satisfied until they have hundreds of millions at which point...This in a nutshell is the cause the turmoil in world financial markets that threatens to reshape our economy in ways not yet known and in ways that we do not want to know.
None of this is an accident. It is rooted in basic human greed with the adage ‘let’s make more money now and worry about the consequences later’. Credit was made available, through the giving of loans at below market rates, to those who lacked the necessary income. It was hoped that by the time the banks demanded higher rates to compensate for their initial losses these people would somehow be able to afford payments that they could not when they received the initial loan. Hope is no way to run a business. It is this short sighted focus which explains the preoccupation by shareholders and management alike with quarterly results instead of more crucial long term goals.
With trillions of dollars at risk worldwide, the stakes are enormous, forcing government intervention in the markets, something fundamentally at odds with the notion of a free market. Federal regulators have begun investigating top executives to see if they knew that huge losses were imminent and by not reporting such misled the public.
The obligation to prevent harm to others is a fundamental principle of Jewish law. So much so that we are allowed to speak despairingly of others – to speak lashon hara – if that is the only way to prevent the “others” from causing you harm. One has an obligation to inform others of impending losses as soon as one becomes aware of them. This would include layoffs of staff, lack of regulatory approval for a medical product or losses of major contracts.
It is exceedingly rare for a company to go bankrupt unexpectedly - usually the signs were evident well beforehand. It is not unheard of for top executives to arrange their affairs – using legal technicalities or otherwise – to minimize their own losses before filing for bankruptcy.
Yet at times revealing “bad news” just makes matters worse, preventing measures from being negotiated that could reverse or at least halt the negative fallout. There is much room for secret negotiations away from the glare of the media and Wall street when companies are in distress. Intent however is crucial. One may not enter into secret talks to forestall the inevitable but rather to salvage the best possible deal. Admittedly the line is sometimes fine making corporate values so crucial.
Just like love, money has the capability to blind us to reality. It is quite clear why the Torah has more mitzvoth related to monetary issues that any other area of Jewish life. More than Shabbat, the holidays, Kashrut, Israel. We need constant reminders and guidelines to ensure that our pursuit of money remains a means to an end and not an end in of itself.
Many of the Al Chets that we recite on Yom Kippur relate to our shortcomings in this crucial area. Yom Kippur is followed immediately by Sukkot where we celebrate our material blessings represented by the “four species”. Yet precisely at this time we are forced to leave our homes, indicating the fleeting nature of material possessions – preferring to dwell under the Divine “canopy of peace”. It is Sukkot with its emphasis on material moderation that is known as zman simchatenu, the time of happiness.