As I perused the front page of the New York Times this past Saturday evening, I was struck by two headlines that at first seemed totally different and unrelated: One, displayed prominently in the left-hand column, concerned a well-known individual. The other, in small print at the bottom of the page, was about someone previously unknown. One was tragic and depressing. The other was happy and uplifting. Both stories caught my eye because they were noteworthy in their own right. When viewed in relation to each other however, they illustrate a powerful lesson.
The first story entitled “A Madoff Son Hangs Himself on Father’s Arrest Anniversary,” reported the tragic circumstances of Mark Madoff’s suicide, carried out as his two year old son lay asleep in the adjacent bedroom. We may never know for sure if he actively participated in his father’s crimes, but it’s clear that his untimely death at the age of 46 made him the latest sad casualty of Bernie Madoff’s despicable behavior. Apparently two years of scandal, lawsuits, broken relationships, and terminal unemployment were ultimately more than he could bear.
The second story, entitled “He Found Bag of Cash, But Did the Unexpected,” * was about Dave Tally, a 49 year old homeless man from Tempe Arizona who returned a lost backpack containing $3,300 to its owner, in spite of the fact that its contents could have transformed the circumstances of his life. Mr. Tally thought he’d return the backpack and that would be the end of it, but instead he’s been praised as a homeless hero. The mayor of Tempe proclaimed last Thursday Dave Tally day, and he has already received job offers, free dental surgery and more than $8000 in rewards from admiring citizens, a sum far exceeding the amount he returned.
What drives a wealthy man to steal millions –some of it from people he knew personally – while a poor man returns a relative fortune to a stranger, when he could have easily rationalized keeping it? I am shocked by the devastation that one man’s greed can cause, but even more amazed by how a simple human quality called integrity can evoke so much admiration. Why are so many people touched by the Dave Tally story? Is this just a sad testimony to the age that we live in, when a simple act of goodness can rise to the level of front page news? Or can we draw parallels to a story from a different age; a remarkable story of one man’s meteoric rise from slavery to stardom; a story that we conclude with this week’s Torah reading?
On three separate occasions, Joseph, a powerless foreigner and slave, rises quickly and unexpectedly to positions of great authority, the last one being viceroy over all of Egypt. The Torah offers reasons for this. It tells us that God was with him; that he was unusually successful; that he found favor in people’s eyes; that he interpreted dreams and offered wise counsel. All of this explains why people would find him useful, but I believe their willingness to trust him so completely and so speedily stems from a more basic quality: his sterling integrity. The Torah doesn’t even have to say it explicitly. Joseph’s integrity oozes from its pages.
And if we doubt this, we need only revisit the moment that perhaps defines him better than any other: his famous refusal to succumb to the advances of his master’s wife; a supreme act of self-control that paves the way for him to become one of the most powerful men in the world. It’s worthwhile to study Joseph’s words at the climax of that scene, because they reveal not only his level of integrity, but its source:
“My master does not even know what I do in the house. He has entrusted me with everything he owns. No one in this house has more power than I have. He has not kept back anything at all from me except you – his wife. How could I do such a great wrong? It would be a sin against God!” (Genesis 39: 8-9)
Joseph acknowledges the debt of gratitude that he owes his master, and recognizes how unjust it would be to repay that kindness with treachery. But in the end, it’s his recognition of the plain and simple wrongness of the act, the “sin against God,” that allows him to resist overwhelming temptation. This is the true source of integrity. This is what enables us to counter balance our lust and greed, even when no one but God himself is present to witness it. And this is what enabled a penniless man like Dave Tally to walk away from what was for him, a small fortune. It simply wasn’t his to take.
Bernie Madoff stories are about money and personality. They don’t make the front page unless they involve well-known people or cause too much collateral damage to be ignored. Dave Tally stories make the front page even when they involve anonymous individuals and relatively small amounts of cash because they’re about something much bigger; bigger even than serving the needs of others. They’re about putting aside self-interest in order to do the right thing. They’re about true integrity; and true integrity inspires us. It inspires us to trust. It inspires us to want to serve. But perhaps most of all, it inspires us to remember that greatness can still be found –oftentimes in the most ordinary people, and at the most unexpected times.