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Whom Can We Trust?
By Simon Jacobson

 Trust is all over the news these days. Do we trust our financial institutions? Can we trust our fund managers? What about our banks, corporations and insurance firms, AIG included? Higher up: Can we trust our government? Can countries trust each other? Will the United States remain a trusted superpower? And finally – the holy economic grail itself: Can we trust our economic system: Capitalism?

With all the financial abuse of the last decade – obscene bonuses, fraud at the highest levels of business leadership, corporate benefits delivered by lawmakers who received financial contributions from these very corporations – trust has been eroded on every rung of our economic structure.

The fact is: money corrupts. Money is the epitome of self-interest. Self-interest – something no one is immune to – causes bias. And bias “blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts the tongue of the righteous.” It is now very apparent that the economic meltdown was caused by greed, which led to bad lending practices, easy credit and quick money. For every mistake we are aware of, how many are we not aware of? What new revelations will the future bring?

If you think about it, the meltdown was inevitable. If personal gain and self-interest are the driving forces of capitalism, how much does it take to shift from personal gain to greed and to cutting corners for profit? And how far away is that from outright fraud and theft to enrich oneself at the expense of others? And once the greed and fraud reach a critical mass, what power can contain the rippling damage?

The conventional answer, of course, is that laws and regulation keep us honest. But what happens when the regulators fail, as they have so blatantly in the last few years? And what about lawmakers being handsomely rewarded by corporations who stand to gain from the way the laws are written? And who regulates the regulators? 

Some say that we must demand total disclosure. But then, how do you prevent abuse of our cherished privacy? And can you really trust those that are enforcing transparency? How many elected officials are themselves corrupt, or become so once they have gained power, influence and money dangling before their eyes? 

You get the idea. The fact remains that man-made systems will always be flawed. Let’s be honest: Despite all our checks and balances, given the right circumstances, self-interest can bring the house down. We may not like to entertain the thought, but once trust has been breached, promises broken and security betrayed, how much does it take to destroy the fragile structures that keep things together, tenuous as they are in the first place? 

Of course, it all comes down to the biggest question of all: Can we trust people? Can we trust each other? Can we trust ourselves?

A recently divorced man shared with me his tragic life. After years of trying, challenged by a fractured childhood, he finally thought that he had found his soulmate, only to discover that she too betrayed him in ways I would prefer not to mention. He told me, “since my abusive father left my mother, I trusted no one. After hard work I finally allowed my guard down and trusted someone with my heart and soul. Sadder than my divorce is the fact that I will never trust again…”   How sad. And how about the child they had together – and millions of others – what type of trust can a growing adult have when all expectations and bonds were betrayed in childhood?

Sure, we have naïve, innocent, inexperienced people trusting others, until… Until they too get hurt, and then they lose their trust.

It’s one thing to find a trusting child or a trusting adult who has not been hurt. But can we find, savvy, seasoned, experienced people – people who have seen the cruelty of the world, who have witnessed the crimes and abuses humans are capable of – and still maintain their trust in humanity, their trust in other people?

Usually, once we have been wounded and especially repeatedly, we turn skeptical if not outright cynical. How many people do you know (or it may even be yourself) – that have their defenses up all the time? And understandably so: How can you develop trust when you grew up in a volatile home and an insecure environment, where every moment was a guessing game, not knowing whether your parents would be showering you with love or with scorn? Or you discovered at your workplace, that as much as you sincerely try, there are those co-workers or superiors that will do anything to undermine you. Or you have come to learn that we live in a world of backstabbing, insecure, selfish, small-minded people who can turn on you in an instant, when they feel their self-interest being threatened. And sometimes worse: Even with nothing to lose, some people will resent another’s success. In Yiddish this type of person is called a “nisht farginer.” I don’t know if there is an equivalent word in English, but it’s essentially begrudging another’s success for no reason at all. I guess, it makes some people feel less of a failure when others fail as well.

Which ever way you analyze it, trust has become a very precious and rare commodity. I wonder how much trust would trade for on today’s commodity markets?

That’s the bad news. Before we get too depressed, enter this week’s Torah portion, which gives us a royal dose of trust.

In this chapter – actually a composite of two chapters, Vayakhel and Pekudei – we conclude the book of Exodus with the construction of the Divine Sanctuary. G-d entrusts the human race to use their gold, silver and copper (and other physical materials) to build a Temple where the Divine presence will dwell. G-d’s trust in us is so complete and profound that He confers on us, mere mortals, the power to “build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst you” – manifesting the Divine in each person’s life.

Various spiritual schools of thought debate the question whether we fickle mortals can in any way ever hope to reach the omnipotent and the immortal, without shedding our corporeal garments. Some argue that finite creatures can merely be servants to the Divine but can never hope to unite with G-d. Even King Solomon, the builder of the First Temple in Jerusalem, wondered: “Heavens and heavens of heavens cannot contain You. How can this [earthly] building [contain you]?!

One would think that the best way to manifest a Divine presence in our lives is through detaching from our material investments and involvements. We achieve nirvana by insulating ourselves from physical distractions and the corrupt influences of a selfish world, via meditation and other spiritual exercises conducive to a sublime experience.

And yet, the Temple was specifically crafted from physical materials – gold, silver and copper – items of value that have the potential to corrupt! Why tempt people by having them build a sanctuary with money?!

The answer lies in the entire purpose of the Temple: “I will dwell amongst you.” It is no great feat to build a sanctuary in heaven, where there is no avarice nor self-indulge nce, no temptations nor distractions. The ultimate triumph is to create a sacred space “amongst you” – in a world of selfish materialism, out of untamed crude materials of this world, which are driven by their needs. Transforming this dark world into a Divine environment is the entire purpose of existence and the objective of the Holy Temple.

And indeed, G-d did take a great risk in entrusting us humans to transform matter into spirit, by building this Divine edifice out of our raw gold, silver and other basic materials.

Here we have the ultimate model for trust: G-d’s trust and confidence in us mortal, corruptible human beings to rise above our petty temptations and immediate needs and fulfill our higher calling. Would you trust other people with such a monumental task? But G-d does trust us.

The question is: How do we repay this trust? Even more fundamentally: How is G-d so sure that He can trust us? With history serving witness to mans’ capacity at duplicity and betrayal, what hope is there that we can transcend our innate self-interest driven tendencies?

In our own hearts we know how little we can trust ourselves. How we can compromise another when push comes to shove and our personal interests are at stake. If we can’t trust ourselves how much can we really trust others? Our distrust of others will always be in direct proportion to our distrust of ourselves. If you know that you can undermine another, you inevitably will feel that the other can do the same or more to you.

So how do we emancipate ourselves from this vicious cycle?

The answer, my friends, can be found in a very unlikely place. The antidote to the distrust inherent in a society driven by self-interest can be found, of all places, on USA currency.

Etched on every coin and bill of this country are the words “In God We Trust.” I am not sure who coined this line, but its message is uncannily prescient: Trust lies at the heart of our free economy. But how can we establish trust when people can’t be trusted? The money we carry tells us that the only way is to trust not in man but in G-d.

As we witness the flaws which have virtually destroyed the fabric of trust so vital to a free economy, we learn that as long as we remain arrogant in our own self-worship, claiming that we can be trusted – “trust me, trust me” – there is no basis for true trust. Yes, we can appoint regulators, write and enforce laws, remove inept leaders, yell and scream, but there will always remain a fundamental flaw in our systems: Left to their own accord, some people will cheat and lie to get ahead, especially if they feel that they won’t get caught.

There is but one way to infuse trust into man-made structures: By introducing something that is not man-made – In God We Trust. Trusting a force greater than ourselves – and that this force “created all people equal” – is the foundation of a just society, where people can trust each other, because they answer to a higher authority.

Humans left to their own resources cannot be trusted due to the inherent bias built into our own subjectivity and self-interest. But when a man humbly realizes that he is here not to serve himself, but to build of his belongings a Divine Sanctuary for a higher cause, then we have fertile ground for trusting each other.

One who trusts in G-d is someone we can trust. One who rises above self-interest and places their trust in a Higher Power is someone we can trust. Moses was trusted because he trusted in G-d, not in himself. He therefore humbly gives a detailed accounting in this week’s Torah portion regarding all the monies he collected to build the Temple.

Think of it this way: Two competent fund managers approach you to invest with them. One is brimming with confidence and tells you to trust him with your money; he even proves himself with steady returns over decades. The other humbly tells you that he will do his best to make your money grow, but ultimately it is in G-d that we trust to bless us in our ventures. Whom would you trust more? 

We’re not discussing one who is mouthing slogans and paying lip service to G-d. We also are not referring to one who cheats other people and then prays to G-d and is nice to his family. Trust in G-d means a trust that permeates a person’s behavior even when he is in the world of business and finance. 

That doesn’t mean that the people we trust are perfect. What it means is that they are accountable. Trust is based not on perfection but on accountability. 

Obviously, trusting G-d cannot be regulated or imposed on anyone; it has to be a choice that people make. And there of course lies the challenge: Can people be trusted to make that choice? 

G-d for one does trust us in that way. By creating us and giving us this choice He cast His vote of confidence in the human race. Now the question is whether we will live up to this expectation and confidence. 

Perhaps our current economic meltdown is an unprecedented opportunity to give us all pause to think about the meaning of trust. And to learn the most vital lesson of all: The foundation of all trust is trust in G-d. 

The concept of Divine Providence tells us that every answer we need in life is there right before our eyes. In this economic crisis – with people anxious about their money – all you need to do is look at the money you are so concerned about, and read the words: 

In God – not in man – We Trust.


Posted on March 25, 2009
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