Imagine you are a miner working a river in California in 1853. When you heard about the gold rush in 1849, you packed up your bags and headed west, looking for fame and fortune. After trekking across the US in a convoy of covered wagons, facing down Indian attacks, bandits, blistering heat, and the frigid Rockies, you finally make it to San Francisco and immediately start panning for gold in the rivers around it. Four years later, you’re still at it. Sure you find gold flakes from time to time, but you haven’t found much fortune, and definitely haven’t found fame.
One cool day in March, you wake up late, exhausted from a particularly long day of panning the day before, and you only make it to the river at noon. You start the endless panning motion you’ve been doing for the last thousand days; dipping your pan in the riverbed silt, and slowly shaking out the dirt with the help of water, looking to see what heavy materials collect at the bottom. Yet on this day, in your very first pan, your strike gold! Sitting at the bottom of your pan is an impossibly huge nugget of gold, looking almost as surprised to be found in a dirty pan as you are to have found it!
Carefully suppressing every natural desire to whoop and holler, you quickly scoop up the heavy nugget and drop it into the reinforced pocket of your Levi & Strauss miner pants. But someone notices your rapid motion, and yells out, “Someone’s got a nuuuuuugg!” Word spreads fast through the camp, people start streaming by to congratulate you, but it’s a lot more worrying than comforting. You already sleep with your Colt .45 under your pillow, as most men in the camp do. But now that the word is out about your new-found wealth, you are a marked man, and your tent is sure to be visited that night by ne’er do wells with lots of guns and little to lose. What do you do?
Everyone knows the answer to that one. You run that nugget down to the Wells Fargo office, and you ship it to your brother in St Louis. Wells Fargo is going to put it in the lockbox of their six horse Concord stagecoach, and spirit your nugget safely out of town. Your fear only lasts as long as it takes you to get to the Wells Fargo branch in town. Once you get there, you are safe, you are done; Wells Fargo will take care of it from there.
It was on this image of safety and security that Wells Fargo built its banking empire, the third largest in the US. Television commercials and billboards for Wells Fargo always include the six horse stagecoach, city parades across the US often include one of the seventeen replica Wells Fargo stagecoaches, and a few of the biggest branches even have original 1850’s stagecoaches in their lobbies! The message is clear: If we could provide safety and security to the Wild Wild West, we can surely provide a safe haven for your savings today.
The marketing message worked. When the financial industry went to pot in 2008, Wells Fargo bucked the trend. Other bank’s stocks were tanking, but Wells Fargo was growing reporting record earnings! More people kept opening accounts with Wells Fargo, CEO John Stumpf was the darling of the banking industry, and countless financial news articles were written about the Wells Fargo success story. Once again, in a period of turmoil and chaos people felt like they could turn to Wells Fargo for protection and safety.
The true story was a bit different; Wells Fargo was robbing millions of people blind. Here’s how they did it: if you had a Wells Fargo account, they would open a few other accounts in your name without your consent or knowledge. They might give you a credit card, a home equity line of credit and a business line of credit as well. Sometimes they would hide these accounts in the stack of papers you were signing when opening an account, and you would have no idea that you were not just signing up for one account, but for four. Sometimes they wouldn’t tell you at all, they would just do it for you, making up PIN numbers and passwords for you while they were at it. People who opened up a CD with $10,000 would sometimes find that the next month they had ten CD’s with $1,000 in each one, but they were being charged ten account fees instead of one.
If you didn’t meet minimum balance requirements (which people usually don’t meet on accounts they are unaware of), you would be charged account fees. Sometimes they moved the money from your primary account into one of the secondary accounts they opened for you, and then when you tried to use your empty primary account you would be charged overdraft fees. In a few years, Wells Fargo created more than 2,000,000 fraudulent accounts, and raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from all sorts of account fees.
When interviewing people who worked for Wells Fargo during the peak of the scandal (2009-2012), it sounds like they were working in a side room just off of purgatorys lobby. Wells Fargo would hire young people with no banking experience (and often no college degree), and then exert enormous pressure on them to open as many bank accounts as possible. In the early days, the daily quota was eight accounts. Each sales associate was expected to open eight new accounts a day!
These young men and women would sit at their desks with hard-charging managers standing over them, making sure that all they did was call everyone they knew and try to convince them to open accounts. You couldn’t leave until you met your quota. “Dial for Dollars! Dial for Dollars!” was the mantra repeated all day by the managers.
People who were not meeting their quotas would suddenly get summoned by two or three managers who would march them out of the sales floor in front of everyone almost like they were being called to the principals office for beating someone up in class. They would march into small windowless rooms, lock the door behind them, and yell at them, threaten them that if they didn’t meet their sales goals they would be fired and given a bad report so that they could never get a job in banking ever again. When a gun toting bank robber was apprehended in the lobby of a bank branch in San Francisco, the branch closed to the public for the day, but the managers forced all the sales people to keep Dialing for Dollars even while the lobby was still swarming with police officers and a screaming robber!
In January of 2009 the daily quota was raised to an entirely impossible twenty new accounts per day. A new slogan showed up, “Eight is Great!” meaning that every Wells Fargo customer should ideally have eight different products, or accounts, from Wells Fargo. To give you a picture of what eight accounts look like, you would have to have a savings account, checking account, a credit card, another credit card, a business line of credit, home equity line of credit, CD, and a mortgage with Wells Fargo to have eight products. It’s literally impossible for a salesperson to open twenty accounts a day. But if every time you open an account you “magically” open eight accounts, well… it could happen. Eight is indeed great.
Workers describe getting sick and frazzled in this intense environment. Many workers said they literally vomited into the garbage cans under their desk, after managers came over and pressured them. People described getting twitches, stomach ailments, and other symptoms of humans working under incredible emotional duress, but the managers never let up. Every day it Dial for Dollars, Dial for Dollars! Open accounts for your parents, your cousins, your college buddies, anyone you know! Dial for Dollars! Eight is Great!
Soon, Wells Fargo was opening millions of new accounts, and collecting hundreds of millions in overdraft and other account fees. Sure, people would often come in complaining, but as soon as they did, the extra accounts were closed with a smile. When employees called the internal ethics hotline, they never got calls back. And if they kept persisting, they were fired. But it gets worse.
There is a form called the U5, it is basically a report card for bank employees. Whenever an employee leaves a bank, the bank fills out a U5 describing that employees performance. This way, when someone applies for a bank job, the bank can check that person’s U5 and see if they are an honest employee. In an industry where billions of dollars flow in great rivers of digital cash, it is important for banks to know the integrity of anyone they are thinking of hiring.
When Wells Fargo fired employees who failed to meet their quotas, or who complained too much to the ethics department about the rampant fraud, they would give them terrible remarks on their U5’s, ensuring that they would never get another job in banking. They even would go so far as writing down that this employee opened fraudulent accounts, the exact thing this employee refused to do!
The Wells Fargo scandal came to light last year. Enough people were making enough noise about all these bank accounts that they were getting charged fees on that they never opened up that a real investigation was launched and the extent of the fraud was revealed. John Stumpf was pulled into Capitol Hill to testify before Congress, and what did he do? He blamed the low-level employees. He claimed that “every barrel has a few bad apples, and we fired the bad apples.” Fire they did. 5,300 salespeople were fired from Wells Fargo, but the blame was not on them. It was on the management that pressured them, showed them how to open multiple accounts for people, ignored their desperate calls to the ethics hotlines, fired them, and then branded them as fraudulent.
For months, John Stump refused to step down, and refused to take any blame for what happened under his leadership. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau slapped Wells Fargo with the largest penalty it ever levied, $190 million. The pressure mounted as more lawsuits were filed, and eventually in October of 2016, John Stump finally was forced to resign. Eight is evidently not that great.
There are a lot lessons to be taken from this extraordinary tale of greed, lies, and fraud, but we will focus on two. The Talmud says (Sotah 3B), “A person never sins unless a spirit of insanity enters him.” What exactly was Wells Fargo thinking as they opened millions of fraudulent accounts? Did they really think that no one was going to notice all these accounts that they never signed up for? Did they really think that people were going to keep paying overdraft fees and account fees for ghost accounts without saying anything?
The reality is that we don’t think. The greatest trick the Evil Inclination employs is getting us to act without really weighing the effect of our actions. It’s like a spirit of insanity takes over us, and we act without considering the consequences. In Judaims, we believe in a positive attribute called Busha, shame.
While most people think of shame as being a sign of weakness or vulnerability, Judaism considers it a great attribute. As a matter of fact, the Talmud says (Yevamos78), that there are three primary character traits of the Jewish people; we are compassionate, we have shame, and we do acts of kindness. Shame is a good thing, and it has many positive values. While most of us associate shame with a feeling we get after doing something wrong, there is a sense of shame that actually prevents us from doing something in the first place.
The Talmud says (Nedarim 20a), “Shame leads to fear of sin; therefore it is said that it is a good sign if a man is prone to shame. Others say: a man who experiences shame will not sin readily.” The Orchos Tzadikim, an anonymously published ethics book from the 14th century, expounds further, “The trait of shame is a great fence and an iron barrier against all transgression. Therefore one should make every effort to conduct himself in accordance with this noble trait and employ wisdom in cultivating it until it is implanted in his soul.”
Rabbi and Dr Pelcovitz, the father and son team that wrote the excellent book Life in the Balance, explain that the word bushah, shame, is closely related to the word boshesh, to tarry or delay. When a person has a sense of shame and responsibility for their actions, they tarry before making a move, carefully weighing out the outcomes of these actions and considering whether the action they are about to do will lead to a glorious outcome or a dishonorable one. Having a sense of shame stops people, or companies, from doing things that will give them a short term boost but a long term embarrassment. It makes them tarry instead of act impetuously, it makes them pause and introspect and gives them time to remove the spirit of insanity that takes ahold of people and leads them to sins that we all look at later and say, “what were they thinking??!”
It is important for us to cultivate that sense of shame, not just the shame for things we did in the past, but the bushah shame that causes us to be boshesh, tarry before acting and consider the implications of every action that we take, because it is indeed a iron barrier against all transgression, keeping out the spirit of insanity that causes us to stray from our true noble selves.
The second thing I found most fascinating was that when Wells Fargo fired people for refusing to play along with their twisted little game, it wrote on their U5 reports that they opened up fraudulent accounts, the very thing they were doing wrong themselves! The Talmud tells us (Kiddushin, 70A), “anyone who disqualifies others, with his own shortcomings he disqualifies them.” Wells Fargo was in the midst of conducting one of the worst frauds in banking history, yet it was with that exact misdeed that they disqualified others. The reason for this is that we are most familiar with ourselves, so the when looking to hurt others, we use the most readily available wound, the one we are familiar with because it is ours.
One of the ways we can reflect on what we need to fix in ourselves, is to look at our own lives, and see what negative trait do we most often complain about in others. Are we constantly ascribing anger problems to others? Arrogance? Laziness? Chances are, we know about it all too well because it is our own. Using this tool, we can find the errors in ourselves, and fix them. Not only will we make ourselves into a better person, but we will also find that suddenly everyone around us is no longer as bad as we thought they were!
We don’t need Wells Fargo to keep our greatest assets safe and secure, but using the lessons we can learn from their downfall, employing shame to stop ourselves from doing something insane, and self reflection to see where our faults are, we may just discover that the greatest assets we have are the one right inside!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha we see the difficulties Ya’akov encountered while dealing with Lavan, his father-in-law, who happens to have won the award for World’s Biggest Slimeball for 23 years running. From cheating Ya’akov out of the wife for whom he worked seven years, to switching his pay rate 100 times, this guy was a class act. He had every scam possible sitting securely in his pocket.
Finally, Ya’kov had enough. He waited until Lavan went to one of his Idol Fests, took his family and belongings, and headed back to Israel. When Lavan found out that Ya’akov ran away, he set out after him in a rage, and was ready to kill Ya’akov (his own son-in-law! Did I mention that Slimeball Award he won repeatedly?). Luckily, Ya’akov had G-d on his side. G-d came to Lavan the night before he approached Ya’akov and warned him very sternly that he better not touch Ya’akov or anyone in his family. The next day, Lavan approached Ya’akov’s camp and said the following, “It is within the power of my hand to harm you, but the G-d of your father spoke to me last night saying, ‘Guard yourself not to speak to Yaakov either good or evil’” (Gen; 31:29).
The commentators point out the fallacy in that statement. Lavan starts off saying that it is within his power to harm Ya’akov, when it is clear from the end of his statement that in fact he knows he cannot. This points to a human condition where a person clearly knows something to be the truth, but due to a whole life of living a different way, can totally ignore reality. Lavan was so used to thinking that he was in control that even once it was very clear to him that he couldn’t do what he wants, he still foolishly blurted out “It is within my power to harm you…”
Today we see it in the smoker who smokes through the tube inserted into his trachea, who sees the devastating effects of his ways, but cannot stop himself. We also see it in people (myself including) who really wish to add more spiritual content to their lives, but are so used to living as they do that they make excuses, and stay the same. Sometimes we are blessed to have a moment of clarity, a brief period where we feel like G-d is sending us a message. Let’s remember not to fall into the Lavan trap, where we ignore it the very next day, but rather let’s seize it, use it, and grow from it.
This week’s Parsha begins with Yaakov going to Charan to find himself a good non-Canaanite wife. As he heads down, he spends the night in the location that would, years later, be the site of the Holy Temple. He has a dream in which he sees angels going up and down a ladder. The angels of Israel were leaving him, and the angels of Chutz La’aretz (literally “outside the land” meaning anywhere out of Israel) were coming down to accompany him. In this dream G-d promises Yaakov that he will be guarded and protected in the house of Lavan, that he will come back to Israel in peace, and that eventually the whole Israel will be given to his offspring.
When Yaakov reaches Charan, he sees the local shepherds waiting around a well, and asks them why they don’t let their sheep out to pasture. They answer that they all gather around the well until they have enough people to be able to push off the boulder resting on its mouth. As Rachel, Lavan’s daughter, approaches, Yaakov sees with Divine intuition that this will be his wife, and he is filled with strength. He flips the boulder off the well, and waters Rachel’s sheep. Upon going back to Lavan’s house, Yaakov stays with Lavan for a month and works as his shepherd before Lavan asks him if he wants some sort of remuneration for his work. (Yep, Lavan the no-goodnik had Yaakov, his guest and relative, watching his sheep for a month without pay before finally offering him some pay.)
Yaakov tells him that he would like to marry Rachel, Lavan’s younger daughter. Lavan gives him his blessing on the condition that Yaakov shepherd his sheep for seven years, which Yaakov gladly does. However, Lavan the Lowlife switches the daughters and gives him Leah. Yaakov had been anticipating this, and gave Rachel certain signs which she was to give him on their wedding night. However, Rachel, fearing the incredible humiliation that Leah would undergo when Yaakov realized he was being given the wrong bride, gives Leah the signs even though that meant she would be left to marry Yaakov’s brother the Evil Eisav. This teaches how far one must go to prevent someone from being humiliated.
Yaakov is not happy with Lavan upon realizing that he has been duped, but Lavan offers a quick and easy solution – work another seven years for Rachel. Yaakov does so. Leah has four children, Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Yehuda, after which she stops having children. Rachel has none, so she decides to give her maidservant, Bilhah, to Yaakov in the hopes of building a family through her children. This works, and Rachel names Bilhah’s two children Dan and Naftali. Leah, seeing that she stopped having children, also gives her maidservant, Zilpah, to Yaakov as a wife and she gives birth to two children, Gad and Asher.
Soon Leah has two more children, Yisachar and Zevulun, and finally, after many years of praying and yearning, Rachel has a son, whom she calls Yosef. After Yosef (who is destined to quash Eisav) was born, Yaakov is ready to head back to his land. However, after 14 years of devoted service Lavan is finally ready to cut a deal. If Yaakov stays, he will let him keep certain sheep based on their coats (i.e. ringed, speckled, spotted, or brownish). Over the next six years Lavan changes the agreement 100 times, but Yaakov manages to devise a system in which he still gets some sheep. G-d blesses his flocks, and in six years Yaakov becomes very prosperous.
Realizing that Lavan and his family are getting jealous of and angry with him, Yaakov tells his family that its time to leave their villainous Zeidy, and Rachel and Leah answer that they are only too happy to leave the father who didn’t treat them as daughters but as strangers. Yaakov leaves while Lavan is on a trip to one of his Idol Fests, and Rachel steals her father’s idols. When Lavan hears about the exodus of his daughters and grandchildren, and the theft of his idols, he becomes enraged and chases them down with the intent to seriously harm them. But G-d comes to Lavan in a dream and tells him that he better not do anything, neither good nor bad (as the saying goes, not from your honey and not from your sting), to Yaakov and his family.
Instead, Lavan comes and plays the hurt and abandoned grandfather, complaining that he wanted to see them off amid great fanfare. Then he accuses Yaakov of stealing his idols. Lavan searches all the tents, but Rachel hides them in her saddlebag and tells her father that she can’t get off her camel, because she is sick. In the end, Lavan makes a treaty with Yaakov and then peacefully departs in the morning. That’s all Folks.
Quote of the Week: The only certainty is that norhing is certain. ~ Pliny the Elder
Random Fact of the Week: The mayfly’s eggs take three years to hatch. Lifespan: about six hours!
Funny Line of the Week: I had a stick of CareFree gum, but it didn’t work. As soon as the gum lost its flavor, I was back to pondering my mortality.
Have a Serene Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham