Financial icon Scott Shay grew up in the shadows of the holocaust his father survived. He shares tips to finding God even amidst life’s hardest challenges.
Scott Shay: Where is God in Hard Times?
Scott Shay has spent his life balancing both work and faith. He is well known on Wall Street and was a founding member of Signature Bank in New York. Scott has spoken on many podcasts and even on TEDx and Google. He and his wife Susan are the parents of four children and he is the author of “Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry” and his new book, “In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism.”
Scott’s story starts with his father, who was born in a town called Švėkšna, Lithuania. He grew up in a shtetl, or a small Jewish town or village, like in Fiddler on the Roof. About 25% of the population of his village was Jewish and 75% was Christian Lithuanian. The same year of his father’s Bar Mitzvah, the Nazis came in late June and rounded up all the Jews.
Scott’s grandfather was murdered before the deportation. All of Scott’s immediate family on his father’s side were killed sometime during the Holocaust. The closest relative Scott has on that side of his family is a second cousin once removed.
Scott’s father was deported to a work camp and after moving a few times ended up in Auschwitz in 1943. That would have been the end except he was put in a work duty group in Warsaw. From there he went to Dachau where he was liberated.
Scott’s father weighed less than 70 pounds when liberated and was certainly no more than weeks, or days from death. He was extremely fortunate to be taken to an Allied hospital and nursed back to health for about a year. Then he was sent to a displaced persons camp. A doctor in Chicago named Julius Mayo signed a form stating that Scott’s father wouldn’t be a burden on the US taxpayer and brought him to Chicago, where he began working as a carpenter.
God in the Details
There was no doubt in Scott’s father’s mind that there was a God in heaven looking out for him. Any slight deviation in his path would have been certain death for him. He wouldn’t have survived if he had been standing in a different line or been at a different place at a different time. Random chance couldn’t explain it.
But this didn’t stop Scott’s father from being angry. His own father had been murdered when he was 14 years old. His younger brother had been murdered and everyone he knew was gone. Unfortunately, he was not even welcomed back to his hometown. So while he knew God was there, he was angry with Him.
It took a long time for Scott to understand that. Scott remembers that when he was young, they would always go to synagogue, but that his father would talk to others or doze off during the sermon. He wanted to make sure Scott went, but he was giving God the silent treatment. He, along with many others, could not understand how God had let such a horrible thing happen to them.
In spite of all this, Scott has always felt that God was looking out for his family. “God was present at Auschwitz. God was present at Dachau.” God knew what his father had gone through. How could God be in the details of such a horrific event? Scott spent his life thinking about this and other “Why” questions.
That idea was a fundamental part of his first book. When he spoke with atheists, he found that the idea of God allowing such awful things to happen throughout the world was a large part of the reason why they didn’t believe God could exist. Scott found that when he went on book tours, he would often be asked by people in all walks of life and with all kinds of difficulties, “How could God let this happen?” At the end of the day, Scott feels that those who believe in God have to be able to explain the why, while atheists have to be able to explain everything else.
Scott says there is no one answer to why God allows bad things to happen. But it does come down to one big thing for him: free will. No one forced the Nazis to kill the Jews. They decided to do that. There were people who knew what was going on and said nothing. There were people in a position to do something about it and they didn’t. Many countries did not accept Jewish refugees.
Scott says that we have to recognize that there’s human evil and that’s part of what we are put on Earth to deal with. Scott likens this to Esther in the Bible. Initially, Esther didn’t want to take action. She told Mordecai there really wasn’t much she could do.
Then Mordecai told her that he didn’t think she could escape the fate that she was sentencing others to. He convinced her that maybe she was put in her position for this reason. And Esther got it. She understood. She said she would try, and if she died, she died. But she first decided to get God involved, and asked to have all the pull of Shushan fast and pray for her.
Scott’s takeaway is that, “When you do the right thing, you have a tailwind from God.” It may not be obvious help, but it will be there.
Live as Though the World Depends on You
On the other hand, Scott says that we need to believe that things depend on us. If we lived our lives with this belief, we could have an immense impact on the world. God didn’t let the Jews get wiped out. Relief came from the Soviet Union and deliverance came from the Allies and Britain.
But had people done the right thing during the Evian Conference of 1938, those things might not have been necessary. Maybe no Jews would have been murdered. If people in the United States and the United Kingdom had courage early on and had acted to restrain Hitler, maybe not as many people would have died in the war.
We didn’t have that courage, and so human evil was allowed to unfold because God gives us free choice. But if we act as those things depend on us, it’s possible that we could change the outcome.
Use Your Free Will for Good?
Scott says it can be hard to do what we know is right because we don’t know what will come of it. Moses saved an Israelite from an Egyptian taskmaster and what was his reward? He had to escape and live in Midian for 40 years. Scott explains Moses was situated by God for those 40 years to be ready so that when the time was right, he could be called upon.
You can’t expect the short term consequences to be what you want them to be. But Scott says that life is a long story, not a short one. Scott often thinks about the courage of Nelson Mandela or Nutan Sharansky, who had to be incarcerated for years. They withstood because they saw, as Martin Luther King put it, “the arc of the universe bending toward justice.” They saw themselves as servants of the Lord.
We have the same choice to make. We can choose to try and get as much pleasure and benefit out of the world, or we can see ourselves as servants of the Lord. Scott says this shift in mindset changes your answer to a variety of ethical dilemmas.
In his book “In Good Faith,” Scott talks a lot about the concept of idolatry. When we think about idolatry, we often envision scenes from the Bible of people bowing down to statues. The reality is that idolatry is ascribing super authority to finite beings or ideologies.
Scott compares leaders of the 20th century, like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Assad family, etc. to the God-King Pharaohs of ancient days. These people got away with atrocities because no one questioned their authority.
But Scott says that idolatry doesn’t just exist on a macro scale. He says it occurs on a micro scale as well. He mentions people like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and many others who get away with abusing others. No one questioned these individuals, as they were seen as idols of their industry. Whatever they said was truth.
Idolatry can happen in our most intimate encounters. That’s why our encounters with other people matter so much. We have to make sure our name is a good name so that when we have that final interview with our maker, we can answer honestly that we did the right thing.
In Jewish tradition, the first question asked of you by the Creator is “How did you conduct yourself in your financial and personal transactions?” In other words, what were your ethics?
The Golden Rule
Scott gets asked about secular philosophy often. The number one question that people asked him on his Google book talk was, “If we have secular philosophy so what do we need the Bible for?” Scott says that the Bible puts it brilliantly. The Bible says that we all have a spark of God. In Jewish tradition, we are all created in the image of God and that means that we share a spark of divinity.
But that means that we must treat each other in a certain way so as to share this hint of divinity. This applies regardless of gender, race, or anything else. We have a responsibility to treat each other as though we are all images of God.
Scott thinks the golden rule is the best philosophy out there. If we all truly thought about if we would want another person to do something to us, we would all lead better lives. That’s where idolatry ties in. People who believe themselves to be superior to others don’t think about if they would want their own actions done to them. They believe their will should be promoted above others. We would do well to have leaders who truly follow the golden rule.
The Bible Chapter Everyone Should Read
Scott thinks that Leviticus 19 is the Bible chapter that really tells us how to treat our fellow man. It basically restates the golden rule. In essence, the chapter tells us not to be dishonest, to use fair weights and measures in business, not to place a stumbling block before the blind, and to treat the widow, orphan, and all other underprivileged people fairly.
But the chapter doesn’t just tell us to do these things, it says to do them because He is God. Scott believes that this indicates that any personal encounter with another person isn’t just between us and that person. There’s a third party, and that party is God. He is the eternal witness to every transaction. If we think that way then every business transaction will be fair.
Scott believes that the Bible teaches life is made up of tests. For Scott, every personal encounter is a test. If we do the right thing, we pass. Believing in God helps us to pass the test, and it also helps us to live a better, happier life.
Scott says that prayer is a difficult concept for atheists. Many think that prayer is a sacrifice of agency, a waste of time, etc. Scott has also had believers ask him why we would try to offer a better plan to a perfect, all-knowing God.
Scott admits that while prayer can be difficult to understand theologically, prayer is essential. He believes that prayer can change us and change the world. The reality is that when you pray, you are speaking to the Almighty. The Almighty knows everything. There is no place for us to hide. We cannot self deceive or self justify.
We are all good at self deception and justification because we are humans. But when we are praying, there’s a bright light on us. We can’t tell him that we thought our actions were ok if they weren’t the right thing to do.
How Prayer Helped Scott Write His Book
When Scott felt he needed to write his book, he found prayer was essential for him. He saw a need for a book about standing up for what you believe in, especially in this world where we are told from all kinds of sources that believing in God is silly.
At first, Scott didn’t think it should be him to write the book. But after his children left home for college, jobs, and boarding school, and his wife started to work on her PhD, he realized he now had a lot of time to write a book. So he went to work. Any time he had a few hours to spare, he would write. He was that person on international flights who had their light on the whole time, working. Scott says none of that would have been possible without prayer. He says he would have “frittered [his] time away.”
When we pray about goals we have, God acts as our accountability partner. He also can help us through the process. There is still sacrifice and hard work on our part, but He can open doors for us. God is our partner. Don’t give up just because things are hard. Keep praying. Keep working. You have to pray as if there is no one else there, and then you have to work as though God isn’t going to give you help.