Like a skilled acrobat, President Obama is tying to extricate himself from his unguarded but truthful statement several weeks ago. As part of his effort to incite class warfare and raise taxes on the “rich” to some unspecified amount that will constitute “fairness,” he veered from his teleprompter and exclaimed, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” “If you’re successful, it’s not because you work hard – a lot of people work hard.” It’s something else – not the village – but, apparently, government, and especially all others who created the infrastructure that facilitated your success. (Of course, those others, for some indeterminate reason, did not achieve the same success as did the protagonist; evidently, that is the “unfairness” at the heart of the system, notwithstanding that the successful” also paid for the infrastructure but perhaps utilized it more productively. No matter.)
Winston Churchill once said that the difference between socialists and liberals (he meant the classical liberals of his day, those who loved liberty, akin to today’s libertarians) is that the socialist wants to tear down the rich, whereas the liberal wants to build up the poor. In a nutshell, Churchill defined not only his era but also the primary issue before the American electorate this year.
One potential problem in criticizing the Obama philosophy is an allusion to such an approach in this week’s Torah reading (!): “And you will say in your heart, it is my might and the power of my hand that has afforded me this great wealth. And you should remember G-d, for it is G-d who has given you the power to achieve this wealth” (Devarim 8:17-18).
In other words, it is not you! Many people may work hard, many people may be educated – but their success is not due to their own efforts but to G-d’s will. Obama meant government as that unseen force, and if he had substituted “G-d” for “government,” his argument would have met little objection except from diehard secularists. And he would have flabbergasted his supporters and opponents alike – but for wholly different reasons. Is there some merit to this argument? Is the contention that “my might and the power of my hand have afforded me this great wealth” inherently arrogant? If so, where is there room for human endeavor, ingenuity and effort? Are we not allowed some personal satisfaction in the wake of any achievement?
As always, the Torah penetrates to the depths of our thoughts. At the beginning of the Torah reading (7:17), we are enjoined that “if you say to your heart” that the nations around us are too powerful, then do not fear, and later (9:4) we are admonished “do not say in your heart” that G-d gave us the land because of our righteousness. Note the difference in phraseology: If you say, or do not say… as opposed to here, where the Torah writes “and you will say” when you see the great abundance and physical blessings of the land of Israel, that “my strength and my might made me all this wealth.”
Is this latter statement positive or negative statement? We widely interpret it as negative, the height of arrogance, as if to say, it is all me, I did it. But if it is negative, then why doesn’t the Torah use the other locutions, “if you say,” or “don’t say.” Here, the Torah emphasizes “you will say.” Furthermore, how can a person who builds an organization, a building, a home, a family, a successful business – how can he not feel that but for him, it would not have occurred? The Torah’s prescription would seem to be a recipe for passivity or even apathy – “I didn’t do it, it’s all from G-d.” But if it is all from G-d, then why should we do anything?
The “Ran” (Rabbenu Nissim, 14th Century, Gerona, Spain) comments in his tenth sermon that “you will say” is meant literally – you will say it, because you should say it. Every person should feel that there are things that only he or she can do – there is no one else to do it; it is my responsibility. The truth is that people have “segulot meyuchadot,” special abilities and talents, so that the successful person should say “it is my might and the power of my hand” that have accomplished my goals. There is only one caveat, one limitation: “remember G-d,” remember as well that G-d is the ultimate source of your talents and abilities, that the forces that inhere in you all come from G-d.
There are times when a person must say, in the language of our Sages, “ein hadavar talui eleh bi,” it is all up to me. And what a delicate balance that is – between the arrogant form of “my might and the power of my hand” and the weighty realization that “everything is my responsibility.” How do we distance one and bring near the other? Through remembering G-d.
Countries are not built, wars are not won, communities are not founded, and organizations are not sustained by the passive or the reactive, but rather by the activists, the strong, the leaders, the fearless – especially those who don’t fear failure or success, and by those who are willing to take personal responsibility for failure. Successful businesses are not built by the timid, and great advances in civilization are not the product of the diffident – and nor, for that matter, are they the product of government but of people, entrepreneurs, independent thinkers, creative souls.
The catalyst for all success is “and you will say” and “you will remember G-d” – to do our share, to take responsibility for our own destiny, to know that G-d has given each of us the tools to accomplish great things in life, each of us in accordance with our own personalities. It is what built Israel, it is what built America, and is at the heart of the challenge facing civilization today – the war of the timorous and the brave, the struggle between those who crave dependency and those who love freedom, and the battle between those prone to concession and weakness and those with strength of spirit and character. It is that spirit that will sustain even through difficult times – as we await the great and awesome days of complete redemption.