THE SUCCESSFUL

     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.

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8 responses to “THE SUCCESSFUL

  1. Rabbi Pruzansky said:
    << “Ran” (Rabbenu Nissim, 14th Century, Gerona, Spain) >>

    I did not realize that “the Ran” was a Sephardic Rabbi!

  2. Jason Davidson

    Rabbi,

    Are you one of those “super-rich” who earn more than $1 million a year and who would have to pay the increased tax that Obama wants to impose? I’m guessing you’re not. I am. And I fully support Obama’s plan. And the primary reason why I support it comes straight from the Torah. Because the plain language of the Torah in numerous places — without any convoluted interpretations to try to show that the Torah somehow does not support social justice — makes clear that looking out for the needs of the underprivileged is one of the highest jewish virtues.

    Deut. 15:7. “you shall freely open your hand to [the poor] and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks”

    Prov. 29:7. “The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such concern.”

    Deut. 26:12. “When you have finished paying the complete tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and the widow, that they may eat in your towns, and be satisfied.”

    Lev. 19:19. “Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger.”

    I suppose you’ll say that looking out for the needs of the poor can be done through private charities. And to some degree, that’s correct. And so I donate to many private charities. But private charities cannot accomplish everything. Neither can governmental programs aimed at the underprivileged. But they’re better than nothing. I know that if I pay an extra $1 million a year in taxes, governmental programs aimed at assisting the underprivileged will have more funds, not less. And so I fully support the concept of the wealthy paying higher taxes. And, while I respect your right to have a differing viewpoint, your condescending attitude to those who disagree with you on this issue, as reflected in numerous posts on this site, is unseemly and certainly unbecoming of one in a Rabbinic position.

    • I don’t know the kosher status of Kool-Aid but you are drinking it. Obama’s “millionaires and billionaires” mostly earn more than $250,000 per year. His phrase is rhetoric, nothing more. That is where the money is coming from. You could confiscate every nickel from every millionaire and billionire in the country, and you would not equal even one year’s deficit.
      And please don’t conflate the mitzva of charity with government confiscation of 50-65% of your income, which is tantamount to slavery. Charity ennobles, especially because it is a voluntary act. Taxation feeds the government behemoth that, outside of essentials, just redistributes income from the productive to the less productive. And government programs to help the poor (since 1965) have increased poverty, not reduced it, as it has made entire multi-generational families wards of the state, utter dependents, ruined the family structure, reduced incentive to work and thereby fostered unemployment. Poverty is worse now than then. Why give more money to a system that has failed?
      But I repeat my advice for you that I have articulated here in the past: nothing prevents you and people like you from contributing more money to the government. If you and others think that you are undertaxed, I urge you to re-calculate your tax burden at some figure you consider “fair,” – maybe 60%, maybe 75% – and pay it. It would be an honorable public service.
      Just leave me out of it.
      And I hope that this response is both seemly and becoming.

      -RSP

    • Jason Davidson, why do Jewish Liberals approve of “Social Justice” because it is “straight from the Torah,” but they are not interested in: eating kosher only, or observing Shabbat correctly, or praying in synagogue every day while wearing kosher tefillin, or the prohibition against homosexuality, (etc, etc, etc) even though all those things are “straight from the Torah?”

      • Jason Davidson

        Mr. Cohen,

        I’m a Jewish liberal and I’m interested in (and do) eat kosher only, observe Shabbat, pray in Shul daily with tefllin (though I admit to an occassional day here and there of missing a minyan), and I respect and adhere to the Torah’s prohibition against homosexuality (though, admittedly, as a heterosexual, that one isn’t all that difficult). So maybe I’m not the best one to answer your question. But I won’t let that stop me from asking you a question. Why is it that so many Jews (and I don’t know you so if you’re not in this category, then I’m not referring to you) who are stringent to the last detail about important religious issues such as keeping kosher and observing Shabbat, so often come up short on matters of social justice, which are also clearly mandated by the Torah, as demonstrated by the passages I cited above (and many others)?

        The local Orthodox shuls in my community have shiurim throughout the week, are packed with men at davening on weekdays and Shabbos, and one can often find men there studing Torah. And all of that is terrific and commendable. My community also has two Conservative shuls and one Reform shul and I know from talking to members there and from their newsletters that they are involved in many social justice causes. The shuls bus their members to a soup kitchen where they violunteer to help feed the hungry. They run clothing and food collection efforts throughout the year. And when a tragedy strikes anywhere in the world, the shul quickly collects funds. And all of that is terrific and commendable. But I also know that the Shul doesn’t offer many shiurim, the davaning is not packed (especially on weekdays), and while they have batei midrashim they are often empty. And it is truly sad. But as a member of an Orthodox shul I know that the most Orthodox shuls do not organize volunteer efforts for the local soup kitchens, do not run year-round clothing and food collection drives, and aren’t nearly as quick as the Conservative and Reform shuls when it comes to raising funds for victims of tragedy across the globe (other than for victims of tragedy in Israel, in which case Orthodox shuls are commendably quick to respond). And I find that sad as well.

        So which is more important — ritual or social justice? Only G-d knows. But if you want to throw stones at your stereotype of a “Liberal Jew” for focusing more on social justice and less on ritual, than be prepared to answer why the stereotypical “From Jew” focuses more on ritual and less on social justice.

  3. Michael Rogovin

    Of course successful businesses are built by risk takers. That is accepted by everyone. But the Torah prohibits hubris (the opposite of tzniut which is about attitude, not dress). Ryan went to college because the government paid for it. You drive to the supermarket because the government paid for roads. If you live or lived in rural areas, you got phones, mail and electricity because government MADE the utilities provide these services. You can afford food staples because the government subsidizes them. You get police, parks, museums, safe foods, safe air transportation, education (yes even in private schools and universities), sewer systems, hospitals, etc because of government. And others who were generous. And there is not a business around that does not depend on some form of government assistance, direct or indirect. There are a lot of hard working people. But without access to education, childcare, networking and capital, they can have all the entrepreneurial spirit of Steve Jobs, it won’t mean a thing. We are privileged, and let’s never forget that not one of us got to where we are on our own or because of our own hard work, risk-taking or initiative. Many others, and government, played a huge role in getting us where we are.

    • The “government” has no money. The government can only spend my money, and yours, and everyone else’s. It is that money which pays for infrastructure, in which everyone shares equal use, even if we do not share equal involuntary contributions. The successful businessman also paid for that road; it is not a gift from government, nor is it a special benefit to him. If anything, he paid more for it than most others did.
      Many of the items you mention are not properly the province of government, certainly not the federal government, as I have outlined here several times in the past.
      And there is not a business around that does not depend on some form of government assistance, direct or indirect” ??? Please read John Stossel’s “No, They Can’t” for an eloquent and elaborate refutation of your basic premise.
      -RSP

  4. I read your article on “The Jewish Press” web-site and found it to be succint and true, I agree with you. I have been a strong supporter of Israel and the Jewish people since 1990 when I went to Israel on tour. Growing up in the 1950’s was a wonderful time in America, however, in 1963 the nation began to turn when G-d was removed from public schools. The America we live in today has made Him unwelcome in every sector of society I wish you the best, sir, and agree that wisdom would be to leave before the tide turns against you and you are forced out. It will happen. Shalom!