Sometimes one phrase can catch the imagination of an entire nation. Four years
ago Barack Obama uttered just such a phrase, which became a mantra: “Yes we
Sometimes one phrase can deflate the spirit of an entire nation.
Last week Obama uttered such a sentence when he said, “If you’ve got a business,
you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
It is not our
intent to get involved in political debate; rather, we would like to ruminate
upon the underlying values these statements express and how Jewish wisdom
provides a straightforward, useful and uplifting synthesis of these disparate
views. Indeed, Jewish thought in this area goes to the core of the nation’s
founding principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happens and reconciles
the achievements of the individual in the context of a virtuous, effective and
America became great because people believed “they
could.” They believed that theirs was a land of opportunity, where hard work
bore fruit. For the most part, Americans believed in a God who rewards honest,
hard work with success and prosperity. Americans believed in themselves and
their individual and collective abilities even in difficult times, with an
optimism that seemed to outside observers impossible, unrealistic – even
bordering on manic.
President Obama was correct when he reminded us that
no man is an island.
Often, success is impossible without the hard work
of others, especially those that came before us. It is of supreme importance for
people not to be intoxicated with their own success: the self-made man or woman
should not worship his or her creator (with a small “c”).
We must not
lose sight of personal and communal humility. We must always remember that the
many blessings we enjoy have been bestowed upon us by a benevolent Creator. We
should feel and express real gratitude and appreciation for all those who raised
us, taught us, inspired us and facilitated our success.
Indeed, each of
us was born into a world replete with the resources – internal and external,
private and public – that gave us the hope and the ability to succeed. These
resources, these invaluable gifts, presented us with both the opportunity and
the responsibility to achieve greatness.
We have therefore always been
told more than “yes we can”; we have been told, “yes – we must.”
possess an inexhaustible capacity to create, to build and to improve. We are
endowed with the potential for greatness; we therefore have the responsibility
to be great, to make a difference. This is our challenge: Yes, you can build
that, and yes, you should be applauded for your efforts when you try, and
celebrated when you succeed. For while we are all capable, not all are willing
to step up and meet the challenge.
This, then, is where the president
misspoke: he intimated that building upon existing knowledge or utilizing
existing resources somehow lessens the beauty of individual achievement. In
fact, this is precisely what makes it all the more impressive: there are still
among us individuals or communities that refuse to stagnate, refuse to leave
well-enough alone, refuse to be satisfied with leaving the hard work to
Those who still strive to excel, to propel themselves above the
pack, should not be told, “The success was not yours.” They should not be told,
“you didn’t,” “we didn’t” – because, in fact, they did. And because of these
individuals’ success, the entire nation moves forward – economically,
technologically, and in so many other ways.
“We can” because each and
every one of us can; we succeed and thrive because there are individuals among
us who take the initiative, take the risks – and get the job done.
Jewish approach, as articulated by a Talmudic sage over 2,000 years ago, has
always been a healthy balance between appreciation of what we have received, the
hard work needed to achieve our own success, and investment in the future. The
name of the sage who taught us this great lesson was Honi, and he learned this
important balance from someone else – an anonymous man, whose words still ring
true across the span of thousands of years.
“One day he [Honi] was
journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him,
‘How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?’ The man replied: ‘70
years.’ He then further asked him: ‘Are you certain that you will live another
70 years?’ The man replied: ‘I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as
my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.’”
(Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a) We are taught that we must take an active role,
and not merely enjoy the fruits of our predecessors’ labors.
plant, and work, and not rely upon others to do so for us. If we begin to think
that we “did not build this” we will arrive at the conclusion that “we cannot
build this,” and we will not try to build, to plant, to use the resources
available to us in creative new ways.
This seems to be the message of the
Talmud: the Jewish approach is to take note of the things in this world one
found upon arrival, and to rise up to the challenge: to toil, to plant – for
oneself, and, even if one will never see the fruits, for future
Some types of planting are more arduous than
Often, hard work is involved. Sometimes we are fortunate enough
to see and enjoy the fruits of our labor; sometimes our efforts will only bear
fruit in later generations – but we roll up our sleeves, we work, and we
succeed. Yes, we can.Rabbi Ari D. Kahn is an author and educator who
lives in Givat Ze’ev. Mitchell R. Julis is co-founder, co-chairman, and co-CEO
of Canyon Partners, LLC.
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