Marc KatzComment

The Myth of the "Self-Made Man" (Parashat Matot-Maasei)

Marc KatzComment
The Myth of the "Self-Made Man" (Parashat Matot-Maasei)

Much of American history and folklore is centered around the idea of the "self-made man." We believe that if we only try hard enough, we can succeed. Individually, we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make something of ourselves.  

However, though an appealing idea, the image of the self-made person is a myth. As Elizabeth Warren famously said during her 2011 campaign: 

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody...You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.... 

In essence, we cannot claim sole credit for our deeds. Every one of us has someone else, even a team of people, who stand behind us to make our successes possible. Benjamin Franklin, the progenitor of the American ideal of "rags to riches" only was able to succeed because his sister took care of his aging parents and absolved him of the responsibility. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a 2017 graduation address to the graduates at the University of Houston notably said, "It's important to recognize that at every step of the way, I had help." He then proceeded to talk about the people who helped him gain the notoriety and fame he eventually achieved.  

However, even though we need others for success, it is part of human nature to overlook those whose gifts moved us forward. Jewish history is littered with ungrateful individuals who seek to claim what is only partially theirs. 

In an extended conversation about the nature of the "self-made" person, our ancient Rabbis speak about three gifts that each individual can achieve in this world. They are wisdom, valor, and wealth. For our ancestors, the question of whether someone can gain these three things on their own centers on the statement, "Does a person need God for success?"  

Our Rabbis then innumerate individuals throughout history whose downfall is caused by their hubristic insistence that they deserve all the credit for their fortunes. Wise figures like Bilam and Achitophel, mighty warriors like Solomon and Goliath, and wealthy individuals like Korach and Haman all failed because they could not accept that their success might be a product of efforts above their own. They gave themselves all the credit and this attitude proved ruinous (Midrash Tanchuma Matot 5). 

However, while this folly often occurs on an individual level, our rabbis point out that whole societies can fall victim as well. And they point to this week's Torah portion. In it the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half of the tribe of Menashe petition Moses to allow them to stay in the desert and not enter the promised land with the rest of the Jewish people. Each had large herds and knew that by staying on their own side of the Jordan River, they could better feed their flocks and increase their wealth. In fact, they wished so desperately to remain behind that they agreed to serve as shock troops for the campaign to conquer Canaan if they were allowed to leave the land and return home after they were done.  

Many commentators have sought to explain why their request was so wrong. They point to the fact that in a few short generations, these tribes were punished and were wiped out by foreign invaders. Thus their request must not have been so innocent. Among the many answers our Rabbis gave to this question is the idea that these tribes, who were very wealthy, believed that they had achieved their success solely on their own merits. They didn't give credit to God, to their fellow Israelites, or to leaders like Moses. They assumed they had become wealthy in a vacuum and wanted to keep their wealth for themselves (ibid). 

We do not succeed alone. Whether it's our community, our family, our teachers, or our mentors we gain our gifts through the efforts and help of others. And whether we believe in God, as our Rabbis did, or simply understand the role of luck, we know there are certain gains and open doors that we just cannot explain. 

Having humility means standing tall and saying, I did not get here alone. I am a product of so many hands. I am a beneficiary of so much love. 

And when we do, we will understand, that gratitude must be outward focused. True, we have worked hard for our station in life, but none of us solely holds our own destiny. Our lives are the results of the acts of others, large and small, that got us to today.