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The Myth of the Self-Made Man

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

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America has spawned many wonderful myths. The myth that any man or woman, no matter what his or her starting point in life, can, by a combination of hard work, diligence and faith in the system, “make it” in the world. The myth that every citizen, regardless of race, creed, color or gender, can not only expect, but also receive, justice and fair play from society. The myth that millions of voters, driven almost solely by self-interest, electing officials even more self-interested than themselves, can create a system of governance that not only functions, but actually works towards the common good. The myth that the good guys always win at the end.

The most wonderful thing about these myths is that they can be—and often are—made true.

There is, however, one American myth that is very dangerous, particularly for us Jews: the myth of the self-made man.

Here is Moses, warning the children of Israel nearly 3,300 years ago: “Beware . . . lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and dwell therein, and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases, and your heart grows haughty . . . and you will say to yourself: ‘It is my own power and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me’” (Deuteronomy 8:11–17). Such an attitude, Moses continues, inevitably leads to idolatry and national suicide.

Why this double standard? Why is it okay for Tom, Jane and Spot to merrily skip through their self-made lives, but for Shira and Chaim a self-made attitude spells catastrophe?

But that is the price we pay for being a miraculous people. For thousands of years we’ve been working miracles, transforming the world in which we live. But being a miraculous people has a flip side—it also means that our very existence is a miracle. By all laws of history and nature, we should have vanished long ago. For us to survive a single day in this world, let alone prosper, requires constant divine intervention.

Our sages tell us that one of the built-in laws of creation is that “in the measure that a person metes out, so is meted out to him.” In simple English, this means that we decide the criteria by which our lives will run. If we say, “I’m a self-made man,” G‑d says, “Okay, make yourself. The laws of nature, which are the grounds from which your human self derives, will determine what happens to you.” And that is a very dangerous situation for a Jew to find himself in.

Does rejecting the creed of self-making mean that we don’t have to work as hard as the other guy? Unfortunately, no. The difference between the self-made man and the G‑d-made man is not that the latter need not catch the train to work in the morning. For while the G‑d-made individual appreciates that everything he or she has is granted from Above, he or she is still obligated to fashion the “vessels” with which to receive the divine blessings. You can strike oil, but unless you build the pipes, tankers and refineries to hold, transport and process it, it won’t be much use to you or to anyone else. Divine blessings work the same way. That’s why you still need to catch that morning train.

Still, there is a difference. You may work as hard, but not as obsessively. And while it may be exhilarating to stand on the top of a pedestal of your own making and proclaim “My power and the might of my hand have accumulated this wealth for me,” that’s also a very lonely and scary place to stand. Come to think of it, partnering with the One who wrote the rules and runs the show can be quite an exhilarating experience, too. And if you ever feel the need to be scared, you can always watch a horror movie.

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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shifrah miami August 15, 2014

Once upon a time Catherine,
very well said. That is exactly the downward slope America's sliding down. Without hashem in the picture, all bets are off. Reply

Anonymous Cooper City August 13, 2014

Nobody is entirely self made Those with hard work, determination, and perseverance often succeed and then self delude themselves that they did it all themselves, but really really could not have become successful without the society in which they live. Those societies that provide support to poor and middle class have more successful people. Those societies provide roads, electricity, education, police, fire, medical, and all the infrastructure that person needed to succeed. In addition he might have had supportive parents, family, and community that enabled him a greater chance of success. So I agree with this essay that there are no self made men and so no man might say "It is my own power and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me." We should always be grateful for what we have and not be boastful or haughty. Reply

Catherine ny August 10, 2014

Once Upon A Time America's founding fathers and subsequent citizens came from countries whose leaders subjugated their people in various ways.. so knowing full well what it was like to live under tyranny or persecution for beliefs, they loved the freedom and possibility that existed here. Because of their belief in God and His rules for living a decent life they knew they were given an opportunity BY GOD to improve their lives here in America and they prospered. Each generation of immigrants had that same belief and America became a shining example of what can happen if God is honored and revered and loved and followed.
Now we are faced with a few generations of Americans who don't believe in following God rules..or even questioning a God exists and you can see the blessing and protection of God is slowly disappearing and the curse is growing. The leaders are only a reflection of the population alive today. Now we can see the reality of living without God. Reply

Anonymous Los Angeles December 16, 2013

Belief is Universal I share your views on the fact that the supreme being rules all human creatures destinies. The American Myth is a product of the Age of Light and the dominance of the Mason Craft in American Politics. This myth is not only American. Also France has use it extensively and there the absence of the Supreme has been even spread with even violence (French Revolution).

The belief in G-d is not only Jewish, however. It must and will be used by all human creatures when the Age of Gold will return to earth. So no supremacy of Jewish people, please. Reply

S. Karr Winter Springs, FL August 10, 2012

True, However... It is true that man does not work alone to succeed, but the statement that OBAMA made was not that G-d helped make you successful, he implied that man cannot succeed without GOVERNMENT HELP. Man needs to work diligently to be successful rather than a strain on the backs of those who work to support themselves, with the help of G-d and prayer. The prayer should come along with the work and not without the work to achieve success. I am sorry to say the the wrong people are believing the wrong message from the wrong man. This country was made by people who were G-d fearing. I do not believe the current "leader" is "G-d fearing." The American Dream has been a nightmare for the past four years. I hope Americans wake up and realize where this country is headed!!! Reply

Peretz ben Ephraim Montreal, Canada August 20, 2008

The American Dream This is a fine article. The powerful myth of the American Dream, which has influenced many other nations, including Canada, Israel and Great Britain, to name a few, deludes people into believing that they are in full control of their destiny, if only they would work harder, faster, with greater efficiency, etc.

That marketing myth is the intoxicating elixir that often leads people to conclude that they have no need for G-d, notably if they have achieved some success.

But far worse, it leads the many unsuccessful feeling alienated and frustrated when they fail, as many invariably do in a competitive culture that values only "winners."

How much better and rewarding it is to, as you put it, "partner with the One who wrote the rules and runs the show." In that way, you are never a failure. Reply

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