There is the story of the self made man: The fellow who, with no help, built up a business and a life of power and wealth. Of course, he had some opportunities. Somebody taught him how to read. Somebody took a chance on him with his first job or first sale. Someone showed him the ropes of business and taught him how to keep books and manage cash flow. So, perhaps, the self made man is not so much a real story as an inspirational arch type that has more to do how we perceive ourselves. No one is entirely self made. True, success requires hard work and a recognition of opportunities, but it is not done alone, no matter what out societal mythos tells us.
As Jews, we actually recognize a deeper and more fundamental contingency. In this week’s Torah portion we read:
Beware that you do not forget the Lord, your God, by not keeping His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command you this day, 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 forget the Lord, your God, Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Who led you through that great and awesome desert, [in which were] snakes, vipers and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought water for you out of solid rock. Who fed you with manna in the desert, which your forefathers did not know, in order to afflict you and in order to test you, to benefit you in your end, and you will say to yourself, “My strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me.” But you must remember the Lord your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth, in order to establish His covenant which He swore to your forefathers, as it is this day. (Deut. 8:11-18)
The next generation, fighting for the land; farming in the Middle Eastern heat, and trying to deal with rainfall that was not always ideal might easily forget that what had already been accomplished was done with help. We are often that way ourselves. Even leaving aside theological issues and the fact that we have a created world (or a world that requires continual Divine attention to stay in existence) to act within at all and the bounty of the natural world, we even forget our debt to our fellow human beings. We drive on roads that were built before we were born, cross bridges that are marvels of engineering that took whole communities to build in terms of resources, knowledge and labor, use electricity that is provided by a grid that we did not contribute to and generated in plants that dwarf the human scale.
None of us is self made, even just considering the help we have received from our fellow human beings, both of previous generations and our own.
One of my favorite stories concerns a Roman general riding by and seeing an old Jewish man planting a carob tree. The general stops to laugh at the old man, “You are certainly a fool, planting a tree that will not bear fruit until long after you are dead!” The old man continues his work as he replies, “There were carob trees planted for me when I came into the world; I will leave carob trees for those who come after me.”
The lesson is clear. Judaism teaches us that we must prepare the world for coming generation. We are required to pass down, not just our religious, ethical, and intellectual heritage, but a physical inheritance as well by improving the world materially as well as spiritually. Our time horizon cannot be the next quarter or the fiscal year as is now in vogue. We are required to consider what we will do for the next generation and generations after.
On a smaller scale, we have each been helped at one time or another. Someone stopped and gave us directions when we were lost, helped us change a tire, helped us get our car out of the mud or snow. There is the story in Genesis of the ish, the man, who directed Joseph to find his brothers when he was lost. We all have had such an encounter and, I expect, we have been the helpful person.
When we look to lay a foundation for the constructions of a future generation or when we stop to help a stranger, we are acting as G-D’s agents. We are, in the language of R. Harold M. Schulweis, actualizing the predicates of G-Dliness. We are making G-D a real, active force in the world precisely by acting as G-D’s agents.
Let us not forget the grand and absolute reliance we have on The Holy One for our very existence. But let us remember the debt we owe to our fellow human beings, from our neighbors to the visionaries and laborers of previous generations. In recognizing that debt, may we be moved to repay it by acting as Holy agents, acting for G-D with our own acts of stewardship and foresight and with everyday acts of service and kindness to the souls we encounter every day.