Carl Sagan once said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
In other words, none of us have ever done anything by ourselves. Anything that we manage to achieve is possible only because we find ourselves in a world and in circumstances that have made that possible.
A few thousand years before Carl Sagan, Moses said much the same thing:
“Be careful, lest you forget the L-rd your G-d … lest when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and dwell in them, and your herd and flocks multiply and your silver and gold multiply, and everything you have multiplies, you become haughty and you forget the L-rd your G-d … and you say ‘My strength and the might of my hand made all this wealth for me.’ Remember the L-rd your G-d, for He is the one who gives you the ability to make wealth, in order to establish His covenant.” (Deuteronomy 8:11-18)
If we have any degree of prosperity, the credit does not belong to ourselves. It may be that we have worked hard, it may be that we have made smart decisions, it may be that we possess talents and abilities that have helped us to achieve. But we also live in a certain context, with certain social structures that have either helped our hard work and talent to pay off or perhaps hindered them from doing so. Even our very talent, intelligence and the ability to work hard work are blessings that we did not earn.
In America, we like to make heroes out of people who start from humble beginnings and come to possess wealth and power. We call these people self-made men or self-made women (though mostly we only talk about self-made men), and we hold them up as role models to be emulated. This unfortunately sends the message that the rest of us who haven’t managed to rise from rags to riches, must be somehow deficient, either in hard work, intelligence or some other virtue. It also promotes arrogance and ingratitude among those who do manage to succeed.
Our Sages taught us that G-d gives us the cure before the disease. If the disease is arrogance and self-satisfaction, the cure is gratitude. Immediately prior to the verses quoted above, the Torah states: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the L-rd your G-d for the good land which He has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:10) In other words, in order to avoid imagining ourselves to be self-made men or self-made women, we must practice gratitude by blessing G-d for our material well-being.
Moses and Carl Sagan remind us that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Anything we achieve is possibly only because of the circumstances we find ourselves in, and the talents and abilities G-d has blessed us with.
This consciousness leads to a profound humility. If I am better off than someone else, or if I have achieved more than them, it is not through my own merit but through the blessings that G-d, in His inscrutable wisdom, has chosen to bestow on me.
If we can cultivate this humble consciousness, perhaps we can cultivate not only gratitude for what we have, but also a sense of responsibility to use whatever wealth or ability we have been blessed with, in the service of G-d, our community and our fellow human beings.
Rabbi Garth Silberstein serves Bais Abraham Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association.