One of my favorite teachings is found in the Talmud (Moed Katan 28a): “Rava said: Length of life, children, and sustenance depend not on one’s merit, but on one’s luck. Consider Rabbah and Rav Hisda. Both were completely righteous…. Yet Rav Hisda lived to the age of 92, Rabbah only to 40. In Rav Hisda’s house, 60 wedding feasts were celebrated; in Rabbah’s house, 60 bereavements. In Rav Hisda’s house, there was bread of the finest flour even for dogs, and it went to waste; in Rabbah’s house, barley bread was for human beings, and even that was hardly to be had.”
Neither Rabbah nor Rav Hisda was master of his own fate — one was lucky, the other was not.
Despite one’s best efforts, sometimes the luck just doesn’t come. No human being is self-sufficient; no human being has the power to guarantee success. Parshat Ekev contains this message, a warning against arrogance. The Torah says: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God…and say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’”
The clear intent is that we must never forget that it is God who is the ultimate source of all the good things we have. It is a natural human desire to take credit for our successes (and blame others for our failures). Whether it’s said publicly or not, most people believe their success is due to their hard work, brains, drive, talent, skill, and personality — all those qualities we work to develop in ourselves and our children.
But, of course, not only does God deserve part of the credit for our successes, there are other people involved as well. Part of the credit goes to parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents who took risks in leaving the Old Country for a place where we would be safe, free, and welcome to participate in the larger society; to those who educated us, not only teachers and parents who paid the tuition, but the generation who taught us there is nothing more valuable than education; and to those who fought to create opportunities for us, opening schools and professions to Jews and women.
Part of our success can also be credited to our contemporaries — a wife who worked to put her husband through graduate school or the husband who gave up his job so they could relocate and enable his wife to accept a promotion. And in many professions, colleagues play an important role; we rabbis often rely on colleagues for ideas for sermons and programs and advice on handling difficult situations.
Every one of us owes part of what we have to other people and, of course, to God, the source of our intelligence, our abilities, our ingenuity, and our desire to help others. Since no individual is the sole owner of what he or she has, we have an obligation to acknowledge these debts with words and deeds.