There is little we love more than the story of a self-made man or woman. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and many more whose names are not household words are true American heroes who used their brilliance, perseverance, and a few thousand borrowed dollars to become billionaires. Surely, we think, if they did it, so can I.
But is there really such a thing as a self-made man/woman? The Torah says “no.” Moreover, thinking there is can be a dangerous delusion.
One of the recurring themes of the book of Devarim is the danger inherent in living a normal life. Over and over again, Moses cautions the people that when they have settled in the Land of Israel they should not forget the lessons of the wilderness.
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 you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth; in fulfillment of the covenant He made an oath with your fathers, as is still the case.
Now, it’s surely human nature to want to take full credit for our successes (and to blame other people for our failures), but Moses insists that this is not the case. The 19th-century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:
Koach [power], everything, all that makes your creative personality and your capacity to earn, the intelligence, the skill, the considering foresight, the physical and mental health, every factor of your existence, of what you wish for and are able to accomplish is not the result of the food you eat but is given to you directly from God. And so also the combination of external circumstances that bring about the possibility and the success of your work and endeavors is dependent on Him and Him alone. He gives you the koach, the power to make your fortune. The very smallest part of your good fortune can be ascribed to your own merit….
And so, the Torah says, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land that He has given you.” The rabbis see this verse as the source for Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals, but that is only the beginning. Each of us, whether we are billionaire entrepreneurs or just getting by from paycheck to paycheck, owes God our gratitude for our intelligence, physical abilities, talents, and every single thing that allows us to make our way in the world.
And it doesn’t stop there. Each of us owes more than we can ever repay to parents, teachers, spouse, mentors, colleagues, and even critics who have helped us along the way. As Ben Zoma taught in Avot: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” Moreover, one who is truly wise acknowledges these debts both by being aware of what you owe and by expressing your gratitude to these others.
You see, there really is no such thing as a self-made man or woman.