The “Self Made Man” ?


One of the most enduring myths of our country is that of the “self-made man”. Benjamin Franklin has been described as “the original self-made man”. In his autobiography, Franklin describes the journey he made from being the son of a candle maker to re-invent himself, through the virtues of “industry, economy and perseverance” as a scientist,  a diplomat and a writer. Frederick Douglass, the leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and a writer, orator and statesman himself, described the “self-made man” in these words, “One cannot be “made” by the help of a father, teacher, mentor, etc. …, but must rise by one’s own grit, determination, discipline, and opportunism.”

Nothing can be further from the Jewish tradition than the idea of the “self-made man”. The Torah itself cautions us against saying “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” The point is illustrated in a commentary on the first verse in our parasha for this week – “These are the stories of Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham was the father of Isaac.”

The commentators are struck by this verse. If Isaac is the son of Abraham, doesn’t it follow that Abraham is the father of Isaac? Why use the precious words of the Torah to state the obvious?

There are  multiple  answers to this question, but I want to highlight one suggested by Rabbi Yechiel Singer, z’l, a Chassidic Rebbe from the Aleksandro dynasty that originated in Poland. Describing Isaac as “the son of Abraham” means that Isaac never forgot his father. He always thought of himself as the son of that great man, and all that he achieved in his life was the result of his good fortune of having two holy people, Abraham and Sarah, as his parents. Without the moral examples that they provided, without the education that they gave him, he understood that he would be nothing. Everything he achieved in life was because of them. The verse also describes Abraham as the father of Isaac. This conveys the idea that despite all that Abraham had done in the service of G-d, his most important contribution to the world was he and Sarah had raised a child who was considerate, decent, proper and respectful. This, writes Rabbi Yechiel Singer, is the way of holy people. They don’t see themselves as worthy in their own eyes, but give all of the credit to their parents who bequeathed  so much to them.  They do not see themselves as being “self-made” but instead understand they are beholden to the gifts bestowed upon them by their families. Conversely, our chief virtue is not the wealth we accumulate, or the power we exercise, or the books that we write or the  successes  we achieve. The measure of a life well lived is the moral qualities we pass on to the next generation.

This Thanksgiving most of us will not be able to celebrate with our parents, our grandparents, our siblings,  our adult children and our grandchildren,  our nieces and our nephews.  It will be impossible not to think of them, not to miss them and long for their company. Let us therefore give thanks to all those who came before us, for giving us so much, for helping to make us who we are today. And let us also  give thanks to the next generation as well, and may their lives reflect the values, the traditions and  the  virtues that we have passed on to  them. They are our most precious gifts to the world.  Have a very Happy Thanksgiving filled with health, peace, warm memories and joy.

Shabbat Shalom