By Rabbi Avi Shafran
The current extended silly season called a presidential campaign has certainly provided its share of absurdities. Wouldn’t it be nice if all there was to consider were objective facts about the candidates and carefully drawn policy statements by each? If those manipulative and disingenuous political ploys known as ads were outlawed? (I know, I know, we have a Constitution that’s very kind to free expression, even of lies and innuendo.) If money and gullibility didn’t somehow combine to yield votes?
Instead we have dog stories—that Mr. Romney long ago traveled with one atop his car (albeit in a windshield-equipped animal container—and with Seamus reportedly enjoying the ride); and that Mr. Obama, as a child in Indonesia, had tasted canine meat (a delicacy in a number of countries). And slightly less peripheral but ultimately irrelevant “issues” like the contents of the Republican candidate’s personal tax returns and the fact that some Navy SEALS don’t support the president’s reelection.
Then there are the outright mischaracterizations. Like the portrayal of Mr. Romney’s ill-spoken but less-than-horrifying admission to a group of donors that the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax aren’t likely to vote for him, as some sort of “let them eat food stamps” disdain for the poor. Or the insinuation that Mr. Obama’s statement “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that”—a clear reference to the tax revenue-built “roads and bridges” he specifically mentioned—was intended to show disdain for the accomplishments of hard-working Americans.
“You didn’t build that” may well prove to be the most memorable sound bite of the 2012 campaign. One thing’s certain: From a Jewish point of view, it deserves top billing—not as a reminder of our tax dollars at work but, read more deeply, as a larger truth that should inform every moment of our every day.
Which is to begin, with its very first moment of consciousness, with opening our eyes and saying the words of Modeh Ani, thanking our Creator for allowing us to awaken. Yes, we were alive and well the previous night, but we have no right to take our continued living for granted. We didn’t build it.
Throughout the day, we acknowledge much else we enjoy but didn’t build. From the Birkos HaShachar we recite, thanking Hashem for our sight and our clothing and our ability to move and our energy, to the gratitude we offer in the form of blessings we pronounce over the foods that we eat, a Jewish life is saturated with expressions of hakaras ha’tov, “recognition of the good”—the understanding that when it comes to all that we have and enjoy and use, we didn’t, so to speak, build any of that; G‑d did.
The concept was embedded in the very week of creation, as we recently read in the Torah portion. The first rain was held back (Bereishis 2:5) until there was, as Rashi explains, a human being to “recognize the goodness of rain.”
Most everything we have we didn’t build. That’s the meaning of the Talmudic dictum “All is in the hands of Heaven, except fear of Heaven.” All our circumstances, including our successes and failures, regardless of how hard we worked, are determined not by us but by our Creator. All we can ever really call our own is our “fear of Heaven”—the way we choose to live our lives with whatever Hashem allows us to have as we pass through life.
The truth is that imagining that we are self-made, that “we built that” is no mere underappreciation of a sublime truth but the embodiment of a decadent attitude, the one characterized in Devarim 8:17 by the boast “My power and the might of my hand made me all this wealth.” Which boast is followed by the injunction: “You shall remember Hashem your G‑d, that it was He Who gave you strength to make wealth.”
How rare that a phrase from a political campaign might deserve to be ornately printed on heavy stock, framed behind glass and hung prominently in a Jewish living room. But in this case, Mr. Obama’s statement—if not as he intended it—well qualifies for that honor. v
© 2012 Ami Magazine. Subscribe at amimagazine.org.