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You Didn't Build That

You Didn't Build That

Judaism's approach to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

by and

Sometimes one phrase can catch the imagination of an entire nation. Four years ago Barak Obama uttered just such a phrase, which became a mantra: “Yes we can.”

Sometimes one phrase can deflate the spirit of an entire nation. Last week Barak Obama uttered such a sentence when he said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

It is not our intent to get involved in political debate; rather, we would like to ruminate upon the underlying values these statements express and how Jewish wisdom provides a straightforward, useful, and uplifting synthesis of these disparate views. Indeed, Jewish thought in this area goes to the core of the Nation’s founding principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and reconciles the achievements of the individual in the context of a virtuous, effective, and limited government.

America became great because people believed “they could.” They believed that theirs was a land of opportunity, where hard work bore fruit. For the most part, Americans believed in a God who rewards honest, hard work with success and prosperity. Americans believed in themselves and their individual and collective abilities even in difficult times, with an optimism that seemed to outside observers impossible, unrealistic – even bordering on manic.

President Obama was correct when he reminded us that no man is an island. Often, success is impossible without the hard work of others, especially those that came before us. It is of supreme importance for people not to be intoxicated with their own success: the self-made man or woman should not worship his or her creator (with a small “c”). We must not lose sight of personal and communal humility. We must always remember that the many blessings we enjoy have been bestowed upon us by a benevolent Creator. We should feel and express real gratitude and appreciation for all those who raised us, taught us, inspired us and facilitated our success.

Indeed, each of us was born into a world replete with the resources – internal and external, private and public- that gave us the hope and the ability to succeed. These resources, these invaluable gifts, presented us with both the opportunity and the responsibility to achieve greatness. Therefore more than "yes we can," we have been told, "yes – we must."

We possess an inexhaustible capacity to create, to build, and to improve.

We possess an inexhaustible capacity to create, to build, and to improve. We are endowed with the potential for greatness; we therefore have the responsibility to be great, to make a difference. This is our challenge: Yes, you can build that, and yes, you should be applauded for your efforts when you try, and celebrated when you succeed. For while we are all capable, not all are willing to step up and meet the challenge.

This, then, is where the president misspoke: he intimated that building upon existing knowledge or utilizing existing resources somehow lessens the beauty of individual achievement. In fact, this is precisely what makes it all the more impressive: there are still among us individuals or communities that refuse to stagnate, refuse to leave well-enough alone, refuse to be satisfied with leaving the hard work to others. Those who still strive to excel, to propel themselves above the pack, should not be told, “The success was not yours.” They should not be told, “you didn’t,” "we didn't" – because, in fact, they did.

And because of these individuals' success, the entire nation moves forward – economically, technologically, and in so many other ways. "We can" because each and every one of us can; we succeed and thrive because there are individuals among us who take the initiative, take the risks – and get the job done.

The Jewish approach, as articulated by a Talmudic sage over two thousand years ago, has always been a healthy balance between appreciation of what we have received, the hard work needed to achieve our own success, and investment in the future. The name of the sage who taught us this great lesson was Honi, and he learned this important balance from someone else – an anonymous man, whose words still ring true across the span of thousands of years.

One day he (Honi) was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” He then further asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a)

We are taught that we must take an active role, and not merely enjoy the fruits of our predecessors' labors. We must plant, and work, and not rely upon others to do so for us. If we begin to think that we "did not build this" we will arrive at the conclusion that "we cannot build this", and we will not try to build, to plant, to use the resources available to us in creative new ways. This seems to be the message of the Talmud: the Jewish approach is to take note of the things in this world I found when I arrived, and to rise up to the challenge: to toil, to plant – for myself, and, even if I will not see the fruits, for future generations.

Some types of planting are more arduous than others. Often, hard work is involved. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to see and enjoy the fruits of our labor; sometimes our efforts will only bear fruit in later generations – but we roll up our sleeves, we work, and we succeed. Yes, we can.

July 29, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 50

(25) mitch, September 4, 2012 12:50 PM

interesting excerpt from Financial Times

GIDEON RACHMAN, Financial Times, "Now Obama must build the case for government": "The potential for mishap is underlined by ... you didn't build that' ... The Democrats' defence is that the president was merely talking about the need for government to provide vital services, such as infrastructure. They insist his remarks were ripped out of context. But, in truth, they don't sound too great in context, either. Mr Obama sneered at successful people, who think 'well it must just be because I was so smart'. A political gaffe is most dangerous when it seems to confirm what voters already suspect. And the president was already vulnerable to the idea that he has scant sympathy with the strivings of the little guy."

(24) Michael L Schwartz, August 5, 2012 4:03 PM

We didn't take out of context or misunderstand.

We have heard the exuse before. Obama says something that infuriates people and the response is "taken out of context" or "you didn't understand what was said". How ignotant does Obama, and his die-hard supporters, think the rest of the population is. The attitude is that those who dis-agree are to ignorant to be able to understand what is being said. This is insulting to the entire population. Someone who, alledgedly, attended Harvard Law School should be capable of structuring thier words so as to avoid misunderstanding or lack of context.

(23) Joanne W, August 5, 2012 2:34 AM

You Didn't Quote That -- You Misquoted

If the author did not listen to the actual speech, but only the words taken out of context, then he has based his entire article on a misunderstanding. No individual built the roads and bridges that everyone depends upon. That takes a society and government, and it functions with everyone's support. So, just like we need to realize that it is our Creator who is behind our personal successes (because He built us, with help from our parents, extended family and society); the society we live in, and our governments, local, state and national, build and maintain the infrastructure that makes commerce possible, let alone successful.

Anonymous, August 5, 2012 4:16 PM

Remember Gideon?

Gideon is one of many examples in scripture, where Hashem went to great lengths to remind the people, that they do not succeed on their own or by their own strength entirely. However much the hypocritically religious on the right might detest that they are *not* the masters of creation, they are not, and no, they really didn't build that. They did only a part, yet claim credit for the whole and are furious that Obama dares remind them of that.

mitch julis, August 26, 2012 6:24 AM

the article makes the very point you say we fail to make

We understand that the President was referring to infrastructure like roads and other resources that exist because government exists. Jewish wisdom and values provided a framework for taking the President Obama's talk and putting the American "[yes we] can do" spirit of individualism and entrenpeurship in a more positive, inspiring, and encouraging context. President Obama should read some of the articles at to access this kind of wisdom -- it might work wonders for him -- and for the country. :)

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