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Tried and true: The secret of success

Think quick! Can you recite a profound statement that you’ve heard recently or from school days? How about a famous quote from from a distinguished world leader, say, like Winston Churchill’s optimistic gem, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!” (Just to be historically accurate, that statement was made by the Prime Minister of England after signing a peace treaty with Germany – shortly before World War II broke out! Well, at least he tried!”) Mark Twain, the acclaimed writer was attributed as saying, “Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.” Or perhaps something humorous, like a famous comedian’s insight, “Too bad the only people who know how to run the country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair!” Philosophical formulas and equations, like Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, are universally accepted, and the famed psychologist Sigmund Freud was thought to have made the penetrating statement, “You spend your whole life believing that you’re on the right track, only to discover that you’re on the wrong train!” (But then, it might just be the comedian again!)

In Jewish theology, we also have many profound philosophical bodies of work, including the Rambam’s Morah Nevuchim, the will of R’ Yehudah Hachassid, and the cherem d’Rabbeinu Gershom. (Of course, the Briskers will undoubtedly place “R’ Chaim in stencil” at the top of the list!) The gemara brings down many deep questions on various topics, and volumes upon volumes of seforim have been written, over thousands of years and hundreds of generations, to clarify and help us comprehend many of the world’s mysteries and Hashem’s methods for running it. A prime example of a profound concept is the gemara’s statement, “Tzaddik V’ra lo, Rosha V’tov lo” – which is generally translated as a righteous person who suffers, and a wicked person who thrives. From his youngest memory, a child is always taught the concept of reward and punishment, namely good behavior will be rewarded while misbehaving deserves a punishment. It is the most basic of concepts and it is carried over and applied in practically every situation, spiritual or physical, on every level. Why then, do we find countless examples of individuals who go way beyond the simple act of “misbehaving”, who have absolutely no regard for anything sacred or another’s feelings, who not only do not keep the Torah and mitzvos but rather forcefully spite it and anyone who does; these very people are multi-millionaires, living in luxurious opulence, respected in the eyes of their communities and in many cases, actually running their communities. On the other hand, we have all received those letters in the mail about a Rosh Kolel, or someone comparable who has just been diagnosed with a terrible disease, Rachmona L’tzlan, whose children are sick, who has no money to pay for medication, etc. Wonderful, caring and G-d-fearing individuals who do so much yet have so little. People who at the height of their wealth were upholding Yeshivos and institutions single-handedly; they are now penniless and honorless (and in some cases, in deeper trouble than that!). Isn’t this totally against anything we have ever understood regarding reward and punishment? How do such things occur?

Well, the gemara gives us an explanation – sort of. When we refer to a righteous person who is suffering, we allude to a “tzadik ben rosha” – a righteous person, the son of a wicked person. The wicked one who is thriving is describing a “rosha ben tzadik” – a wicked person, the son of a righteous person. Well, okay …. but how exactly does that answer the question at hand? What should be the difference whether the person is born to a good family or a bad family? Shouldn’t we look at each person on an individual basis and judge him based on what he has achieved in his lifetime? As a matter of fact, extra credit should be rewarded to the person who has worked hard to reach a righteous level after starting out with such humble beginnings as in the home of people who are deemed wicked – not the other way around! Whew, I told you it was deep and profound!

There have been put forth a number of insighful responses to this moral dilemma, but I would just like to share one beautiful explanation that I heard. As befitting a concept as extraordinary and complex as this, the answer lies in one of the more famous quotations of Chazal. “Who is a rich man? One who is happy with his lot.” The idea of a person being truly happy and content with what Hashem has given him in this world, tell us Chazal, is the key to success, the road to riches, the light at the end of the tunnel – you name the cliche and it fits! A person has only to mind his own house, his own store, his own family, without keeping an extra eye out to see what his neighbor’s have, and then he has achieved true wealth and riches. The Brisker Rov ZT”L once joked to a shopkeeper who complained that his store was always empty while his friend’s store a block away, was wildly successful, “It’s because you are exerting too much energy. You’ve got to run two stores – yours and his!” The concept of kinah – jealousy, is a powerful mind-altering drug, which if left to run free, will cause all kinds of grief – baseless hatred, ultimate stress and sickness – and guaranteed to not cause happiness. If people were to understand that what belongs to them is theirs and what belongs to someone else is not theirs, was never intended to be theirs, and because Hashem makes all the decisions and holds all the cards, is not in their control anyway, these same people who stumble along in a tense and miserable existence, would suddenly find life to be less stressful, happier and infinitely more fulfilling. That, is what Chazal meant in Pirkei Avos regarding a rich man. True wealth is not so much a matter of minding the estate, but rather a state of mind!

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But the lesson runs deeper. Not only should one train himself to be content with his lot and he will see true rewards, but this concept must be ingrained into his children right from day one. Obviously, a parent sets the tone and leads by example, but even so, the children must comprehend the lesson and brand it on their souls, just as one brands a mark on an animal, burning it in a such a manner that it can never be erased or removed. By doing so, a parent has imparted a knowledge so important that with it, the child will grow and thrive – the true secret of success! On the other hand, if this formula is not taught by the parent, not ingrained in the family pysche, and the child is not capable of incorporating and growing with it throughout his formulative years – he will most definitely fail and remain a poor man for the rest of his life.

This then, is the answer to that all-important, and obstrusive query: A righteous person who suffers is only referring to a virtuous person who was raised in the home of wicked and uncaring people, where moral values were never mentioned, proper etiquette was never enforced and lashon hora and sinas chinom was a way of life. Even if a child were to grow up in such an environment and rise above the fray, elevating himself to the status of a tzadik, life would always remain “ra lo” – to him; it will never be good enough and he will never find true contentment and happiness, because he had never experienced it and incorporated it into his being as a child. His entire life, a feeling of disillusionment and malcontent, however slight it may be, will always tug at the corners of his very being, and therefore, says the gemara, he will experience a feeling of suffering. The flip side is even more amazing. A corrupt and evil person who had a good upbringing and learned how to be a proper mentsch, although his immoral desires and evil impulses may have gotten the better of him and his life has definitely led him off the beaten path of true religious observance, however, in his mind he is still be able to achieve a level where he will feel contentment and satisfaction with his life. To such an individual, the feeling of “Tov lo” – of being comfortable and happy, will be attached.

Now, you might be thinking, “How does this guy come off making such statements and expecting us to nod our heads in agreement?” Well, this is not my original thoughts, believe me, I don’t have the guts to make such a pronouncement. No, these are the words of no greater an authority than the holy Chasam Sofer ZT”L, who in his wisdom and experience dealing with thousands of people, found this to be true. Either way, the lessons to be learned are timeless and everlasting. Chinuch starts when a child is very young and it doesn’t necessarily have to be contained to books and conventional wisdom. What a child sees and feels in his home, will remain with him for the rest of his life. If he sees a life of Torah and good values, learns to appreciate what he has and not be jealous of others, he will be a rich man and a true-to-life success story. Because he made his money the old-fashioned way – he inherited it! Now, that’s profound!


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