by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 25, 2009
An old saw on Wall Street goes: Bulls make money; bears make money; but hogs get slaughered."
Even before the current economic crash, the business pages have always been full of huge fortunes lost overnight. Many such reversals occur in the real estate sector, in which huge fortunes can be made in boom times through heavy leveraging and lost almost as fast when the real estate market plummets and the bank loans cannot be paid.
Yet everyone knows that real estate markets are cyclical; they do not rise endlessly. Millions of American homeowners, who were living lifestyles beyond their means, based on their ability to keep borrowing against the rapidly appreciating value of their homes, have now run smack up against this rule.
That individual homeowners convinced themselves that the bubble would never burst is perhaps understandable. But how do we understand sophisticated businessman making the same mistake? Why do so many of the latter fail to take protective measures or push away from the table while their fortunes are still intact, especially when those fortunes are more than adequate to supply their every conceivable material desire for generations to come?
For some, kavod (honor) plays a huge role. When money has long since become irrelevant in terms of its ability to buy more things, it remains a "counter" in the game of life. The ambition to be the richest person on the block, the bungalow colony, or the world exists quite apart from the desire to do anything with that money. And with that ambition goes the willingness to risk much of what one has on gargantuan, high risk projects. For others, success creates a feeling of infallibility, a belief that one is somehow blessed with magical powers that cannot fail.
Not a single day passes without some new example of the truth of Chazal's warning: "Tafasta meruba lo tafasta – He who seeks to grab too much ends up with nothing." Nor are these examples confined to the financial realm. They are everywhere we look.
You see it at the gym when someone on the treadmill ignores the pain in a critical joint, pushes on for another five minutes, and ends up out of commission for three months. One even finds it in mitzvos. The Chofetz Chaim used to shut the lights in the beis medrash in Radin at a certain hour, lest the bochurim fall prey to the yetzer hara "from behind" pushing him to learn a little later, knowing that he will not be able to get up for davening the next day or concentrate properly in learning.
Sometimes a person rightly honored for contributions in one area seeks to expand his influence to new areas, and ends up not only failing in the new area but endangering all the honor that was rightly his for his previous achievements. The desire for control and power is no less intoxicating that that for money. Haman is most humanly recognizable when he declares all his power and honor are worthless – "V'Kol zeh aneinu shoveh li -- All this is worthless to me," as long as there is one Jew who refuses to bow down him. And the fate that he brought upon himself by trying to force that solitary Jew to submit serves as a historical precedent for many other examples of overreaching.
IS THE SOLUTION, then, just to learn to be content with what one has? Yes, learning to be sameach b'chelko (content with one's portion) and to count one's blessings is one of the keys of a happy life. But ambition is also a necessary ingredient of a fulfilled life.
Even in the material realm, it is often impossible to simply cash one's chips and say, "Enough is enough." A company that does not budget for research and development and seeks only to continue its core business may soon go out of business. Ever wonder what happened to those companies that were household names thirty years ago because they manufactured the most popular typewriters? A monopoly on typewriter sales is worth little if no one uses typewriters any more.
In ruchniyos, even more so than in business, it is impossible to stay in place. One is either striving to go up or, inevitably one is going down. When he was asked why he was always undertaking new projects and putting himself under additional pressure, Rabbi Moshe Sherer used to reply, "Agudath Israel is a davar she'bekedushah (a holy undertaking.) When it comes to spirituality, there is no leveling off. In ruchniyos, of one does not constantly ascend, he will automatically drop."
But that did not mean he undertook every project, even every worthwhile project. He knew that there could come a point where taking on too much could endanger everything achieved until then. Ultimately, striking the balance between appropriate ambition and overreaching requires a cost-benefit analysis of the likelihood of gain against the potential for loss.
But it also requires an analysis of one's motivations – where the need for kavod or power are large components, the possibility of following in Haman's footsteps also looms large. Both the cost-benefit assessment and that of motivations often require turning to outside parties, for no man, Chazal tell us, fully sees his own blemishes.
When the Levi'im reached the age of fifty, they withdrew from physical labor in the Temple (Bamidbar 8:25). Rashi explains that upon reaching fifty they were assigned to lock the gates of the Temple. The Chiddushei HaRim asks: Why does Rashi mention only that they locked the gates but not that they also opened them in the morning?
He explains homiletically that "opening the gates" symbolizes the enthusiasm of youth, the desire to undertake new missions and blaze new trails. That is positive trait, but not every initiative is wise. There are times when people with wisdom and experience must step in and "close the gates," saying that the newly embarked-upon course is wrong. That, Rabbi Sherer used to say, is the task of the ziknei hador (the elders of the generation.
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