Thursday, October 22, 2009

Consequences of Success

"Nothing ruins a man quite like success". So goes the adage that gets validated over and over in the course of human drama. From Bill Clinton's absurd fling with Monica Lewinsky to Bernie Madoff's ponzi scam the stories of men and women who achieve prominence and then self-destruct is legion.

And we first encounter such a story in this week's parsha, the portion of Noach. At the outset of the reading Noach is referred to as the ish tzaddik. A person can receive no greater personal validation, and this from the Torah no less. He is the real survivor, chosen to stay on the island of the world not by scheming peers as in the television series but by G-d Himself. All of life is indebted to Noach for its existence. Can there be any greater success than to have literally saved the world?

Yet a short time later in the parsha after leaving the ark Noach is referred to in quite different terms. As he begins to enter the normalcy of life he is called the ish ha'adama, " the man of earth". His first real labors are to plant a vineyard. We are told he goes on to get drunk from its harvest, so drunk that he rolls around naked in his tent and becomes the object of ridicule (and some say much worse) for one of his children and grandson.

How can it be? How can Noach who was so strong and so moral as to stand alone againt a whole world of corruption become so compromised and self-destructive. What happened?

We can ask that very question of so many who seem to have fallen from grace. Are they hypocrites? Were they really never as good as they pretended to be. Does the lapse indicate that the person we thought them to be was never really them?

Its easy to say that. And in some cases it may be that they were never really who they claimed to be.

But the story of Noach says that's not always true. After all the Torah calls Noach a tzaddik and affirms him in glowing terms. Clearly he was not a pretender. Yet tzaddik though he was, he had a mapala, a fall in stature. Great as he was, he compromised himself.

What happens to people when they seem to self-destruct is mysterious and the reasons may be as varied as the people themselves. We can speculate about Noach. We can say that he lost purpose. He had no social evil to fight, all his adversaries were dead. The new world belonged to his children to settle. With no heroic agenda before him what was left to him? Planting a vineyard is a pale substitute for saving the world.

I suspect that many a seemingly great person self-destructs precisely when their battle is won.

They no longer have a mission to motivate them. The history of revolutionaries from those who fought the Czar to Castro shows that once in power idealism gets lost and the new become as corrupt as the social system it was meant to replace.

I believe Bill Clinton is a good person. And Bernie Madoff was not always evil, after all he earned the trust of many people. Call me naive, but even Fidel Castro at one time was concerned with the masses and willing to make heroic personal sacrifices on their behalf. For Bill, Bernie and Fidel their successes compromised, and in the later two cases,
corrupted them. Success has that effect.

And you and I are vulnerable too. Until we accomplish our goals we can be so generous with others striving like we are. We identify with those marginalized and struggling. Yet once we succeed we so often show a kind of arrogance and deal with others in a condescending manner. How many might say of us "He used to be such a nice guy. Now he thinks himself a big shot". In our successes,when no longer driven by a purpose larger than us, we lose our humility. In losing our humility we self destruct. We lose our souls.

So whats the answer. Surely it cannot be to wish for failure.

While the world may not have an answer, we as Jews do. And the answer is learning Torah.
Our sages long taught "barati yetzer hara barati Torah tavlin", G-d says as it were " I have created the evil inclination. And I have created its remedy through the study of Torah".
The study of Torah forever provides us with a purpose. We never complete our learning and we never know enough. Torah study is the antidote to gaava, the arrogance that causes our demise. It is always larger than us. It always presents us with a challenge. What do we call the one learned in Torah... a talmid chacham, a wise student !

If Noach had a Torah to study he would never have been identified as the ish ha'adma. If he had a Torah to study planting a vineyard would not have been his work. Sure he would have finished his task as savior of the world but the daf yomi would have been waiting.

We can have success. Indeed G-d wants us to long as we are learning Torah. To separate from Torah study is to become vulnerable to compromise and corruption. We risk self destruction precisely when we have most achieved. We need Torah to keep us focused and filled with mission.
With Torah our work is never done. Before her we can never think ourselves
greater than others.

Torah is the sam hachayim, the elixir of life. How fortunate we are that we can learn !

Shabbat Shalom

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