You Really Didn’t Build That

“…Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own… I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. … If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. … The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

Anyone who is even a casual follower of politics is familiar with those words, spoken by President Obama during the 2012 campaign. Republicans pounced on these words, making “We built it” the de facto theme of the national convention. They played the president’s words over and over, with videos of business owners insisting that it was they alone, not government, who built their businesses.

The problem with this strategy was in part pointed out by former Senator Rick Santorum, who told the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference that it meant that the GOP was only identifying with people who managed to start a business. “But not a single…worker went out there…who worked in that company!…You know what? They built that company, too!”

But the main problem with the GOP’s argument really had nothing to do with the way they packaged it. The problem is that there’s not really anything disputable about what the president said. Sure, there are some extreme individualists who think otherwise, but hardly anyone really believes that anyone gets anywhere entirely on their own.

This was a point that was made recently in a column by Tim Carney in The Washington Examiner. Carney argued that “in its full context, ‘you didn’t build that’ is true. Obama’s line began this way: ‘If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.’ This is actually something conservatives frequently celebrate. … So why did conservatives so hate ‘You didn’t build that’? … Because they feared Obama meant something else — something threatening to liberty. After all, ‘You didn’t build that’ was Obama’s justification for more taxes, regulations, and subsidies. … And when Hillary Clinton says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ conservatives recoil. If George W. Bush said, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ conservatives would nod: Of course parents need role models, babysitters … police, youth-group leaders. But when Hillary Clinton says ‘village,’ conservatives assume she means ‘federal agency,’ and when Obama says ‘someone else made that happen,’ he means Uncle Sam.”

The most damaging part of the Obama quote — the one most people would have recoiled from, rather than agreed with, was for the most part ignored. It was when, while reciting a litany of things the government did create or accomplish, President Obama said, “That’s how we created the middle class.” The argument that the government needs to “create” and sustain the “middle class” which is most of the country, is an extreme departure from what most people believe.

Again, that’s not to say we can get by on our own. But as Senator Santorum wrote in his book It Takes a Family, “When I hear that catchphrase of the liberals, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ I hear Big. … Top-down, elitist prescriptions imposed by those who believe they are the postmodern kings of the masses — particularly of the supposedly ill-informed ‘peasants’ … And what are these problem-creating associations that liberals believe harm people? They are the “Littles”: Local government, civic and fraternal associations, clubs, small businesses, neighborhoods … So where do we conservatives look for answers to the social issues of such widespread concern to Americans today? Why, to the very associations that the village elders mistrust.” Santorum’s entire book is dedicated to showing how, as much as the “Bigs” try, they can’t really help people — only communities can.

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No “community” makes the case for the conservative argument as much as the frum community does. The myriad of privately run chessed organizations, which provide so much for the disadvantaged, fill a hole that the government cannot.

As a community, we also care for more than just the disadvantaged. Bikur cholim organizations and doctor-referral services are just a few examples of how frum Yidden dedicate themselves to help people who are in a position to need help — even if those being helped wouldn’t necessarily fit a “means test” that is associated with governmental aid programs.

A case in point is the Lakewood semiannual sale, “Moadim L’simchah.” Run by the local Tomchei Shabbos (which itself has an annual operating budget of around two million dollars), this tremendous chessed is designed to help even those who don’t necessarily need their help the rest of the year. Yom Tov expenses, especially for large families, can create a financial strain on people who manage to get by. So sales are held, two times a year, where all the necessary Yom Tov staples can be purchased, usually in bulk, at steep discounts. The difference this makes to hundreds if not thousands of families is inexpressible. Suffice it to say that for some, if not many, it makes all the difference between getting by, and, chas v’shalom, not.

The advantage of being part of this kind of klal is of special import during the Yemei Hadin. The Alter of Kelm explains the Yerushalmi (brought by the Tur in Hilchos Rosh Hashanah) which points out a dissimilarity between our approach to the judgment of Yamim Nora’im and a judgment before an earthly court. Whereas one doesn’t approach a day of judgment as a day of joy and celebration, on Rosh Hashanah we do. This is because, the Yerushalmi says, we know that Hashem will make a nes and exculpate us. This is true, says the Alter, about the klal as a whole, and for those who focus their lives on the needs of the klal, whether in matters of gashmiyus (like the chessed we’ve enumerated), or in matters of ruchniyus (those who learn Torah — which is referred to as spiritual sustenance).

In this zechus, may we all be zocheh to a kesivah vachasimah tovah.