How Success Ruins Us

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end. [Beware lest your heart grow haughty] and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.

If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish; like the nations that the Lord will cause to perish before you, so shall you perish—because you did not heed the Lord your God (Deut. 8:11-20).

Man transitions from success, to haughtiness, to rejecting God and finally to idolatry. What is the sense behind this psychological progression?

God created man with many instinctual drives; some are more powerful and present than others. For example, sorrow exists only in response to an undesired event or loss. Otherwise, one does not experience that emotion. Love as well requires the presence of another human. But ego is different. From youth, one is keenly aware of the self, and views the self as the center, as more important than others. Kids say, “mine” when grabbing a toy from another child. Ego is not learned, just like chewing, swallowing and breathing. It’s innate. And many adults don’t abandon the competitive egoistical drive to prove their superiority. They slave for decades to have the finer car, the larger home and the more elaborate wedding. It’s one big competition in their fantasies, where no one stops to realize that he isn’t taking all his “medals” to the grave. The wise person is different, and takes to heart his mortality. He invests time in what is truly a pleasure, and what is eternal: Torah.

Thus, as ego is ever-present and always seeks expression, one’s success granted by God is hijacked and utilized to bolster one’s ego. He rejects God as this depletes his ego. But why does he then turn towards idolatry? Didn’t he just reject God as he desires to view the self alone as the cause of his success? Won’t idolatry now risk his ego, and he might think the idol is granting his wishes? We wonder why, if one rejects God, that he pursues idolatry. As one rejected God due to one’s inflated self-estimation—“My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me”—he should equally reject idolatry. For in idolatry one again would be admitting to a need for that god. King Solomon answers in Koheles.

One can serve a deity or an idol for a number of reasons. The most dominant motivation behind idolatry is the desire for success. However, this motivation cannot apply here, as Moses tells the Jews their egos will dominate and they will attribute their success to themselves. But there is another motive that is activated by one’s very success: insecurity at losing his wealth. 

A worker’s sleep is sweet, whether he has much or little to eat; but the rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep (Koheles 5:11). 

This is why the Jews are warned that they will follow idolatry: as a means to protect their abundance from others or from imaginary forces of evil. This is why Jews today wear red bendels, as they fear the “evil eye” and other imagined powers. Today’s Jews make 2 errors: that forces exist other than God (evil eyes) and that red strings can defend against them.  

The wise person values God’s wisdom and the pleasure he derives from his learning. He is not egoistical, so he does not suffer the stress and problems with peers that competition breeds. His life is pleasant, and he is thankful to God for his portion. He remains focussed on God, and would never abandon the only true power for wood or stone idols.