One of my favorite stories about parents and children is the one where a mother stands on her front porch watching as her young son struggles to lift a large stone that is obviously too heavy for him to manage. She watches in silence as he grunts and groans and strains to lift this heavy stone from the spot in her garden where it rests. Finally she turns to her young son and asks, “Are you using all your strength?” Of course her son starts to get angry at the very thought that she would question how hard he was trying to accomplish his goal and through gritted teeth he answers, “Of course I’m using all my strength.” To which his mother quietly replies, “No you’re not, because you haven’t asked me for help yet.”
Yes, I too remember as a young child how frustrating it was when I couldn’t do something myself and had to ask someone else for help. It somehow always made me feel like I was less then I should have been – less competent, less smart, less creative, less successful, less self-reliant, just less. And I see the same in the young children at my synagogue, from the youngest ECC kids of 3 and 4 and 5 who so much want to do everything themselves, to older children, adolescents and beyond who still too often live with the myth of the “rugged individual,” the old Clint Eastwood characters or the lone ranger or lone superhero like Spiderman or Superman whose story lines always seem to suggest that the price of success and high achievement is to end up self-sufficient but alone.
And yet contrary to the popular wisdom of American culture I believe that there is no such thing as a “self-made man” (or woman). Every one of us not only automatically stands on the strong shoulders of those who came before us but there is virtually nothing that has ever been accomplished that wasn’t totally dependent on more hands and minds and support then could possibly be counted.
Every thing ever created is the sum of its parts – the ideas and suggestions and influences of countless teachers, parents, friends, colleagues, and even strangers past and present who have contributed one thing or another that helped the creator to move his or her idea from conception to completion. Every scientific breakthrough is the cumulative result of all the studies, articles, lectures, books, ideas, hypotheses, experiments and failures that have gone before. Every advance of our civilization is likewise not the brainchild of one individual but the sum total of ideas, knowledge, wisdom, and work that laid the groundwork that might allow that one special individual to make the intellectual leap necessary for the breakthrough to occur.
More than relying on the super-achieving individual, our society continues to evolve because of the collective consciousness of all who in their own unique way make their own unique contributions to the whole.
These were my thoughts as I read this week’s Torah portion. Moses has just led the Children of Israel across the Sea of Reeds from slavery in Egypt to freedom. At their moment of great triumph they are suddenly attacked from behind by the infamous Amalek at the place of their greatest vulnerability where the old and sick and women and children were gathered. That is why the name “Amalek” has subsequently gone down in biblical history as an enduring symbol of evil.
Moses tells Joshua to go and quickly pick men to fight against Amalek while he goes up to the highest nearby hill top and raises his hands to God. As long as his hands are raised in the air Joshua and his fighters prevail. But as soon as the hands of Moses are lowered, Amalek prevails. The only solution that will insure that the hands of Moses stay aloft and raised toward God and therefore insure that Joshua and his army will prevail in battle and the people will be saved is to have Aaron on one side and Hur on the other holding up Moses’ hands in the air themselves.
Moses can only fulfill his own leadership challenge if others are willing to literally stand by his side and hold him up. “His hands were steady until sunset,” said the Torah, and so “Joshua defeated Amalek.”
There it is – a lesson from over 3,000 years ago that we still have to learn over and over and over again in our own lives. No one does it alone. No one in our society can succeed unless we all succeed. No individual and perhaps no society as well can ultimately prevail if we insist on going it alone. We need each other to hold up our hands toward God, so that our collective prayers can become our collective actions that bring Godliness down to earth in our everyday lives as well.