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Tuesday, May 11, 2010


As far back as I can remember, my mother, of blessed memory, used to drill into my head the notion that I needed to be my own boss. “Don’t depend on others,” she used to say. “People are fickle,” and then added, “they always follow their own interests.” Her attitude was colored by my father’s sad experience as an official of the Jewish community in Istanbul, Turkey where he worked as the executive secretary of the Chief Rabbinate. In his position, he had to depend on the will and wish of other board members to carry out any program for what my mother considered a meager salary.

There is no doubt that it is better to stand on one’s feet and forge your own destiny. You don’t have to rely on other people to pursue your personal plans, or deal with the whims of individuals who at times can play games with your life. If you succeed, you are entitled to glory; if you fail, you cannot blame anyone else but you. Besides, all acknowledge that your own needs come first. If you cannot meet them adequately, you cannot be helpful to others. Doesn’t the flight attendant tell all the passengers, “In case of an emergency, please place the oxygen mask on your face and then put it on the face of your child?” An older Jewish sage seems to have echoed this instruction when he stated, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Another one wrote, “when a person eats at his own table, his mind is at ease” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, 30). In other words, it is better to rely on your own resources than to depend on the charity of others, including your children.

So, for many years, I followed my mother’s advice, and tried to be as independent as possible. Years later, when I started to get tired of being the number-two Rabbi in my previous synagogue, I looked for a temple where I would be the only or senior Rabbi, only to find out that I now had 1500 bosses!

That realization made me re-think whether being your boss is at all possible in life. In our interaction with others, we all depend on other people’s good will to accomplish anything of value. An old Rabbinic Midrash states, “There is no barber that cuts his own hair” (Lev. R. 14: 9). Instead of acting on our own, I believe, we are better off working cooperatively with others. Do you think the President of the United States, the most powerful person on earth, can function alone? He, too, needs to listen to his advisors, and, at times, even work with adversaries in order to bring to fruition any kind of plan. It is good to have confidence on one’s ability; it is praiseworthy to come up with good ideas and show leadership in our line of work, but nothing will occur if we do not find reliable individuals who will help us succeed. Who is fortunate? He who finds a good advisor who is also a dependable friend. I have found such people, and I am blessed.

Rifat Sonsino

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