With immigrants in the news, let me tell you about fifteen-year-old David Sarnoff whose father died shortly after his family immigrated to America. To support his mother and siblings, David got a $5/week job as office boy at the Commercial Cable Company in New York. (Government funded welfare programs weren’t to arrive for another 30 years.) On his own time he taught himself to use the telegraph key making himself more useful to the company’s telegram business. On Monday morning September 17, 1906, he explained to his supervisor that he’d be unable to come to work on Thursday and Friday on account of the Jewish holyday of Rosh HaShana. He was promptly fired.
Ten days later, on Saturday, September 29, 1906 he observed the holyday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and on Sunday morning he began working for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America. Two months later Guglielmo Marconi, himself, visited the New York office. Young David brashly introduced himself to the great Italian inventor who took a liking to his young employee. While off duty, David took correspondence courses in mathematics.
At work on the night of April 14, 1912, David Sarnoff received the distress signals being telegraphed from the doomed Titanic. He passed the tragic information to William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers. This turned the new-fangled radio into a household term. Meanwhile, despite his fascination with the technical side of radio, David Sarnoff moved to the financial side of the business saying, “…the place to make money is where the money is coming in…”
Marconi eventually became Radio Corporation of America, or RCA. Sarnoff tried in vain to interest his bosses in his idea of commercial radio for entertainment. Taking the initiative, on July 2, 1921, he broadcast a boxing match in Jersey City between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. Nearly half a million enraptured boxing fans listened in that Saturday afternoon, mostly on homemade radio sets, and heard Dempsey knock out Carpentier. Sarnoff enjoyed a phenomenal career until his death in 1971.
Whether at Commercial Cable Company or at Marconi, David Sarnoff was never heard complaining about the anti-Semitism which in those days undoubtedly made his youthful years difficult. He never spoke of having been passed over for promotion in favor of non-Jewish candidates though it undoubtedly occurred. Much later, as a successful and prominent business leader, he participated in attempts to defeat anti-Semitism. We see this behavior foreshadowed in Genesis.
As a young single man, Jacob started working for his uncle, Laban, as described in Genesis chapters 29 and 30. Laban was not a pleasant boss (or father-in-law), but Jacob never confronted him. Twenty years later he departed as a hugely successful man with substantial assets, four wives and many children. Laban pursued him, and only then, for the first time, Jacob exploded in righteous indignation at how Laban had mistreated him. (Genesis 31:36-42)
Had Jacob focused his emotions on Laban’s persecution of him, the energies he wanted to bring to bear upon improving his circumstances would have been dramatically diminished. Using energy to complain and whine about others who might be making your life more challenging means that you have far less energy available to improve your own life. Once Jacob reached a state of stability and success, he felt free to tell Laban just what he thought of him.
I would like to draw your attention to another Scriptural example of delayed reaction. In Numbers 31, God told Moses to wage one more war after which he would die. This war was to be against the Midianites who had earlier caused Israel some dreadful tribulations. After the war, Moses was dismayed that the army had allowed female survivors.
This is how he chided the army:
They [the Midianite women] were the very people who involved the children of Israel [in immoral and adulterous behavior] on Balaam’s advice to betray the Lord over the incident of Peor, resulting in a plague among the congregation of the Lord.
Here Moses makes it perfectly clear that Balaam was the responsible party for inciting the Midianites to send their women to entice the Israelites into conduct that he knew God would punish severely.
Yet, earlier when the incident actually happened, Balaam’s role is omitted and only the Israelites themselves are blamed as we see here:
Israel settled in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry
with the daughters of the Moabites.
Scripture omits Balaam’s role in causing Israel to sin so catastrophically to stress that Israel’s progress would have been handicapped by a “Blame-Balaam” movement. They were a nation on the road from slavery to freedom, responsibility and accountability. The cry “Balaam made us do it!” would have hindered them from starting to take responsibility for their own lives. Later, once Israel had been severely punished for their dalliances with the women of Moab, and once they had successfully defeated Midian/Moab in battle, Balaam’s true role could be mentioned. Given that Balaam was himself punished for his role, the nature of that role needed to be explained.
When confronting challenge, which any business professional has to do frequently, any tendency to blame other people or external circumstances for one’s problems only detracts from the mental energy and stamina available to triumph against whatever adversity threatens. Jacob focused on doing the job rather than on Laban’s nastiness.
This is true in our community and personal lives as well. Israel took responsibility for what they had done and rose to defeat their tormentors. This victory would never have been possible had they been focused on how terrible it was for Balaam to lure them into a trap.
David Sarnoff had many opportunities to rail at the unfairness of his situation. He was a new immigrant who had to learn the language. As a teenager, he was left as the only support for his family. He had to work in a climate hostile to Jews, especially those who wished to observe their faith even to a small degree. Nonetheless, he apparently wasted no energies crying out at the unfairness of it all. He focused on learning new skills, taking on new responsibilities and seizing opportunities as they occurred. Not surprisingly he prospered.
This is one lesson that we can all apply. We all encounter tough situations in which we experience a desire to protest the unfairness of it all. We even feel a little satisfaction at indulging our internal desire to see ourselves as hapless victims in a maelstrom of malevolence swirling around us. But this indulgence is terribly costly. It erodes our willpower, our energies and our mental stamina. By not allowing any whining or self-pitying to creep into our worldview, we can see an immediate increase in our ability to triumph over tribulation. We are not victims but captains of our own destinies.