Gates of Wisdom

Last week’s news of a healthy 14% first-quarter profit for Apple Computer stood out as a ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. The company’s strong sales were due largely to the continuing popularity of its innovative iPhone. But there’s at least one well-to-do American who isn’t buying it, literally.

His name? Bill Gates, and his demurral isn’t due to lack of funds, but, precisely because the Microsoft founder is ultra-wealthy. I do not refer here to Mr. Gates’ considerable monetary fortune, which, despite dwindling by tens of billions during the past year, still qualifies him for the top spot on Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. I use the prefix “ultra”, instead, in the way it is often used in the media to label many people who are near and dear to us – or, indeed, often are us. In this usage, “ultra” is nothing more than a code word for “extremist.” Come to think of it, perhaps it would be kinder if we’d just refer to Bill as being “fervently” wealthy.

What makes Bill ultra, I mean, fervently wealthy, is not, however, his extreme wealth. I invoke the term after reading a news report in Britain’s Daily Mail, that, according to Mrs. Gates, her husband has banned from use in their home all products made by Microsoft’s arch-rival, Apple Computers. “There are very few things that are on the banned list in our household,” she said. “But iPods and iPhones are two things we don’t get for our kids.”

That’s not to say everyone in the Gates family is necessarily fully on board with the head of household’s fanatic ways. Mrs. Gates admits that “every now and then I look at my friends and say, ‘Ooh, I wouldn’t mind having that iPhone.’” That someone who lives in a vast mansion on the shores Seattle’s Lake Washington and is married to the richest man in America could harbor such thoughts is itself quite a commentary on the human condition.

Yet, the fact that kids who have the world on a string, readily – or even grudgingly — abide by their dad’s quirky directives, that their mother suppresses her temptations to deny herself a gadget her friends all have when she could afford to buy a majority stake in the company that makes them, seems to point to a functional family structure, no mean feat under the trying circumstances of stratospheric wealth.

So what’s behind the ban? It’s unlikely that the no-Apple zone that Bill has created in his home is intended as a tikun for the primal cheit of the eitz hada’as. There are, after all, several views in the Gemara and Midrash on the identity of the forbidden fruit of that tree, but what’s certain is that it was not an apple.

Perhaps no one but Bill and his brood know his motivation for sure, but two possible ones come to mind. The first is that the fierce competition between Apple and Microsoft – as Apple was reporting its profit, Microsoft was reporting its first-ever decline in revenue from the previous year — has turned personal, and Mr. Gates cannot abide the thought of his own kin enriching his arch-rival, Apple chairman Steve Jobs.

But a more charitable view, and one that, in any event, accords with what life experience teaches us, would be that Mr. Gates is simply doing what we might expect of a super-motivated and disciplined person who is single-mindedly focused on achieving important objectives. Gates has had uncommon success at what he does and he may well believe that one essential ingredient has been keeping his “eye on the ball,” by eliminating from his life even those things that aren’t necessarily nefarious or injurious in any way, but throw him, however subtly, off the path to his chosen life goals.

The brilliant Mr. Gates knows many small things, but apparently also one big thing: that while others may see him as “having it all,” no one really can, and that, au contraire, success depends precisely on foregoing the smaller, ultimately inconsequential pleasures that only distract from achieving the really big goals that make it all worthwhile. He knows, too, that just because he can easily afford to buy all the trinkets in the world, doesn’t mean he has to do so; he’ll do what suits his needs and goals, and let the rest of the world continue on their merry way.

Bill Gates’ goals of an undisputed corporate monopoly and fabulous wealth are as far it gets from what the Torah calls a Jew to live for. And, whether he knows it or not, Gates’ trajectory to fame and fortune were determined solely by Hashem, and His decision as to “who will be rich and who will be poor” can’t be changed by all the laser-focused industriousness in the world.

But, that said, we Jews are billionaires of a different, but very real, sort (indeed, the analogy is quite apt given that much of Gates’ wealth is paper worth yet to be cashed in, and our possession of a priceless Torah likewise guarantees an indescribably rich existence only if we too “cash in” by living it). And thus, there’s a lesson waiting to be learned from the ultra-media-free, er, ultra-Apple-free Gates family home, one that we can readily apply to the life goals that we as Torah-observant Jews know to be truly important.

The very alien and deleterious culture that surrounds us – the low culture that pervades, rather than the high culture that exponents of “engagement with the world” repeatedly invoke but that, if we’re willing to get real about things, is nearly as mythical as Bigfoot — never tires of producing ever more insidious ways to make inroads in our homes and hearts. The new and ever more numerous forms of technology, iPods and iPhones among them, are the advance guard of that onslaught.

If we are clear on why we are in this world, what we want out of life and what Hashem seeks from us and for us, we need not shrink from seeking solutions simply because others, often out of envy or subtle animus, will apply the “U” word to us or label our path “extreme.” This is all the more true in the context of a contemporary culture that itself is nothing if not extreme in its degeneration and devaluing of almost everything good and holy.

And if those labelers honestly want to understand why we do what we do, well, we can tell them about a fellow named Bill . . .

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1 comment to Gates of Wisdom

  • Bob Miller

    Eytan,

    1. Under today’s conditions, what form of separation would be both practical and so total as to keep all bad influences out? At what point would you say that a particular bad influence is too pervasive to keep out altogether, so it would be more effective to arm us with “antibodies”, namely, attitudes and knowledge that would negate it?

    2. Do you live in a place where there are many negative influences around? If so, are you planning to move?