My Way / Shavuot 5783

Shavuot, or why Sinatra was wrong

In Short

We live in times in which the ruthless, the corner cutter, the egotist and the callous are lionized. For an entire segment of society, the dystopic dreams of Ayn Rand and the “greed is good” ethos of Gordon Gecko have become gospel.

The famous song “My Way,” popularized by Frank Sinatra, is problematic. 

For starters, the music belongs to a 1967 French song called “Comme d’habitude” (“as usual”) by Jacques Revaux. Paul Anka bought the rights, and after a dinner with Frank Sinatra and “a couple of mob guys” in Florida, wrote a new version of the lyrics that, he thought, would fit Sinatra’s persona. 

Since its release in 1969, the song has been an enduring hit. That isn’t surprising, for it reflects something very deep about the self-consciousness of the modern individual: the fact that we are the architects of our lives, that we owe nothing to others, and that our successes and achievements are all our own doing. “For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself then he has naught,sings Sinatra from the heights of his omnipotence.

And that makes the song problematic in more consequential ways than the done to death practice of lifting the music from another songwriter. The boast in the song, claiming that, “I did my way,” is, according to moral philosopher Simon Blackburn, “one of the most absurd and nauseating lies ever to gain currency.” In fact, says Blackburn, you did it by sheltering under a vast canopy of things done by others. Your egotism and independence was made possible by cooperative activities of countless others, even countless generations of others. You sing that boastful line in a language created by others, you eat the food discovered, produced and harvested by others, you profited from the inventions others made and got places by travelling roads others built. Most importantly, that very song is protected by copyright laws that ironically restrict others’ abilities to “do it their way” too. 

Cooperation among humans  — our most important evolutionary asset  — rests on the notion of reciprocity. People behave cooperatively because they assume everybody will. If everybody decides to “do it their way,” no cooperation will be possible, and civilization collapses. Life becomes, in Thomas Hobbes words, “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” 

Most probably Paul Anka didn’t mean for it to be interpreted this way, but “My Way” has become the anthem, the emblematic song, of one of the most selfish periods in human history. We live in times in which the ruthless, the corner-cutter, the egotist and the callous are lionized. For an entire segment of society, the dystopian dreams of Ayn Rand and the “greed is good” ethos of Gordon Gecko have become gospel. Demanding an absolute right to do what I want is behind many popular policies today. The idea that freedom is absolute license to exercise power as though the rights of others don’t exist is now dominant. In that light, are you at all surprised that America’s 45th president chose “My Way” as the song that he’d dance to during his inauguration ball? 

But the adoption of the “My Way” mentality doesn’t respect party lines. Many demand an absolute right to self-expression, which makes social life a battlefield of competing identities, all seeking recognition and even celebration. The common ground needed for society to evolve cooperatively becomes untenable when everybody insists on disregarding the sensitivities and cultural anxieties of others. For some, social norms are a hindrance to the exercise of their most selfish instincts, for others they’re the reflection of an oppressive order that victimizes them. Under the combined pressure of these two extremes, the possibility of living in a shared, cooperative space is slowly disappearing. Those of us still arguing for a life of norms, reciprocity, mutuality, respect and ”right over might” are on the defensive. 

But if you are with me in that retrenching camp, fear not, because every year, Shavuot comes to our rescue and reminds us that freedom can’t exist without law, that liberty is not an end but a means, and that as soon as we left Egypt, we needed to receive the norms that would rule our coexistence. The Counting of the Omer links our two foundational events — the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Law — in an inextricable way. Freedom is not the absence of constraints, but the capacity to do what you ought to within the bounds of society. It’s not “freedom from, but freedom to.” 

When Moses appeals to Pharaoh (Ex 8:1) he says, in God’s name “Let My people go, so that they can serve Me.” Freedom is necessary but not sufficient, there’s a mission and a goal to our liberty. The Jewish aspiration is to build a society that is  — as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said — the contrary of Egypt. A society of mutuality and not of oppression, a community of laws and not of brute force, a nation of compassion and not of unrestricted self-indulgence. Moses didn’t stand at the foot of Mount Sinai and say, “Ok folks, we’re out of Egypt! Yay! Now everybody, just ‘do it your way.’” And yet, that’s how we seem to want to live.  

We have, thank God, a “Bill of Rights,” but inspired by Shavuot, shouldn’t we also have a “Bill of Duties?” In other words, shouldn’t we be guided by the ancient wisdom of this holiday and reflect on what we owe each other? And in our times of temporal narcissism, shouldn’t we ask what we owe the past and the future? 

These questions are probably the most important ones that our world is facing. How do we combine self-emancipation and individual liberty with the common good? How do we harmonize the immediate with the long-lasting, the ephemeral with the permanent? The answer is not to go back to pre-modern times during which individuals had no rights as such. Tyranny is not an antidote to egotism. Many of modernity’s good qualities, from modern medicine to outlawing torture, are the consequence of emancipating from the collective and empowering the individual. Rejecting individualism wholesale would not just be throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but demolishing the bathtub as well. 

Maybe the solution is to add to “My Way” the parts that are missing. The parts that speak of gratitude for all that others have done for me. Those that recognize that I can do it “my way” only because I live in a society of norms and laws. Those that admit that it’s very easy to be selfish when you rely on the selflessness of others. Maybe it wouldn’t be as big of a hit if the song went, “I travelled each and every highway… which others built for me” or “I bit off more than I could chew… but I’m grateful to the dentists who fixed my teeth” or “I ate it up and spit it out… and hard working sanitation professionals cleaned up after me.” But it would be more reflective of a healthy society if he sang, “I did it my way… and because others helped me do so, I’ll help others do it ‘their way’ too.” 

I don’t think Paul Anka would object. After all, this version of “My Way” wouldn’t be the first of its kind. Our very own Hillel the Elder said something similar, “If I am not for me, who will be for me?” but then he quickly added, “and when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?”

Chag Sameach. 

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.