Sunday, February 28, 2021

Book Review - I’m Not The Boss – I Just Work Here by Howard Jonas

 A Faithful Worker




I’m Not The Boss – I just Work Here

Howard Jonas

Toby Press


When I picked up Howard Jonas’s new book, I’m Not The Boss, I had no idea what a treat I held in my hands. Mr. Jonas is well known as an extraordinarily successful businessman, and I had good reason to suspect that his newest book would be about his successes, and perhaps some failures or challenges along the way, including his battle with depression.  In the broadest possible terms, one might say that this is exactly what this book is about - but it is so much more. In I’m Not The Boss, Jonas humbly, even self-effacingly, leaves aside the details of his climb to the top of the telecommunications field. Instead, he shares profound insights and ideas about life and about Judaism. 


The author of this short and extremely readable book emerges as a deep, sensitive thinker with an uncommon ability to explain big ideas simply but not simplistically. Thus, issues such as human suffering and free will are dealt with deftly, in a manner that should prove compelling to many readers.


In one particularly memorable chapter, Jonas describes his willingness to give second chances to people who were highly successful but subsequently “crashed and burned.” While others tend to consider “has-beens” a poor investment, Mr. Jonas is of the opinion that if they “made it” once – or even came close - they can do it again, and the only thing they’re missing is someone to believe in them. To use a sports analogy, the batter who swung for the fences but struck out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth may only need another at-bat to knock the game-winning home run out of the park. 


I’m Not The Boss is written in an extremely personal, even intimate tone, and includes a number of chapters describing the author’s bouts with depression. Jonas describes his successful climb out of the depths; ironically the transitional scene, which is both moving and uplifting, unfolds near the Dead Sea – the lowest place on earth.


However, it is Jonas’s analysis of economics and capitalism through the prism of Torah which is particularly compelling. He explains how the study of the Torah, and particularly the concepts and commandments surrounding the Jubilee year, brought him to recognize the Divine author behind the text. 


From the vantage point of one who has “made it,” Jonas explains that the norm in free-market economies is for successful individuals to leverage their success to create increasingly greater wealth. The rich get richer. In ancient agrarian societies, ownership of land was critical for amassing wealth, making the successful farmer better positioned to buy property of those less fortunate. Throughout European history, for example, this created a system in which the rich almost always got richer, and the division between the “haves” and “have nots” constantly grew.


The Torah-mandated system, on the other hand, while rewarding industriousness, recognizing and even applauding success and wealth, creates a very unique “reset button:” At the end of the sabbatical cycle, the Torah institutes the Jubilee year, in which all those who had fallen on hard times and were forced to sell their ancestral inheritance are restored to their property. The land is returned to its original owners, and the “playing field” is leveled. This redistribution of property is a radical departure from the concepts upon which societies and economies were based throughout most of human history.


We might supplement this insight with an additional Torah-driven economic analysis regarding the Sabbatical year. Every seventh year, the Torah commands every farmer in the Land of Israel to allow the land to lie fallow. Produce is deemed ownerless, serving as a reminder that God is the true owner of the land and all that is in it. The farmer is a partner with God, benefiting from the profits for six out of seven years, but in a gesture similar to the weekly Sabbath, in the seventh year the senior partner – God – exercises His rights of ownership and instructs that the produce is to be shared, not sold.


Another aspect of the Sabbatical year that reflects a radically different approach to the accrual of wealth involves the cancelation of loans. Lenders are commanded to cancel all loans at the end of the sabbatical year; presumably the people most likely to have been in need of a loan during the seventh year were the farmers who were prohibited from selling their produce that year. Conversely, those whose income is not based on agriculture and were therefore unaffected by the Sabbatical laws, had much lower household bills over the course of the year. Their produce, grain, wine, oil – all the dietary staples that grow from the land - were free of charge. Theoretically, the people who benefitted from the observance of the sabbatical year will be in a position to extend loans to farmers who have no income in the seventh year. At the end of the year, lenders are encouraged to cancel the debts incurred by the farmers, to distribute the burden of Sabbatical year observance more equally and once again level the economic playing field. 


I recommend I’m Not The Boss – enthusiastically, emphatically. It offers a glimpse into the inner world and thought processes of a fascinating individual who has impacted the Jewish community in many ways. Although Howard Jonas is most well known as an employer and benefactor, he should be equally well-known for his deep and impactful thinking and teachings, and for his unusual courage.  



Rabbi Ari Kahn is an author and rabbi who lives in Givat Ze’ev, he is the author of twelve books on Jewish Thought, the most recent is called “The Crowns on the Letters”.

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