Lessons from Steve Jobs

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

The saintly sage Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chafetz Chaim, 1838-1933) once commented that every technological innovation carries within it a moral message. As one who literally wrote the book on the laws of gossip and slander, he saw the invention of the telephone as teaching—warning, perhaps—that what one says over here is heard over there. He would be kept very busy today with daily moral messages.

If a machine can teach morality, then we must learn much more from a person, especially one who, in many ways, redefined the world of technology. The untimely death of Steve Jobs gives us much upon which to reflect. Coming just before Yom Kippur, his death starkly demonstrated the frailty of man; that “who shall live and who shall die” must serve to motivate us.  Once again it was demonstrated for all to see the limitations of money, fame and power – something more noticeable when one dies before one’s time.

To his credit, Steve Jobs was well aware of the frailty of life, and often spoke of how the knowledge of death motivated him to live better, to be less concerned with what others thought of him and more with what one must do. To quote from his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005: “Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”  Without realizing it, he beautifully explained the Midrash that “G-d saw that all was good”, the pinnacle of the creation story, is in fact a reference to death. “And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent”, Jobs explained to young university graduates embarking on life’s journey. 

But death is only one motivator. Steve Jobs failed in much that he did. But his failures not only did not deter him, rather they motivated him to work harder and keep going. As he himself testified, his success at Apple is rooted in the fact that he was fired from Apple, the company he started, years earlier. “I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple.” Again he displays insight into a rabbinic teaching that “great is the power of repentance for it turns sins into merits”. When one learns from the mistakes of one’s past, using them to help launch a better future, those mistakes (we can call them sins) actually become the building blocks of success, of mitzvoth. The sin is thus truly transformed into merit.

Our Sages teach that G-d destroyed and created many worlds before this one. It is much harder for man to rebuild that to build from scratch. Yet rebuilding is the message G-d wants us to remember during the holiest time of the year. We have to keep building until our failures become a springboard for success. To once again quote Steve Jobs, “Don't settle….So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.”