Overnight Millionaire


Parshat Ha’Azinu
October 12, 2019 — 13 Tishri 5780


Next time you are hungry, next time you need a quick pick up, consider eating a protein bar known as an Rx Bar.  It comes in a variety of attractive packages and delicious flavors.  Blueberry, Maple Sea Salt, Mango Pineapple, Chocolate Sea Salt, Chocolate Chip, to name just a few.  I live on them, though I am not getting a commission from the Rx Bar company for this sermon.

The reason I am talking about Rx Bars has to do with an interesting question that arises in their creation story.  The question is the title of a recent article in Marker Medium.com, and it is this: What Really Happens When You Become an Overnight Millionaire?  Suppose you don’t come from money.  The home of your youth is economically modest.  Suppose you are a hard-working entrepreneur.  You have your idea, your widget, that you work on, 15 to 18 hours a day.  It is a struggle, a daily struggle.  You don’t have much but your dreams.  Then imagine that you hit it big, really big.  Your idea takes off. Your company takes off.  And you become an overnight millionaire.  Your dream is realized.  You have arrived.  You are uber successful, beyond your wildest dreams.  Is this a good thing?

That is exactly what happened to a man named Peter Rahal.   Peter Rahal grows up outside of Chicago, the third and youngest son of Lebanese American parents in a family juice business.    The business does okay, not super successful, and not big enough to accommodate the third son, since the first two were already in the business.  Peter had to find work elsewhere.  He wasn’t much of  a student.  What was he going to do?

Meanwhile, he was into health and fitness.  He was a regular at a Cross Fit gym in Chicago.  He imbibed the vibe of constant exercise and making good food choices.  He noticed that when he was done with a draining workout, there were no snacks at his gym.  A ha!  Maybe that is the move.  Maybe he could work on a new kind of energy bar, an energy bar that would be distinguished by the fact that it was super healthy.

Long story short, he concocts a recipe of all healthy ingredients.  No gluten. No sugar.  Egg whites. Almonds. Cashews. Dates.   He started cooking these bars in his Mom’s kitchen and selling them to local Cross Fit gyms in Chicago. He works all day every day. Dawn to dusk.  Gritty. Edgy. Not clear if he is going to make it. Driven. Intense.  Lots of these entrepreneurial ventures don’t make it.  His does. End of the story is that Kellogg bought his little Rx Bar operation for 600 million dollars.  The man who had nothing but a dream and a work ethic become an overnight millionaire.  Is this a good thing?

The whole point of the article is that the answer to that question is basically no.

Yes, his newfound status allowed him to buy a mansion on Miami Beach for 19 million dollars.   The woman who writes the article, Stephanie Clifford, goes to the mansion and captures a paradox:

Peter Rahal, the 33-year old energy bar impresario who sold Rx Bar to Kellogg for $600 million…stands in the  gigantic, spotless kitchen of his new Miami Beach mansion.

Behind him, floor-to-ceiling windows revealed his pool, his outdoor bar, and Sunset Harbor.  Throughout the house are expensive-looking modernist metal chandeliers.

The kitchen drawers are filled with gold utensils.

And for dinner, Rahal is eating a can of beans.

Correction: He isn’t even eating the beans.  He’s just showing the dinner for one—chickpeas, eggs, avocado—that he makes most nights.

The article describes two problems with becoming an overnight millionaire.

The first is a relationship problem.  Everybody now knows that he is a multi-millionaire.  Do people like him for him, or do people like him for his money?  Whom can he trust?  Whom can he love?  If he dates a woman, how does he know that she is interested in him for reasons outside of his wealth?  To deal with this issue, he marries a woman whom he knew before he struck it rich because he knew her before he struck it rich.  It was a mistake, and they were divorced less than a year later.

The second problem is an emotional problem.  It turns out that what he really loved in life was the struggle.  He loved waking up early in the morning and putting in 15 hours trying to build something, bumping up against problems, trying to figure out how to overcome the problems.  The struggle itself was satisfying. The urgency. The intensity.  The on-the-edge feeling.  The not knowing whether he and his company were going to make it.  The feeling that the answer to that question depended on what he did that day invested that day with the deepest significance.  Arriving is not all that it is cracked up to be.  Struggling is more satisfying than arriving. The writer points to one spot in his modern, spacious living room, with a fancy comfortable sofa opposite the most sleek and modern television.  She says to him.  You’ve made it.  You could wake up in the morning, enjoy the stunning panoramic views of the ocean, sip your cappuccino, and watch Net Flix all day sitting here on your perfect couch opposite your perfect tv.  How many times have you done that? Never.

What Peter Rahal wants in life are deeply satisfying relationships with people he can trust, and a good struggle to bump against.  He discovered that becoming an overnight millionaire deprived him of both, a loss for which his new-found wealth did not have an answer.

Why do I bring this up now?  What does this have to do with us?  What does this have to do with the time of year in which we now find ourselves, after Yom Kippur, and before Sukkot?

The answer is everything.

There are three pilgrimage festivals, shelosh regalim.  Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  Of the three, Sukkot seems to be an outlier.

Pesach has a theme that is big, sweeping, and obviously important. Exodus. We were slaves.  Then we were freed.  From slavery to freedom. That is something to celebrate.

Shavuot has a theme that is big, sweeping, and obviously important. Receiving the Torah at Sinai.  God comes down and creates a covenant with the Jewish people which imbues every day with meaning and holiness.  That is something to celebrate.

Sukkot is about? Huts.  We were in huts.  That’s what Sukkot means. Huts. While traveling in the wilderness, we did not sleep in sleeping bags.  We slept in huts.  Sukkot is the festival of huts.

Exodus and freedom.  Torah at Sinai and covenant.  Huts.  One of these is not like the others.  What is the big deal with huts?  By the way, now that Yom Kippur is behind us, what is the big mitzvah?  What is it that Jews throughout the world will be doing tomorrow?  We will be putting up huts to remember the huts.  On Pesach we think about freedom.  On Shavuot we think about Torah.  On Sukkot we think about huts.

At first blush it may seem that huts are not compelling.  But I believe that huts are just as compelling as slavery and freedom. Just as compelling as Torah and covenant.  Huts stand for a single idea that is just so important:  Our struggles can lift us up.  Our struggles can bring out our very best when they catalyze our creativity, our innovation, our teamwork, our ability to dig in and get the job done.

For the Israelites, the huts epitomized their struggle.  They were not yet home in Israel, the promised land.  They were wandering from place to place.  They bumped up against problems, hunger and thirst, the Amalekites that wanted to destroy them, the neighboring nations that refused to welcome them.  Struggle.  But those struggles are what made the Israelites who they are.  When the prophet Jeremiah recalls the glory years of God and Israel, he does not recall when they arrived to their destination, when they got to Israel and built the ornate  Temple.  He remembers the huts, the time in the wilderness when they got though it together.  Jeremiah’s nostalgia for the time in the wilderness evokes the voice of so many long-married couples who remember their early years, when they had no money, when all they had was love and a dream and a cramped apartment, and they got through it together.

It is our struggles that can bring out our best.  The PMC cyclist who welcomes the hundreds of miles of cycling all summer to get ready for the big bike ride.  The Boston marathon runner who struggles their way up Heart Break Hill and feels deeply gratified that they made it at the end.  The writer who locks herself in her room until the chapter that is in her soul ends up on the page.  The painter who paints through the night until the image in his soul ends up on the canvass. The team at work that faced a seemingly insurmountable dilemma and pulled together to overcome it.  Or most recently this week, the way we felt when at the end of Neilah when our 25 hours of fasting and praying and repenting were over.  We got through the struggle together.

Exodus has a big idea, the importance of freedom.  Shavuot has a big idea, the importance of covenant.  Sukkot has a big idea, valuing our struggles in making us who we are.

Which brings us back to Peter Rahal.  He has a Ferrari, but he doesn’t drive it. He has a sumptuous couch, but he doesn’t sit in it.   He has a private beach, but he doesn’t sun in it.  He could fly anywhere, but he chooses not to.    Here is what he wants:  “When I was doing Rx Bar, I was like flying out of bed every morning.  I want to find that again.” What he wants is another struggle to bring out his best again.

What struggle do you have that can bring out your best? The lesson of the overnight millionaire is that life is not only about building glamorous condos. Life is about all of the huts we build along the way.  Shabbat shalom.