Friday, June 12, 2020

The Speak Up Nation

Thorstein Veblen was wrong.

The famed Sociologist, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”, wrote an analysis of Jews and Zionism in 1919. The article, entitled “The Intellectual Pre-Eminence of Jews in Modern Europe”, argued that the creative achievements of the Jews were due largely to their marginal status. It was renegade Jews with one foot in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world who were creative. They were "hyphenated" with two identities, neither of which they truly belonged to. And it was this marginalization, of being rejected by the larger society and rejecting their own roots, that gave them the "skeptical animus" that fueled their intellectual achievements.

Veblan thought that exile and persecution is the foundation of Jewish creativity, and marginalization was the foundation of Jewish intellectual achievement. And because of this, Veblan predicted that the establishment of a Jewish State would lead to a decline in Jewish creativity. A Jewish State would be filled with complacent, unoriginal Jews; no more Jewish renegades.

History has proven Veblen to be very wrong. But his thesis is reasonable. Like the Jews, other minority ethnic diasporas have a history of overachieving. Certainly the challenges of persecution and displacement can feed innovation; and as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, being cultural mediators brought out the creative best in Jews.

Veblen's mistake was in seeing exile as the single cause of Jewish creativity. But there are multiple other foundations of creativity, including one from our Parsha, which includes the verse:

וּמִ֨י יִתֵּ֜ן כָּל־עַ֤ם יְהוָה֙ נְבִיאִ֔ים
“May it be that all of God’s people were prophets!”

This is a statement Moshe makes in response to the words of Eldad and Meidad, who are prophesizing on their own, away from the tent at the center. According to Rashi, Eldad and Meidad were saying that “Moses will die and Joshua will bring Israel into the Land”. These renegade prophets were offering a message of chutzpah which challenged Moshe directly.

Yet Moshe refuses to interfere with Eldad and Meidad in any way. On the contrary, he makes it clear that everyone possible should be given the opportunity to experience revelation.

This is a revolutionary thought. Moshe is saying that outsiders can have a direct connection to God, and the rejected can still find inspiration. Leadership and insight doesn't belong to a select elite.

In a larger sense, this verse informs a culture that recognizes that the best ideas often come from outsiders. We want each individual to speak up and be heard; that is why we train our children to do so, starting with the Mah Nishtanah at the Pesach Seder. Anyone can come forward with their insight and inspiration.

Israel is a country where everyone speaks up, where everyone is a prophet; that can even be a headache at times. But it is the key to Israel’s creativity.

The magic of the start up nation is that everyone has an idea how to make things better; in the street you will get quick advice on how to carry your groceries and how to raise your children. But Israelis also have got better ideas for something other than unruly children, including cherry tomatoes, pillcams, mobileye, and Waze. Israeli innovations save lives every day, from ambucycles to emergency bandages and innovative therapeutics.

These innovations come from inventors who speak up even when others aren’t listening. One of Israel’s first major tech breakthroughs was drip irrigation. It was a system designed by Simcha Blass, who in the 1930’s saw an unusual tree, one that stood out in a field due to its unusual growth. He dug underneath the tree and found it was near a broken water pipe. Nearly 30 years later, with the advent of plastics, Simcha designed a drip irrigation system that yields more crops on only half the water. When he first showed this system to his colleagues, nobody listened. But he kept pushing forward, and eventually, in partnership with Kibbutz Hatzerim, brought this innovation to the world. Today drip irrigation is the best way to support farmers in semi-arid environments.

Israeli innovation is built on the ability to speak up. This has been part of our culture since this Parsha.

Next time you are in Israel (may it be soon!), and someone gives you unsolicited advice, don’t get annoyed; just remember that the start up nation began first as the speak up nation.

No comments: