Friday, June 12, 2015

"Success around the corner?" - D'var Torah - Parashat Sh'lach L'cha - June 12, 2015

“Youve failed many times, although you may not remember. You fell down the first time you tried to walk. You almost drowned the first time you tried to swim, didnyou?  Did you hit the ball the first time you swung a bat? Heavy hitters, the ones who hit the most home runs, also strike out a lot.   R.H. Macy failed 7 times before his store in New York caught on.  English novelist John Creasey got 753 rejection slips before he published 564 books. Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times, but he also hit 714 home runs. Dont worry about failure. Worry about the chances you miss when you dont even try.
     Some of you may know this quote from the internet or, perhaps, from your Rabbis office wall.    Its been a standard feature of any office I have occupied.  It serves as a reminder to experiment, to think out of the box from time to time, to try just about anything, and to see the glass as partially full even if others might believe it's mostly empty.                   
     That quote also encourages us to view an impending and imposing challenge from the perspective of what might make it doable rather than identifying the obstacles in the way as reasons not to try. 
       A decade ago, Freakonomics, a book by authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, quickly became a bestseller  due to its unusual take on how to solve a wide range of societal problems around the world.   Their newest book, Think Like a Freak, attempts to teach the reader about their thought process through examples of how ordinary people were successful by looking at a problem or situation from a new angle.  One of the best stories in the book is about eating.   In this case, it was about a Japanese college student who needed to make more money to pay the rent and other expenses.  Kobi, the champion-to-be, was signed up for an eating competition by his girlfriend Kumi.   He is 58’’ and has a slight build, but had always cleaned his plate and sometimes his sistersplates at home when he was growing up.  To prepare for the contest, Kobi began to study how people won these gastronomic competitions.  He explored how they consumed what was in front of them in such a large quantity and so quickly. He won his first competition by eating just enough to move from the first round to the next.  That way, he had enough energy and stomach capacity for the final round to win.  After his first triumph, Kobi set his sights on a well-known international event: Nathans Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every year at Coney Island.   The rules:  eat as many hot dogs and hot dog buns as you can in 12 minutes.  There were no restrictions on how to accomplish the feat in order to win.   The record had been 25 ½ hot dogs and buns until Kobi entered the contest in 2001. As a first timer at the competition, he won by eating not 26, not 30, not 40, but 50 hot dogs and buns.  This intrigued author Steven Levitt.  He interviewed Kobi to ask how he had eaten so much in so little time.  Normally, a contestant would try to eat the hot dog in the bun whole.  Kobi asked himself a number of questions to arrive at his strategy in terms of eating more in the alloted time. He wondered:  What would happen if he broke the hot dog and bun in half before eating?  What would happen if he ate the bun separately from the hot dog?   And, knowing that he would be given a cup of water, could he use the cup of water to moisten the bun to make it easier to consume?   Asking these questions was the key to his success.  And even more than that, he wasnt thinking about how many hot dogs he had eaten while he was taking part in the contest. He also found that if he did a little dance or shake while eating, he was able to eat more hot dogs.   Kobi won by breaking down the task at hand into all of its possible components and asking probing questions.   He let go of all of the preconceived notions about such a contest and created a new paradigm that is now emulated by current participants in the contest.
    We likely think of the Jewish heritage as a source of ingenuity, creativity, and an ability to adapt when survival requires it.   That is how we moved from a religion centered on animal sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem to a community that gathers at synagogues in prayer.   Long before that change 1900 years ago, the Israelites were forming their community in the wilderness of Sinai.    In the Torah reading for this week, the Israelites were treated to a report from the 12 scouts who went into the land of Canaan to see what it was like.  Moses had asked the scouts to answer these questions: “Are the people who dwell in the land strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?”  And Moses asked for a sample of the fruit of the land.   The scouts did bring back a large cluster of grapes on a carrying frame carried by two members of their reconnaissance team.  10 of them said that they found the land to be a good land, with rich soil and woods, but they were afraid of the people and the fortified cities that they saw there. In verse 32 of Chapter 13 of the book of Numbers, they told the people that the land “devours anyone who lives there.”  In verse 33, this majority report noted that the people were not only tall, they were giants.  They concluded, “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”   They spread their discouraging words throughout the people. Two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, believed in their peoples ability to overcome any challenge before them, including this one, and succeed, with the help of God and their own faith.
    The majority of the scouts failed to do what Kobi did – to take a step back and consider the situation from more than one viewpoint.   Seeing themselves as "grasshoppers" revealed internal fear and distress which they were unable to relinquish.  They communicated that image of feeling small to everyone around them, infecting the entire people with pessimism.   That defeatist approach was a result of their own preconceived notions about their power that came from their life as powerless slaves in Egypt.  It was as if they had forgotten that they had witnessed God's miraculous help and assistance in Egypt that enabled them to be freed from slavery, to escape the approaching Egyptian army at the Sea of Reeds, and to sustain themselves with manna that was provided along their journey.      These experiences should have bolstered their spirits enough for them to be encouraging and hopeful.  Unfortunately, the Israelites still needed guarantees to overcome their sense of being small and powerless, as if that looming pillar of cloud and fire accompanying them wasn’t enough.   Rather than seeing success around the corner, they could only imagine failure. The Torah noted that this generation was not allowed to enter the land, other than the minority report scouts, Joshua and Caleb, who emerged with their faith and optimism intact.  They alone demonstrated their potential to step forward into the unknown with confidence and determination.    
     In this tale, the reference to the scouts’ sense that they seemed like grasshoppers overshadowed the hopefulness represented by the cluster of grapes.   It is almost ironic that the scene of two scouts carrying the cluster of grapes is the logo for the Israeli ministry of tourism.   If viewed through the lens of the majority of the scouts, the grapes presented a symbol of a land that was beyond the reach of a downtrodden people that had just been redeemed.  It signified an instance of failure without even trying.   But two of the scouts saw the grapes for what they were and could be - a result of someone planting a seed based in optimism.   Caleb and Joshua realized that their people could be the ones to plant seeds that would grow clusters of grapes if they could only view themselves as human beings with a potential for power and creativity, rather than believing that they were only grasshoppers with no future.  That is why some of the people asked to go back to Egypt, even though it was a place where they only knew cruelty and suffering.   They had been rendered afraid to try. 
      Today, we have the opportunity to try and fail, and eventually succeed, and to do so with the bright-eyed enthusiasm of Caleb and Joshua.   They recognized that it was crucial for them to share their positive perspective so that it would plant a seed of optimism that would blossom in the next generation.   So let us apply our spirit and our hope to the possibilities of strengthening our own congregation through dialogue, fellowship and true companionship;  of building a community that is based on people focusing on their common interests rather than obsessing on the divisions that keep them far apart; and of creating a nation and a world that will move people to act with honesty, with consideration, and with a willingness to try to combat inequality and hatred, knowing that our failures will eventually lead us to the promised land of significant achievement.   May we always welcome new perspectives and unusual angles that will build upon past failures and frustrations and lead us to future satisfaction and success.  


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