October 31, 2020 |

Selling The Dream

October 22, 1938[1] was one of those quiet days that changed the world as we know it. Chester Carlson, aspiring inventor and part-time patent clerk (which is what Einstein did to pay the bills also) made the first photocopied image on that day. He called his process electrography, which became xerography ("dry writing" in Greek) and hence Xerox. Carlson knew he was onto something big, but everyone else thought he was off his rocker. More than 20 companies declined to buy and produce his copiers, including IBM and GE. Karl Albrecht writes that representatives of Harvard Business School said it was a "stupid idea" and I heard of a conversation in which Carlson was mocked for imagining that the world needed more plain paper copies of something they already had. It is a cautionary tale about innovation, vision and change. Xerox has on its website the credo of its first chairman, Joe Wilson: "Great rewards come to those who see needs that have not been clearly identified by others, and who have the innovating capacity to devise products and services which fill these needs."

I have great respect for Carlson as a person who makes my life (and the lives of my students) easier, who innovated against great odds and with few resources and who stuck to his dream and vision. (I do not hold him responsible for all the trees killed to provide paper for all the copies he has enabled us to make, but perhaps I am overly kind.) But he is no Abraham.

Carlton's invention allowed people to communicate and share information better (a major motif of our digital age) but it was only a copy, a replica, of what already existed. Even as an inventor, he took ideas that already existed and combined them to create change. His vision, brilliant as it was, was one of technological convenience. Our forefather Avraham, however, believed in an idea that was so radical in its time that NOONE else shared it in the entirety of the Ancient Near East. It was an idea - monotheism and a God who cares for us and wants us to live His way -- so powerful that it defined in many ways the course of history and still defines a belief system of half our planet. It was an idea that completely alters the social, intellectual and spiritual gestalt of any person who embraces it. It was an idea that was innovative, more than just a little unpopular and deeply seditious to the rulers of that time, who themselves wanted to be viewed as gods.

Our tradition teaches that Nimrod, the mighty king, worshipped a fire god and threw Avram into a Chaldean furnace to see whose deity would prevail. Unharmed, but unpopular, Avram and his family fled for the wild wild west of Canaan. The One and Only God, who had begun to guide him by this point, first appears to him in the land of Israel and tells him that his family, this land and his connection to God will define the future of a special people[2]. The world was not really ready for the Jews then; they may still not be.
But it is the deep integrity of Avram that may be his most impressive trait. His actions and choices were motivated by the pursuit of truth, a deep sensitivity and kindness to others and a genuineness of purpose and spirit that obviously makes a deep impression on those around him.

As far as truth, it is clear that Avram believed in the One God before he ever encountered Him. Our oral tradition suggests that he looked into all the prevailing religious ideologies of his day and found them all wanting, that he sought a unified theory of God.

As far as kindness, the Midrash teaches that the source of tension between Avram and Lot was over Lot's willingness to graze his livestock on Canaanite and Perizzite land. This was theft and, though it did not impinge on Avram at all, nor were the Canaanites etc. such moral exemplars, this was unacceptable to him. Though Avram could not abide the wickedness of the Sodomites, he still appeals to God for them to be saved.

As far as dignity and genuineness, every monarch he meets lavishes gifts and respect upon him. When he comes to bury Sara, the local Hittites identify him as a "prince among us" and they seem to mean not only a VIP, but also someone worthy of respect.

These personality traits are essential to the spread of the Avraham's vision, the "way of God." The very name his family takes on - the Hebrews, or Ivri'm - means "foreigner (literally, from across the river) or, perhaps, a person who thinks differently than everyone else. But his message nonetheless seems to catch on.

Avraham shares eagerly his understanding and religion. As he sits in his open-sided tent and welcomes in visitors, he offers them an opportunity to experience his sanctified life and to be among those who thank God for all they have. And this approach seems to work! People are drawn to his sincerity, his kindness, his truth. At the beginning of this week's Torah portion, when Avram sets out for Canaan, the Torah says: "And Avram took Sarai, his wife, and Lot, his nephew, and all their property that they had acquired, and the soul they had made in Canaan and they went towards the land of Canaan and arrived in the land of Canaan." (Genesis 12:5)

Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 11th c) cites the midrash that Avram converted the men to the Hebrew faith while Sarai converted the women. Hence, they really "made" new souls. Umberto Cassuto (20th c. Italy and Israel) says that this is not only rabbinic midrash, but the p'shat of the verse! In other words, Avram and Sarai - by their personal example of faith - convinced people that believing in one God was right and attracted followers. The verse begins in the singular - "And Avram took"-but concludes in the plural "and they went towards the land of Canaan." At the beginning of Avram's wild innovation, his ridiculous quest to follow the One God, he may have been alone, schlepping along the few people who saw some greatness in him, if not the mission itself. But - like a truly great leader - he soon gains their buy-in and they become active participants, going to the Holy Land of their own accord and purpose.

Perhaps it really was a stupid idea to build a photocopy machine before Chester Carlson did it. In retrospect, it is hard to imagine that it was ever considered stupid -- who wouldn't want one in their office and, more recently, at home as well? And that was just for making copies! Perhaps it was really dumb to follow our God -- YHVH, El Shaddai, the Holy One, blessed be He - until Avraham did it. But his amazing commitment to truth, kindness and integrity brought God from the shadows into the light.

We have to ask ourselves: what else does Avraham have to teach? The world may have been moved by the belief in one God, but that is not the totality of Avraham's message. We may not have him in front of us to lead the way and help us buy in. But his lessons are set down in three segments of our Torah. How closely are we listening. Is it taking us along like a twig in a stream or are we swimming forward of our own volition?

And we have to ask ourselves if our own travels or our own integrity is changing the world for the good. Are we moving forward and bringing the world to buy in to the "way of God" or are we just sitting in our tents while everyone around us walks by? Let us be of the children of Avraham and follow his example.

Shabbat shalom!

[1] less than 3 weeks before Kristallnacht, incidentally.
[2] According to a number of traditional commentators, he did not receive real prophecy until he arrived in the Holy Land; the one prior message from God (the "lech lecha", "go forth" message of Gen Chapter 12) was a lower level of inspiration, un accompanied by the 'appearance', or actual presence, of God.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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