Embracing Disruption

Below is the text of my Yom Kippur morning sermon, Embracing Disruption, delivered at Temple Beth Hillel.

A poor man walking in the forest feels close enough to God to ask,
“God, what is a million years to you?”
God replies, “My son, a million years to you is like a second to me.”
The man asks, “God, what is a million dollars to you?”
God replies, “My son, a million dollars to you is less than a penny to
me. It means almost nothing to me.”
The man asks, “So God, can I have a million dollars?”
And God replies, “In a second.”[i]

Time is money. Perhaps more so than any other time in history, we feel this pressure. Everyone wants more of both and we grown-ups work really hard to provide for ourselves and our families.

All of this happens while technologies change at a pace almost indescribable. Staying abreast of the newest trends, whether they be art, communications, media, or business, can be a full time job in and of itself.

As described in a recent New York Times article:

At certain moments in history, a confluence of technological and social advances creates the opportunity for a new field of innovation. That was happening at the beginning of 2009. A few months earlier, a reluctant Steve Jobs had been persuaded by his colleagues to allow other companies to develop apps for the iPhone. That happened just as Google Maps and GPS and other tools were enabling more wondrous mobile-based services. In addition, cloud services such as Amazon’s allowed startups to store and process large amounts of data without building their own infrastructure. The explosive growth of Facebook had encouraged people to create trusted identities and share things online. And as the 2008 financial crisis receded the overcaffeinated venture capitalists of Silicon Valley became frenzied in the pursuit of new potential unicorns.

The result was the blossoming of a type of economic activity with many kludgy labels—the “sharing” or “gig” or “on-demand” economy – that do not quite capture its disruptive and transformative nature.[ii]

Welcome to the disruption economy.

Here’s an example.

On a cool fall evening in 2008, four students set out to revolutionize an industry. Buried in loans, they had lost and broken eyeglasses and were outraged at how much it cost to replace them. One of them had been wearing the same damaged pair for five years: He was using a paper clip to bind the frames together. Even after his prescription changed twice, he refused to pay for the pricey new lenses.

Luxottica, the 800-pound gorilla of the industry, controlled more than 80 percent of the eyewear market. To make glasses more affordable, the students would need to topple a giant. Having recently watched Zappos transform footwear by selling shoes online, they wondered if they could do the same with eyewear.

When they casually mentioned their idea to friends, time and again they were blasted with scorching criticism. No one would ever buy glasses over the internet, their friends insisted. People had to try them on first. Sure Zappos had pulled off the concept with shoes, but there was a reason it hadn’t happened with eyewear. “If this were a good idea,” they heard repeatedly, “someone would have done it already.” …

None of the students had a background in e-commerce and technology, let alone in retail, fashion, or apparel. Despite being told their idea was crazy, they walked away from lucrative job offers to start a company. They would sell eyeglasses that normally cost $500 in a store for $95 online, donating a pair to someone in the developing world with every purchase.

The business depended on a functioning website. Without one, it would be impossible for customers to view or buy their products. After scrambling to pull a website together, they finally managed to get it online at 4 a.m. on the day before the launch in February 2010. They called the company Warby Parker, combining the names of two characters created by the novelist Jack Kerouac, who inspired them to break free from the shackles of social pressure and embark on their adventure. They admired his rebellious spirit, infusing it into their culture. And it paid off.

The students expected to sell a pair or two of glasses per day. But when GQ called them “the Netflix of eyewear,” they hit their target for the entire first year in less than a month, selling out so fast that they had to put twenty thousand customers on a waiting list. It took them nine months to stock enough inventory to meet the demand.[iii]

Warby Parker, Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, Facebook, and Google have changed the face of business in our country. This disruption economy is marked by the closing of one door and the eruption of another, often using technology. This disruption is impacts every aspect of our lives.

The word itself, disruption, connotes something negative. However, it isn’t. “The digital disruption of today compels new thinking and behaviors that “end” one trend while ironically giving rise to new awakenings that previously didn’t exist.”[iv]

The Judaism we practice today is a product of a disruption.  Let me explain. On Erev Rosh Hashanah I told you the story from the Talmud of Kamza and Bar Kamza and the lack of kindness that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  Just a little further on the page the Gemara continues[v], Abba Sikra, the head of the thugs of Jerusalem during the siege, was Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai’s nephew. Rabban Yochanan sent Abba Sikra a message, “come to me privately.”

He came and Rabban Yochanan said to him, “How long will you do this and kill our world with famine?”

Abba Sikra said, “What am I to do? If I say anything to the Roamns they will kill me!”

Rabban Yochanan said, “Show me a solution so that I can get out of this city, maybe there can be a small amount of salvation!”

Abba Sikra proposed, “Act as if you are sick, and have everyone come and ask about you and then bring something putrid and have it lay with you so that people will say you’ve died. Get your students together to bring you out, no other people should do it for you are the great Rabban Yochanan and we don’t want anyone to notice how light you are. Everyone knows a living person is lighter than a dead one.”

Rabban Yochanan did this. Rabbi Eliezer went in on one side and Rabbi Yehoshua went in on the other side. When they came to the opening the thug gate keepers wanted to stab him.

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua said, “The Romans will say, ‘they stabbed their rabbi.’”

The thugs opened the gates and Rabban Yochanan and his students went out of the city. There they approached the Commander, Vespasian and said, “Peace to you, O king, peace to you, O king.”

Vespasian said, “You have made yourself guilty of two death penalties, first, since I am not a king you have called me a king, and, also, if I am a king, why did you not come to me until now?”

Yochanan said, “You will be king, because if you are not a king, Jerusalem would not be delivered into your hand.”

A few moments later a messenger from Rome arrived. “Get up, the reigning Ceasar has died, and those dignitaries of Rome have placed you at the helm”

Before Vespasian left he asked Rabban Yochanan what he could give him. Rabban Yochanan asked, “Give me Yavneh and her Sages…”

Rabban Yochanan made a business proposal that would change history. And in doing so, he saved Judaism. As the siege of Jerusalem reached its climax the Romans burned the city to the ground and Jewish practice without the Temple was in crisis. Rabban Yochanan’ plan to have a learning center for all of the scholars of the age in Yavneh led to the establishment of Rabbinic Judaism, a Judaism that remembered the Temple, however, was adaptive to the reality of the time.

The adaptations that have happened to our tradition over the millennia have kept our religion alive and thriving though innovations in technology, worship, and scholarship.

Our own practice of Judaism, Reform Judaism, is a product of innovation. Reform Judaism came to be because citizens of Europe, predominantly Western Europe were struggling to balance the notion of becoming citizens of their nation state with their religious tradition. As society opened to the Jews in an Enlightened Europe, our forebearers created an authentic Judaism that was true to history while allowing for engagement in the modern world.

The Judaism we live every day is also innovative, especially here at Temple Beth Hillel. In your hand you are holding a product of 21st century Jewish innovation, Mishkan HaNefesh, a machzor for the 21st century. Our Early Childhood Center, our Elementary School, and our Religious School continue to update and change as educational theories and technologies advance. Rabbi Hronsky, our Music Team and I continue to adapt our worship experiences so that we can make prayer meaningful for everyone in our community.

And thankfully we have what Abraham Joshua Heschel called our palace in time, Shabbat. No other aspect of our tradition has held us together as closely as the observance of Shabbat. Shabbat connects us with God, with our family and our community, and gives us permission to disconnect from the pervasive technology and breathe.

We sing each week in V’shamru words from Exodus, “Six days shall tasks be done and on the seventh day, an absolute Sabbath, holy to the Eternal.”[vi] Shabbat is our break from the onslaught of media upon our minds and spirits. An opportunity to connect with the people we love and to connect with ourselves without distraction. Shabbat is a gift!

And Shabbat is a concept that is borrowed by other traditions because it is such a great idea! In his book Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin his experience at a weekend of silence with Benedictine Monks at the New Camaldoli Hermitage. Number five of the five life principles these monks believe is “renewal: this is accomplished by taking one day a week to turn away from daily cares (and screens) and appreciate the natural beauty around us.”[vii]

This New Year is just 10 days old. How will you create Shabbat for you and your family? I can tell you that it makes my soul sing to see so many people in our Sanctuary space on Shabbat. In fact, this might be the most crowded Sanctuary I’ve ever seen at TBH. When are you coming back? I get it, services might not be what you envision as part of your Sabbath observance, but you never know until you try (and by try I mean more than once).

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a sermon at the National Cathedral less than a week before his assassination in 1968.

He asserted that although we were embarking on a technological revolution, many were blind to the changes it would bring, and without some sort of moral framework we would have what he once referred to as “guided missiles and misguided men.” He said:

“One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”[viii]

The disruption economy is here to stay in our country and as Jews we know the benefits of this disruption to our practice. In 5778 may we strike the balance to care for our souls while engaging in the fast-paced technological world in which we live.  May we have a plethora of opportunities to welcome and celebrate Shabbat, and on this Shabbat Shabbaton, the Great Shabbat that is Yom Kippur, may we experience the spiritual renewal and refreshment we seek. Ken y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.

[i] http://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/videojokes/jokes/general/t/the-million-dollar-question-for-god.aspx

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/books/review/wild-ride-adam-lashinsky-uber-airbnb.html?_r=0

[iii] Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Penguin Books, 2016, 1-2.

[iv] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffboss/2015/11/23/5-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-disruption-economy/#6ebf5bb91e16

[v] This is my adaptation of Gittin 56a-b.

[vi] Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses. W.W. Norton& Company, 2004, 491.

[vii] Taplin, Jonathan. Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered the Culture and Undermined Democracy. Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 225.

[viii] Taplin, Jonathan. Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 11.

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About rabbisteinman

I am a rabbi living in North America. I was ordained from HUC-JIR. This is my blog.
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