The “Start-Up Nation” of Israel in Jewish Thought

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By Yonatan Gordon

There are two types of soldiers in this world. First there are the soldiers of the book, who constantly fight a battle to maintain and uphold the principles contained within it. Then there are the soldiers of the more digital or virtual realm. For them, the very definition of the word “book” should go through an upgrade, as well as everything else in the world.

Whereas the print realm seems relatively sedentary, the realm of technology is ever-changing. It is also the later that mainly captures the media’s attention. Like a window display in motion, the eyes of the public are attracted to new and shiny things.

But any treatment of this topic would be lacking if not for a discussion about both; the people of the book, and the people of the e-book. Just instead of a discussion about Kindles and iPads, we find ourselves talking more today about Waze and Wix.

We began with the term “soldier” (חיל), although generally we consider start-up founders to be entrepreneurs. So which is it? Is Israel a start-up nation or an army of entrepreneurs? The short answer, is that we can really say both. But while both terms typify a person who has taken initiative, only the former places this initiative within a specific cause.

As is known, the “book” of the Jewish people is the Torah, and the soldiers or “entrepreneurs” of this book are those that study it daily with religious devotion and a commitment to its principles. Our interest now though is on the soldiers of prayer. Those who view the world as being in an amorphous state of constant flux and change.

When Order Meets Chaos

In “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” the title of one of the chapters is “When Order Meets Chaos.” There the authors speak about the nature of innovation and improvisation, as seen on the battlefield and through other examples. What we are now saying is that in order to truly innovate and “think out of the box,” there first has to be a box there to begin with. Using our example of the book, even those working to create digital books, would be lacking in their task if they forgot entirely about print books. So too there are two types among soldiers. First there are the soldiers of Torah that invest their entire life and energies toward studying it. Then there are the soldiers or prayer that are dedicated to achieving union with God.

The question then is which more dominant, the soldier or Torah or prayer? To answer this, we need to begin by rearranging the above mentioned chapter name. Instead of innovation being bred out of “order meeting chaos,” instead we call this “chaos meeting (or becoming included within) order.” Even as people seek to digitize the book, the ultimate intent is that the definition of the book itself become amplified. No longer can we view printed matter as a chunk of a few hundred pages, sitting on a shelf somewhere. But while content is indeed everywhere, the challenge then becomes one of placing this vast sea of information within the proper contextual setting. This is what marketers today call “contextual” or “native” marketing. But we can call this stuffing more e-things into the box we call the print book.

When Chaos Meets Order

The Torah student is also the most orderly person you’ll ever meet. He wakes up early to prayer and learn, then he goes to sleep in order to learn once more. To be sure, the daily regimen of study for these students is attributed the single word “order” (סדר).

Then there are the impassioned who happily fly off on the wings of prayer. Yes, while these personalities are “chaotic,” we typically also call these types the eccentric among us. But even the space shuttle pilot needs to eventually land somehow. Emboldened by their new-found experiences, the self-same box these creatives previously left, is waiting for them once again.

The real question behind the success of start-ups in Israel then is not how they come up with so many ideas, but in how they land so many ideas. As any pilot knows, it’s much more difficult to learn how to land, than it is to learn how to take off. The world is full of creatives and free-thinkers, but somehow Israel also has more boxes to land them all.

Think Box

In Apple’s famous “Think Different” campaign, the television commercial brought together many creative people, in an attempt to show how the Apple computer fosters creativity. The implication is not that these devices make a person creative. Instead, it is that the boxes (or the flatter versions of present-day), somehow provide a boundary for one’s unbounded creative ambitions.

This then is why we prefer the term “when chaos meets order” to describe the art of improvisation and innovation. The greatest development technology brings to the table is not in the take off, but in the landing.

Judaism not only encourages progress, but it includes it within the ever-growing landscape of Torah. While the Torah itself is immutable and unchanging, the depths of discovery are never-ending. There will always be more to explore; more new and shiny inventions and other things to include within the courtyard of Torah.

Moving to Remain

From the moment we received the Torah on Mount Sinai, it has accompanied us throughout all our wanderings. Even while the Jewish people journeyed through the wilderness, as well as today when we wander daily through the wilderness of exile, the Torah remains consummately whole. Therefore, the Torah soldier is not perturbed by changes in reality or circumstance, because in the end, nothing has changed since the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. The conflicts and difficulties that fill our lives are of no interest to the solider or Torah, and his single-minded focus in life: to reveal and spread forth the Torah’s eternal light.

Marketing the “Box” of Torah  

The challenge then is how to attract others to the Torah? How to publicize it so that even the nations of the world hear of it? In order to do this, we must turn to the solder of prayer. Why is he the one best positioned to make the waves and the headlines?

We can appreciate the answer by looking back again at the “Think Different” campaign. What made this campaign so marketable was not the boxes themselves, but in the message that everyone could become a “think different” person. In terms of productivity and day-to-day usefulness, people were already aware that personal computers were something worthwhile to have at home. The contention then is not just that these boxes ground creative ambitions better than other boxes (although that’s part of it). Instead, the primary message that hit home with each viewer was one of universality. Before this commercial, you thought that creativity was reserved for those eccentric individuals throughout history. So what did Apple do? They said “think different” to everyone, not just to these select few.

This is the clarion call of the soldier of Torah. That the ability to uncover insights and innovations within the Torah belongs equally to every Jew. As the sages state, “the crown of Torah lies in place, anyone wishing to claim it may come and claim it.” In contrast to the Torah’s steady nature, the soldier of prayer partakes of many adventures. This is particularly apparent in Chumash Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers), that relates how at the outset of every stage of their journey, the Jewish people would dismantle the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and then reconstruct it again when they set up camp in the new place.

Entrepreneurs are very keen on taking things apart. As many of the stories of these start-ups begin, there was some existing company that seemed complete, and only once they began their own journey, did the existing company eventually decide to purchase them. Here is an example of this, as written in the recent article entitled “Imported From Israel: 4 Key Start-up Lessons”:

“Eyal Gura’s wife suggested that many people on the Internet were using copyrighted photos from Getty Images without paying for them. This gave Gura the idea to build PicScout, a company that would scan all of Getty’s images, search the Internet for duplicates, and send notices to those who were using the images to either take them down or pay.

After two years of trying to persuade Getty to allow him to load those images into his company’s database, Gura got a thumbs-down. So he contacted 10,000 of the people who took those photos who were not getting paid for them, and got their permission to put those images in his database.

His company was so successful at generating revenue from people using the photos that Getty ended up agreeing to license its images to Gura. And later, Getty bought the company.”

Notice that the end of the dismantling process, resulted in Getty becoming a more complete company. This is also what it means that the ultimate goal of a creative is to include more things inside the box. That each step of dismantling (in this case, by starting his own company), was in order to continue onward to the next leg of the journey. In this case, to start another company,

“Another one of Gura’s wife’s ideas? A company that would make it easier to pool money to buy a big gift for a mutual friend. Gura was the founding investor of The Gifts Project that implemented his wife’s idea. EBay acquired the company in September 2011.”

To Those Who “Think DIfferent”

In contrast to the Torah’s uniform readiness to be studied by all, not everyone is of equal status when it comes to the Mishkan. The crown of priesthood was granted only to Aharon and his sons, while the Levites stood guard around the Mishkan to ensure that no foreigner would approach, “And the foreigner who approaches, shall die.”

As with the Mishkan, the soldier of prayer experiences ups and downs. Like the emotional heart with its ebb and flow, the soldier of prayer seeks to make for God a dwelling place below, but when required, will dismantle it and reconstruct it later. He cannot approach every Jew because he senses that not everyone can understand his approach and not everyone shares his devotion to constructing a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. He is naturally drawn to work with those sharing his convictions, those individuals belonging to the inner circle of his own community who can appreciate his grand ideals. So too, if a someone wanted to write up the personality profile of an technology entrepreneur in Israel, these qualities would be a good place to start.

Marketing the Outliers

The truth is that we need both types of people. We cannot do without the Torah soldiers, dedicated to the pillar of the Torah, whose only concern is to spread the Torah to everyone. Nor can we do without the soldiers of prayer, dedicated to this pillar of service of God. These are the ones who diligently nurture a strong, devoted, and warm-hearted community, that can carry out the important mission that the Jewish people are destined to fulfill. Together, both will bring the redemption.

We often think of successful start-ups as exceptions to the rule. As the article also writes, “One Silicon Valley venture capitalist told me earlier this year that for every 10,000 ventures that get funded, only one becomes a significant company–e.g., a valuation of greater than $1 billion.”

This then is why ultimately, the most marketable soldier is the soldier of Torah. Whereas the service of the soldier of prayer is measured by one’s ability to withstand the heat of coming close to the Divine presence (the exception), the cool waters of Torah are accessible to all (the rule). It is only because the public thinks the “box” or realm of Torah to be limiting, that we need to highlight these exceptional cases.

What Apple did by bringing footage of freethinkers in their Think Different campaign, is similar now to fascination over this “start-up nation.” But as we have moved some years since that campaign, the context behind the message has grown clearer.

Start-Up People or Nation?

There are two types of soldiers in Israel, and both serve an important function. But while some people will rise up the ranks of the army, or exponentially grow the valuation of their start-up, the main thing is that every soldier should have a box in their home to ground these ambitions.

Israel then is the start-up nation, but not for the reason that people at first think. The reason why the discoveries and explorations occur in such a concentrated fashion, is because the Torah itself is immutable. But instead of a force that works in opposition to progress, the immutable nature of the Torah begins a start-up ripple effect over the entire nation. The term “start-up nation” then implies that the entire nation is a box that can contain all the creative ambition of the residents.

This is the end result of our analysis of the Think Different campaign. That instead of each creative landing ideas in their own personal boxes or computers, to be a start-up or “think different” nation, there needs to be one common to them all.

On Blueberry Pancakes

Seth Godin recently wrote the following,

“Your favorite record label…ought to be a blueberry pancake. Each musical group is mostly alone, figuring out something that just might work. The goal isn’t to lock and repeat and scale. It’s to go wide and stay interesting. Great record labels have both better blueberries and the support staff to launch them into the world.”

When you first read this, it seems that all that’s needed to turn individual creatives into a community is a support staff. But as he explains elsewhere in the post, the support staff can easily turn into a battleship extra of non-essential hands.

The intent behind our discussion then, is that the Torah is what keeps each of the inhabitants well-inspired. This is the secret of the start-up nation. That the “battleship” of landscape of Torah, is what keeps the nation moving forward faster, and more connected together as a community, than any other.

Freely excerpted and adapted from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s farbrengen on Shabbat Parashat Bamidbar, 5766.


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