Sinai today: Rosh Hashana – Clarifying the WHY

Lessons from the Wright Brothers and Apple Mac.

Welcome to the Shabbat Project 2014
In one of the most popular TED talks ever, author Simon Sinek argues that history has proven that those who start with “WHY” succeed. On 17 December 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright became the first people in history to invent and fly an aeroplane. It was an unlikely success because they were working in their home town in Dayton, Ohio, without significant funding, political connections, or a single team member with a university education.
At the same time, Samuel Langley was trying to be the first to invent and fly a plane. He had large government funding, a team with the most respected academics in the world, and yet it was the Wright brothers who achieved success. Sinek says the difference between them was that, “The Wright brothers had a dream. They knew WHY it was important to build this thing. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it would change the world. … Langley on the other hand was consumed with acquiring the level of prestige of his associates like Alexander Graham Bell, fame that he knew would come only with a major scientific breakthrough.”
The Wright brothers inspired themselves and their team with a vision of building a machine that could fly not just to achieve fame and fortune, but rather to uplift human civilisation and change the course of history with an invention of unprecedented transformative power. Sinek argues that successful people, organisations and societies have a clear vision of why they exist and why they are working towards their goals. Many people get entangled with the “How” and “What” of life before understanding “Why.”
Another example that Sinek uses to illustrate this point is that of the remarkable success of Apple computers. He claims that the secret to Apple’s success hinged on their selling a vision that was broader than just the technicalities of a machine. Apple’s message was not “We make great computers. They are beautifully designed and simple to use. Want to buy one?” Instead, Sinek sums up the Apple vision as follows: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.
The way we challenge this status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, and user friendly. And we happen to make great computers.”
Sinek claims that true success comes from a clarity of vision which is inspiring, one which begins with a very clear understanding of an overarching and meaningful journey.
So often Jewish leaders and communities around the world get entangled in the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of Jewish life, without understanding the WHY? WHY are we here? Why are we Jews? In times of conflict and stress, Jews become obsessed with survival and the technical functioning of our organisations and communities. It is at a time like this that we need to lift our heads and realise an elevated vision of what it means to be a Jew, one which is not defined simply by basic functioning and survival. If to be a Jew is merely to live as an ethnic, cultural and religious group in the world, with our own set of customs and values which we work hard to preserve, then we have painted a functional, flat picture of what it means to be a Jew. Now as we begin the a new year, is the time to articulate an inspired and grand vision of the “WHY” of being Jewish, to live with this vision and to share it with a new generation of Jews who are searching for something more than mere functional survival. Of course, the “how” and “what” of being Jewish is also vital, but it all must begin with the “WHY.”
If there is one mitzvah which brings together the multi-faceted dimensions and symbolizes with compelling coherence the inspiring vision of what it means to be a Jew, then it is the mitzvah of Shabbos.
It is a day in which we contemplate, celebrate and articulate the founding history, values and destiny of the Jewish people. Each week in our homes as we recite the ancient holy words of kiddush to usher in Shabbos, we reaffirm and articulate what it means to be a Jew and why we are here, we proudly proclaim our connection to the basic foundational principles of why we are Jewish and what that means. We stand together with family and friends at our tables and sincerely and lovingly declare that G-d created the world in which we live and that He took us out of Egypt and that He gave us exalted values by which we live. Every week we proudly proclaim the words of kiddush: “Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has made us holy through His commandments, who has favoured us, and in love and favour gave us His holy Sabbath as a heritage, a remembrance of the work of creation. It is the first among the holy days of assembly, a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. For You chose us and sanctified us from all the peoples, and in love and favour gave us Your holy Sabbath as a heritage. Blessed are You, L-rd, who sanctifies the Sabbath.”
These words contain the most important dimensions of the mission statement of the Jewish people, the ideas at the heart and soul of being Jewish, the ideas which frame the way we see the world and our very identity, which we proclaim and celebrate on Shabbat: That G-d created the universe with purpose and meaning; that we were slaves in Egypt until He redeemed us for the purpose of giving us His Torah as our moral and spiritual blueprint for life. Thus, to be a Jew is not merely to maintain the survival of a cultural and ethnic group. No, it is to be part of a people who have an inspiring G-d-given mission and purpose to bring the light and warmth of Torah and mitzvot to our lives and the world around us. This mission is national and personal, and infuses everything we do with meaning. We live in a world created by G-d with love, brilliance and purpose. We have been born into a people who have experienced the grandest miracles of history, who witnessed the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea and who heard G-d’s voice at Sinai. And on Shabbat we relive and reaffirm all of these uplifting truths, as we remember who we are, where we have come from and what our mission is.
Shabbat embodies the destiny of human civilisation and of the Jewish people in particular. It underpins all of human activity: The world’s history began with Shabbat, as it was the very first thing man experienced after he was created. The pivotal, historic event of the giving of the Torah was also on Shabbat; and the final destination of the world is also called Shabbat, when G-d will redeem this world from its moral confusion and pain. Shabbos is a time that we understand that to be a Jew is not merely about functioning, but about a holy mission; not merely about survival but about carrying the light of this glorious and inspiring mission. Shabbos is the mitzvah that gives us the framework and platform to experience on every level – intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical – the grand vision of the profound importance of being a Jew. It is a time when we stop and reconsider why we are here, and where we are headed.
The mitzvah of Shabbat can be the rallying cry for our generation as we search for ways to reconnect with an inspiring vision of Jewish unity and identity. It can direct us to our “WHY.” This is the simple yet compelling idea driving an international movement for our times: The Shabbat Project. This year, on the Shabbat of 24/25 October 2014, Parshat Noach, Jews in more than 340 cities in 35 countries, will come together in a spirit of unity to keep one complete Shabbat together. The breadth and depth of support for the Shabbat Project so far has been quite astonishing, with an outpouring of positive, enthusiastic responses. All around the world, Jews of all ages, from all walks of life, across all levels of Jewish observance and involvement have joined hands to keep this Shabbat together.
Shabbat can be the beginning of an answer to the way forward for us today. It brings together in one day everything we cherish about being Jewish. In a world of fragmentation, it is a day of connection to faith, family and community; in a world of dislocation it is a day of being rooted in the grand sweep and meaning of our history and the power of our Divine destiny; and in a world of cynicism and selfishness it is a day of spirituality and love. Let us all begin the New Year 5775 by embracing through Shabbat the privilege of the inspiring mission and vision of being Jewish.
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.