Sermon by Rabbi David erner
Rabbi Fel and I enjoy asking questions, learning more about what we believe and who we are. For example, a few months ago it was fascinating to see how many of us raised our hands to share that we had been to Israel.
And last Shabbat it was nice to see how many of you knew the song, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”
That was nice.
So let me start with this scenario. Let’s say you’re 18, a senior in high school, and someone tells you to stop all of your college applications because they have an incredible job offer for you.
Would you take that chance? Would you risk your grades, your SAT scores, your extra-curriculars, giving up a shot at going to the college you want to attend for a chance at something that might be a big money-maker?
Or here’s another scenario: you’re 20 years old, you’re attending Harvard, and someone tells you that you should give all that up for a chance at inventing a new technology which could make you rich and famous – what would you do?
Would you pass on the Harvard experience for a shot at something else or just stay the course and not risk what you already have?
That was the scenario that a young man faced in 1975. He was a top math and computer whiz kid at Harvard. He learned how to program in BASIC, the computer language that was developed by Dartmouth professors a decade earlier, and he had just read a cover article in the magazine Popular Electronics entitled: “World’s First Microcomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models.”
Who was this young man?
Cited by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, the authors of the new book, Great By Choice, Bill Gates was not unique.
Was he the only person in his 20s during the 1970s who attended a high school with computer access?
Was he the only person who went to a college with computer resources in the mid-70s?
Was he the only one who knew how to program in BASIC?
Was Bill Gates the only person in his generation who was brought up in an upper-middle-class family?
The answer to all of these is no.
While Gates was fortunate to have been raised in an upper-middle-class home and to have attended the Lakeside school in Seattle where he learned how to program, what makes Gates unique, according to the book Great By Choice, is what he did with his luck – what Collins and Hansen call: “return on luck” or ROL.
Collins spent nine years researching the most dramatic business successes in modern times. They especially explored entrepreneurs who grew small businesses into successful companies, the type of companies that outperform the competition in their industries by a factor of 10 even in highly competitive environments, even in turbulent times. They labeled these companies 10 Xers, for “10 times success.”
You might think that what causes 10 Xers would be luck and, while good fortune is quite helpful, it turns out that it is not determinative.
Collins and Hansen found that the 10 Xers were not any luckier than other companies or entrepreneurs. In general, companies and people have both bad luck and good luck; the question is: what kind of return did you receive on your luck?
Many people could have interrupted their studies at Harvard, utilizing the same skills that Bill Gates had to start a personal computer software company, but they didn’t.
Gates changed his life’s plan, leaving Harvard, cutting sleep to near zero, eating his meals in seconds so he would not lose any time in order to write BASIC for a new microcomputer.
And he did it. He wrote his program, debugged it, and got it ready for production before anyone else.
Great By Choice also points out that many companies and individuals miss lucky moments by making poor decisions and not capitalizing on those opportunities.
Good luck and bad luck happen to companies, to entrepreneurs, and to all of us; good or bad luck are not things we can control – we can only control how we respond to such moments.
Are we aware of good luck when it occurs? Do we appreciate an opportunity? And when we do, do we go “all in?”
This morning we began a new trilogy in the book of Genesis: Sefer Bereisheet. Genesis is broken down into trilogies. Long before Hollywood, our rabbis conceived of a dramatic way to present our earliest spiritual ancestors.
They understood that by splitting up the narratives about Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph into three sections each, those stories could be highlighted and even more deeply appreciated.
Thus, we have three Torah portions about Abraham and three about Jacob, including one where he is the deceiver, the second one where the deceiver is deceived, and the third one that we read last Shabbat, where he wrestles with a mysterious assailant, perhaps his conscience, transforming him into a better person.
Parashat Vayeishev, from which Jessica read so beautifully this morning, moves the spotlight onto Joseph and his brothers.
Joseph is someone whose life is filled with inordinate amounts of good and bad luck, though some of the bad luck is a result of his own doing.
Let’s look carefully at what happens.
Joseph is favored by his father; he is given a beautiful coat of many colors; he has many opportunities.
But what does he do with this good fortune? Does he fill himself with a sense of gratitude and share some of his blessings with his brothers?
Imagine if Joseph’s first dream had been about sharing sheaves of grain instead of having them bow down to him. Or imagine if he dreamed the stars in the sky did not bow down to him, but illuminated the world and him as well.
In this first choice, Joseph’s ROL is pretty low. Although he’s been given every advantage, he does not utilize them in positive ways.
First, he does not realize the luck he has, the many blessings he is given. That is a grave error that could have cost him his life had it not been for his brother Judah.
Second, Joseph is unaware of his bad luck. When his father sends him to look for his brothers and he finally finds them, he is unaware that they are conspiring to kill him. He is so narcissistic and clueless that he does not have filters in terms of what he shares (i.e. his dreams), and he does not realize the danger that awaits him just before his brothers almost throw him in a pit to die.
But Joseph starts to grow in our Torah reading. His luck changes for the better when he is sold to the Midianite traders, eventually winding up in charge of Potiphar’s household. In Egypt, Joseph works hard and God brings success to everything he undertakes. That’s how you get a high ROL; Joseph recognized his opportunity and this time seized the moment, becoming Potiphar’s personal assistant.
When Potiphar’s wife takes an interest in Joseph, he is faced with a complicated dilemma.
On the one hand, responding to her affirmatively might be a wise strategic move that, although somewhat risky, may have led him on an even more powerful path. On the other hand, responding negatively could be dangerous as well, as we see what occurs in the Torah text. Potiphar’s wife does not respond well to his rejection of her overtures.
Our rabbis understand that Joseph is not making a strategic or a business decision to turn her down. He is attracted to her, but he chooses to prioritize something else entirely.
Jospeh makes a moral decision. Collins and Hansen do not address issues of morality and ethics in their book; this is an oversight.
Not all decisions are based on ROL; the Torah reminds us that its values are part of the decision-making process. And Joseph is not rewarded for his moral choice, as he winds up in prison, left to rot for years.
It is in prison where Joseph takes his bad luck and makes the best of it. Although Joseph could’ve despaired of his situation or chosen not to interpret the dreams of the Butler and the Baker, he chooses otherwise.
He makes the best of his bad luck, helping his fellow inmates with his dream interpretations.
At first, however, this does not pay dividends as the Butler forgets about Joseph; but ROL comes from perseverance and dedication.
And next week when Pharaoh is bothered by his dreams, Joseph’s skills are utilized, which leads him on a path that not only saves his life, affording him the opportunity to become the second-in-command of Egypt, but also places him in a position to save his family during the impending famine and to reconcile with his brothers.
That’s a high return on luck.
The story is told of a man who was drafted into the armed forces. Wherever he went he would stoop to pick up any piece of paper that was on the ground. And every time he picked up a piece of paper, he would look at it, shake his head no, and then throw it away. It didn’t take long for his superiors to become aware of his actions and to determine to find the underlying cause. Finally, in desperation, they granted him a medical discharge. The soldier was summoned to the office of his superior officer and was handed the official form that granted his release. Looking carefully at it, he exclaimed, “This is it! This is what I’ve been looking for!”
Many of us are like that soldier in that we go through life waiting for the one big break that will turn our life around and that will give us riches or fame, prosperity or power. For some, that break is thought to come from Wall Street.
For others, the lucky break is expected to come from Hollywood or Las Vegas. Most of us tend to think of our success as coming from some life-changing, momentous event.
It is very easy to misunderstand the Joseph story, superimposing this false conception of success on the experience of Joseph when he was exalted to the second highest position in all of Egypt.
We may look at the dreams of Pharaoh and the mention of Joseph by the cupbearer as the lucky break of Joseph’s life that broke the chain of frustrating turns of events that had previously plagued him.
But the Joseph story is not merely about good fortune and bad fortune; it is about the return on luck – how does Joseph make the most of the situation he’s dealt.
We too can learn from Collins and Hansen, as well as Joseph.
We should view life as a flow of events both fortunate and not so fortunate, realizing that life will be filled with ups and downs.
The key task is to recognize a moment of good fortune or bad fortune and make the best moral and strategic choices that we possibly can.
In addition, we should prepare for bad luck, because life will inevitably be filled with it; but the key is to recognize our good fortune or moments in life where we through hard work, dedication, persistence, and awareness can lift ourselves and others to even greater heights.
And an even more importantly, like Joseph we can add ethical principles into our moral decision-making.
Then we will become like Joseph and, perhaps, God willing, potentially a little bit more like Bill Gates.