By Andrew Keene, NFTY President
This post was originally given as a D’var Torah by Andrew to NFTY Southern in November 2013
Have you heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley? No? Back in the early 20th century, the pursuit of powered man flight was like the dot com of the day. Everybody was trying it. And Samuel Pierpont Langley had, what we assume, to be the recipe for success. Langley was given 50,000 dollars by the War Department to figure out this flying machine. Money was no problem. He held a seat at Harvard and worked at the Smithsonian and was extremely well-connected; he knew all the big minds of the day. He hired the best minds money could find and the market conditions were fantastic. The New York Times followed him around everywhere, and everyone was rooting for Langley. Then how come we’ve never heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley?
A few hundred miles away in Dayton Ohio, were Orville and Wilbur Wright. They had none of what we consider to be the recipe for success. They had no money; they paid for their dream with the proceeds from their bicycle shop; not a single person on the Wright brothers’ team had a college education, not even Orville or Wilbur; and The New York Times followed them around nowhere. The difference was, Orville and Wilbur were driven by a cause, by a purpose, by a belief. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it’ll change the course of the world. Samuel Pierpont Langley was different. He wanted to be rich, and he wanted to be famous. He was in pursuit of the result. He was in pursuit of the riches. And lo and behold, look what happened. The people who believed in the Wright brothers’ dream worked with them with blood and sweat and tears. The others just worked for the paycheck. And they tell stories of how every time the Wright brothers went out, they would have to take five sets of parts, because that’s how many times they would crash before they came in for supper.
And, eventually, on December 17th, 1903, the Wright brothers took flight, and no one was there to even experience it. We found out about it a few days later. And further proof that Langley was motivated by the wrong thing: The day the Wright brothers took flight, he quit. He could have said, “That’s an amazing discovery, guys, and I will improve upon your technology,” but he didn’t. He wasn’t first, he didn’t get rich, he didn’t get famous so he quit.
If you know me well, you know that I am a huge fan of TED Talks, a series of 18-minute talks that are quote “ideas worth sharing.” In fact, this summer, at the URJ Kutz Camp, NFTY’s Summer Home, we facilitated a TEDx Talk, or a locally organized TED conference. One of the TED Talks we showed is called “How great leaders inspire action” by Simon Sinek. The story I just shared with you is an excerpt from that TED Talk.
One word in particular stands out to me in this iteration of the Wright Brothers’ story. The word “dream.” The Wright Brothers had a dream, of making flight a reality. Pierpont Langley had a plan. One was successful, the other was not. Simon Sinek has one interpretation as to why this is, and this week’s Torah portion happens to agree.
In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph dreams. Joseph has vivid dreams that he will eventually rule over his family. His dreams are described in the Torah through extreme metaphors such as the stars and moon bowing to him. Upon telling his family of his dreams, his brothers become upset and plot to kill him. Instead, they sell him into slavery, the catalyst for the realization of Joseph’s dream. Joseph eventually becomes nobility in Egypt, ruling over much more than his family, and from there the Dream Works film Joseph, King of Dreams, can continue the narrative of Joseph’s prolific dreams.
A rabbi of mine once said that the Torah is like prime real estate. Every letter, word, and line is valuable space. If the Torah mentions a word or a concept, it is important. If the Torah mentions something twice, it is doubly important. Joseph’s dreams are mentioned nearly a dozen times in the Torah. Clearly the Torah is trying to teach us something about dreaming. But what?
Dreamers are few and far between, often stigmatized as eccentric, outlandish, unrealistic, and unsuccessful. George Carlin is quoted to have once said “it’s called a dream because you have to be asleep to believe it!” To that end, John Lennon, Carl Jung, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Salvador Dali, and Martin Luther King all identified themselves as dreamers. Fit the bill? Eccentric, maybe? Outlandish? Sometimes? Unrealistic? Depends. But unsuccessful? Not even close!
So what it is it about dreamers? Martin Luther King had a dream and 250,000 Americans descended upon the National Mall to hear it articulated. Salvador Dali was a dreamer and was a pioneer of Dadaism and surrealism. John Lennon was a dreamer, I think you get the idea. Maybe the answer doesn’t lie in the Wright Brothers story, or Torah, but rather in Theodore Herzl.
Herzl, a journalist by trade and a founder of Zionism, made a bold statement about dreams. Im Tirtzu, ein zo agada. If you will it, it is no dream. Maybe this is the answer. It isn’t so much the dreamer, it’s the dream! It’s the dream itself that has the potential to drive the individual to success.
With a literal or metaphoric dream serving as a compass, rather than profit, or time, or resources, Herzl would argue, anything is possible, be it flight, or predicting a family’s fate, or creating a whole new world, as NFTY Southern is aiming to do this weekend, right here in Little Rock.
How? How do you change the world? It isn’t as if no one has ever tried. Simon Sinek might again have some insight. He argues in his TED Talk: People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe. But why is it important to attract those who believe what you believe? Something called the law of diffusion of innovation, and if you don’t know the law, you definitely know the terminology. The first two and a half percent of our population are our innovators. The next 13 and a half percent of our population are our early adopters. The next 34 percent are your early majority, followed by your late majority and your laggards.
NFTY-Southern, you are that first 2.5 percent. You are the innovators; the catalysts of change, the dreamers, putting a stake in the ground to show the world what we believe the world ought to look like. If YOU do it, if you have a dream of what tomorrow looks like, if you put your mind to it, if you prioritize making a difference in your community and in the world, others will follow. Ani v’atah n’shaneh et haolam. You and I, we can change the world, and it starts here, in NFTY-Southern, this weekend. Will you be a Samuel Pierpont Langley? Or a Wright Brother? Will you make a difference in the world just this week? Or every week? Are you a Joseph? A John Lennon? A Martin Luther King? Or one of the millions that tried and gave up? Be a dreamer. IN 100 years, you might not be remembered by name, or maybe you will, but your lasting impact in the just world of tomorrow will be remembered.
Im Tirtzu Ein Zo Agada, if you can will it, it is no dream. Shabbat Shalom.