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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771/2010

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sept 8, 2010 – Garage Stories (pdf download)

Shanah Tovah!  We have reached the point in the service for trivia. If you have children who participate in any of our youth services, you know we are big on trivia here at Beth David! So, here is how our trivia game is going to work this evening. I am going to give you some addresses and you raise your hand if you know their significance:

4406 Kingswell Avenue, Los Angeles, CA—(Uncle Robert’s garage where Roy and Walt Disney started the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1927.)

367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto, CA—(The garage touted as the birthplace of Silicon Valley. Billl Hewlett and Dave Packard rented it for $538/mo to build their first product, the resistance capacitance audio oscillator in 1939.)

2066 Crist Drive, Los Altos, California— (The garage of Steve Jobs childhood home where the initial ideas for Apple Inc were formed in 1976.)

These garages are the stuff of American legend. They are symbols of what it means to think big, to overcome adversity, to create something new. They are emblems of the American dream and bolster the notion that big ideas can be born in humble places. A promotional video put out by HP after they spent millions acquiring the garage in Palo Alto announces, “a garage is a place of possibilities, a place where things can get invented.”

It isn’t just high tech companies that are created in garages. Midrash (Br. Rab. 38:13) tells us the following story about Abraham our forefather who brought monotheism to humanity:

Abraham’s father, Terach was an idol-manufacturer and Abraham was tasked with helping in the family business. Once Terach had to travel to seel some idols, so he left Abraham to manage the shop (which I imagine to be Abraham and Terach’s garage).  People would come in and ask to buy idols, and Abraham would say, “How old are you?” The person would say, “Fifty,” or “Sixty” and Abraham would say, “Isn’t it pathetic that a man of sixty wants to bow down to a one-day-old idol?” The man would feel ashamed and leave.

But one time a woman came with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, “Take this and offer it to the gods.” Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them.

When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. “Who did this?” he cried. “How can I hide anything from you?” replied Abraham calmly. “A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, “I’m going to eat first.” Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces.”

“What are you trying to pull on me?” asked Terach, “Do they have minds?”

Abraham replied, “Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols at all?”

According to this midrash, monotheism began in a garage, as well!

If we really think about it, almost everything has a garage story. Even the unparalleled advancement of God’s creation of the universe. A midrash on Genesis states in the name of R. Abbahu that “God created worlds and destroyed them” before settling on this one (Br. Rab 3:7). In essence, the narrative we find at the beginning of Genesis is the world’s garage story. It presents a final version of our mythology without the accompanying back story.

These garage stories speak to us. They inspire us to think that anything is possible. That we can make a difference in the world just like the individuals who occupied these garages. But what if these garage stories aren’t the whole story? What if these garages and the narratives they present aren’t the full picture? What if these garage stories don’t tell us what it really takes to change the world?

In 2005, two researchers from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, Pino Audia and Chris Rider, wrote a paper in the California Management Review that debunked the myth of the garage. The garage, they say, “evokes the image of the lone individual who relies primarily on his or her extraordinary efforts and talent to succeed.”  But Audia and Rider persuasively argue that entrepreneurs are the product of socialization. New ideas percolate in other work environments before being brought to the garage for brewing. Steve Jobs was employee #40 at Atari and is quoted as saying that he learned the blueprint he used for apple while working there. Steve Wozniak was an engineer at HP. Bill Hewlitt was a product of the primordial pools that are the MIT and Stanford engineering programs. Dave Packard worked for GE. Change, progress, the next big idea, it doesn’t just happen one day in a garage. It is the result of hard work, long hours, and missteps. It is produced through idea-sharing, conversations, and brainstorming. But these crucial steps never make it into the enduring garage story, the myth, or the commercials.

The midrash I shared with you about Abraham and the founding of monotheism is the garage story passed down as legend, but history provides us with more of the narrative.  Monotheism developed over time and was adapted from the cultic mythology of the Canaanites in the Ancient Near East. The Torah itself presents a shift from henotheism (the belief in one supreme God out of many gods) to monotheism (the belief in only one God). Like Disney, HP, and Apple, to truly understand Judaism’s beginnings we must look past the garage story. We must delve deeper. Just like any game changer, any great idea, monotheism has a back story fraught with pitfalls, developments, setbacks, and victories.

The same is true of our congregation.  In November, we will mark the 49th anniversary of the initial meeting called by the Postmans, Dreifusses, Kallmans, and Daniels to consider the founding of a Conservative synagogue in the South Bay. The congregation Mildred Katz would name “House of David,” Congregation Beth David. The Guaranty Savings & Loan wasn’t quite a garage, but you get the point! While our wonderful archives contain detailed and intricate narratives of our founding and development as a congregation, it cannot present us with the whole story. There is always a back story! Conversations, arguments, charismatic individuals, and spur of the moment decisions whose impact steered the initial direction of our congregation. Frederica Postman wrote in her history of the congregation that there was a period in the 70s when our motto was, “have Torah, will travel”. Our website states that we had quote, “peripatetic beginnings” unquote. In a certain way that is the nature of all products and all great ideas.

It is also true of us. Having spent the majority of the past year meeting new people, I am keenly aware of the fact that we each have our own set of stories. There is the thirty-second version of ourselves that we share with new acquaintances or business associates.  Then there is the three-minute version for cocktails parties and Kiddush luncheons. And then there is the version of our story we tell ourselves, our internal personal narrative. Our personal narrative is certainly more complex than the garage stories of products and companies, and even religions, for it is more than a chronological account of the past events that have led us to this point in our lives. Our personal narrative is what we believe about ourselves.  It is the integration of the events that have shaped us as individuals, our perception of how those events have formed who we are today, and the trajectory our past has set for our future. But more than that, our story is always evolving because we are constantly changing, upgrading, striving to become better. In our fast-paced lives we hardly have time for dinner, let alone the contemplation of our ever-changing personal narrative. It is so easy to complacently let our story run adrift.

The difficulty comes when we realize that our personal narrative has somehow been reduced to a garage story. When we lose perspective of the hard work and dedication it takes to perpetually create ourselves anew, to keep going. Unfortunately, life presents an almost infinite number of opportunities for this to happen, for our personal narrative to become slightly disconnected from reality. When we tell ourselves that spending time with our children is a priority but don’t live that value out in our unendingly busy lives. When we view ourselves as charitable people who value the importance of tzedakah but haven’t written our annual donation checks for this year, or last year! When we see ourselves as Jews dedicated to learning more about our faith but can’t seem to find time to do so. These types of things happen to all of us. It is the inevitable bi-product of being human. So, each year during the High Holydays, we set aside time to focus on our personal narrative. We compare the life we are living with the values we hold most dear. We look for the places where our narrative doesn’t match reality.

We come here with the knowledge that creating ourselves anew is never simple. And we know that it will take more than coming to synagogue (our communal garage) to put us back on the right course. In the “now” generation when we increasingly look to make our lives automated and easy, we have been lulled into thinking it simply involves a garage and some good ideas to create a new product. Disney, HP, Apple, monotheism, and Beth David all prove, it takes more than that. Creating the new “you” will require work. Lots of work.  It will necessitate internal conversations, false starts, hard work, long hours, and missteps. Working to improve our relationships with each other and our relationship with God will demand all that we have over the next ten days. During the aseret y’mei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance, we collectively seek to delve deeper into ourselves and look passed our garage story. Ultimately, we seek to bring our personal narrative into focus. We peer into our past to see where we are really coming from, what has shaped our lives, what has brought us here. We look inward, evaluating our missteps; our own peripatetic starts since last High Holydays and resolve to gain a deeper understanding of who we are and where we need to be going.

The fallacy of garage stories is that creating something new can be done alone, but history shows us that innovation rarely takes shape in isolation. Just like entrepreneurship, personal growth requires socialization. Engineering programs and established companies provide engineers the proper communal atmosphere for entrepreneurship, brainstorming, and development. Synagogue worship during the High Holydays does the same thing for Jews looking to reconnect with their own narrative. We enter this room with friends and family in prayer, introspection, and confession. We will recite our liturgy in the first person plural, acknowledging our interdependence and our shared task.  While we each strive to find our own individual narratives, the very act of coming together as a community gives us the strength and background to succeed, to find a way in the coming year to live up to the story of self we hold to be true, to move beyond our own garage story.

As we begin this High holyday season my prayer for each of us is that we will be able to use the next ten days to look deeper and more closely at our own story, that we can use this time and space as a workshop to reflect on the past year. That together, in community, we can earnestly assess our development, missteps, and false starts. And that at the end of Yom Kippur we can emerge from this holy space with a new, upgraded version of ourselves.

K’tivah v’hatima tovah b’sefer hayyim. May we all be written and sealed in the book of life!