The Polaroid Failure
What we can learn from Gad, Reuven, and Ephraim
Picture a stage at a tech conference. There’s a magnetic tycoon at the front of the stage pitching his latest gadget, something so small and powerful that no one in the room believes it capable of what he was offering. This icon is known in the world for bridging beautiful design with efficient and state of the art technology. His company rose to great heights and then ended up bankrupt. This is Edwin Land, one of Steve Jobs’ heroes.
Edwin Land founded Polaroid Corporation, most famous for its instant camera but who had a hand in myriad technological innovations. He was second only to Thomas Edison in accruing patents. Yet, even with all this innovation, he and his company failed. As early as the 1980s Polaroid was developing the imaging which would later make digital cameras ubiquitous. By 1992, they had a prototype ready to launch that was waylaid by the thinking that people would always want hard copies of photos.
This story is shared by Adam Grant in his book Originals. In the chapter on Groupthink, he derides Polaroid for falling prey to the mentality of feeling pressured to conform to the dominant and default views instead of championing diversity and thought.
How often have we heard the following phrase in some gatherings, “well, we’ve always done it like this?” How often do we look at an idea and just accept it for what it is rather than what it could be?
Thinking creatively, differently, and courageously is a skill that has to be sharpened. And as a Jewish community, we too can’t be afraid to throw pasta at the wall and see what sticks.
And while this may seem like a problem born out of modernity, there is actually a great example in this week’s portions, Maatot-Maasei. We have our very own unorthodox pitch, something that doesn’t necessarily jive with communal standards.
As the Israelites prepare to finally cross the threshold of the land for which they’ve been striving so long, the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half of Menashe come with a peculiar ask. They desire to stay on this side of the Jordan. The land is better for them.
There’s a certain self-awareness in their ask. Sure, we’ve been on this journey for a while, but we’ve learned something about ourselves. We’re cattle folk and this land over here is better for that than that land over there.
As one might expect, Moshe is incensed. The residue of the spies incident is fresh in his mind. Selfishness, lack of faith, and moral waywardness are all faults Moses sees in their request.
“We don’t do this.”
They hear this and come close to Moshe to explain their offer further.
We’ll be your shock troops.
We’ll operate at the vanguard and conquer the land with you and then we’ll return here. Given Moses’ anger earlier, we might have expected an immediate negative response. But instead, Moses agrees.
If you do so, you can have the land, but if not, your sin will be with you forever.
In near unanimous agreement, the Rabbis look at this story with a negative viewpoint directed toward these tribes. How could they have done such a thing? They are judged harshly for the language that they use:
We’ll build here sheepfolds for our flocks and then towns for our children.
Even the word the Torah uses to describe their abundant cattle is mikneh rav, as opposed to behemot or chayot, a word that is rooted in acquisition, shedding light perhaps on their materialistic tendencies.
Even with all that, maybe there is another prism through which we can view this story. In a world in which hyper-immediate reaction and judgment to one side of the story seems to have become commonplace, sometimes the view from 36,000 feet offers a new perspective.
What if they were actually asking for something with more foresight than we can imagine? What if what they were doing was being unafraid to go against the grain?
Last week, after the daughters of Tzlofchad receive their inheritance, the text tells us that God called Moshe up to Mt. Avarim to look out over the land and talk to him about the end of his journey. The Sifre, a midrashic collection on Bamidbar shares the following teaching in relation to a moment, a moment I might add that took place on a parcel of land that happened to be in the area of Gad and Rueven, those same tribes making the request this week.
When Moshe entered the portion of the children of Gad and the children of Reuven, he rejoiced and said, “It seems to me that my vow has been lifted!” He proceeded to pour pleading words in front of God.
To unpack how Moses seems to think that this land, which is on the other side of the Jordan from Israel is now Israel proper, I bring to you a profound teaching from Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rothenburg Alter, the first Rebbe of the Ger Chasidic dynasty, also known as the Chiddushei Ha’Rim.
Picking up on the language of the Mikneh Rav, the great cattle they had, he says, don’t read it as great cattle, read it as an acquisition(mikneh) of their teacher(rav). It wasn’t that they desired material wealth. Rather, they did not want to part with Moshe. He was their acquisition. So how does that work exactly? He continues:
“Their intention was for Moshe to enter the Land of Israel, by virtue of this.... Once their end of the bargain is kept [capturing the land with the other tribes], their portion will achieve the status of Israel.... Therefore, retroactively, when Moshe stands in their portion back in the portion of Pinchas, he is standing in Israel, and the vow is broken, and he can then enter Israel proper.”
Flipping the normative way of understanding this story on its head, the Chiddushei Ha’rim reads the intention of the tribes of Rueven and Gad much more charitably.
He argues that they were actually trying to create a loophole so that Moshe could finally get into the land of Israel, even though they knew God had vowed for that not to happen.
In the words of the Chiddushei Ha’rim, they realized that Moshe had been in their land a few chapters back on the aforementioned Mt. Avarim. If they can retroactively imbue that land with the sanctity of the land of Israel through the deal they’re making now, then it will nullify God’s vow because at that point, Moshe will have already been in the land proper.
Instead of this story being about their greed and desire for material gain, it becomes a story about their love of their teacher and their willingness to think creatively and to be unafraid to go against expectations.
Now, we know from later stories in the Tanakh and Talmud that it didn’t necessarily work out well for these tribes. Nonetheless, the beauty of this teaching is that sometimes, even if the end result isn’t exactly as intended, there is immense value in being bold, courageous, and sometimes outrageous in our thinking. Studies have even shown that minority viewpoints and suggestions are useful even when they end up being wrong because they unearth novel solutions that are qualitatively better.
In my mind, we are standing at the precipice of a paradigm shift in the Jewish world. People often ask me, what are we going to do about whatever flavor of the month boogeyman there is in the Jewish world. Those things don’t keep me up at night. What keeps me up at night is stagnation in Jewish organizations.
The world has been and will continue to move at a rapid pace around us. Thankfully, there have been movements afoot and organizations getting nimble and learning how to adapt to 21st problems with a mix of 21st century and ancient solutions in the Jewish world, but there’s so much more work to be done.
So, how can we work on this? On one level, learning from the world around us, we can begin the process of unleashing creative and brave thinking. We can’t rest on our laurels. Creating an environment where the fostering of dissent in our communities is viewed in a healthy light is key.
Even more powerfully though, we as Jews have a deep well of wisdom from which to draw. We can try to be a bit more like Gad and Menashe and the Chiddushei Ha’rim. We should take a holistic view of the world around us, looking both backward and forward when we try to be solution oriented, even if that means bucking a trend.
When faced with a problem in a story, act out the rabbinic idiom of hafoch bah, hafoch bah, kulah bah, turn it round and round for everything is in it. Viewed through this lens, we learn something vital about truth, understanding, and not being like Polaroid. Thinking differently and outside of the box can yield beautiful, groundbreaking, and unexpected results.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend