This writeup is unusual in that it is going to be explicitly about me and what I’m trying to accomplish. I don’t normally write about myself (it is no accident I wrote 10 books before I wrote one that was actually about me), but a conversation I had after last Shabbat convinced me that it is worth doing exactly this.
In that conversation, a friend of mine shared three critiques:
- “People know you have a mission, but nobody really knows what it is.”
- “People in general question what authority you have to speak about anything.”
- “The language you use isn’t language people are used to.” Or, as another preeminent member of our community puts it: “I keep waiting for you to reveal yourself as a Christian minister.”
The fact is, I do have a mission. It’s a mission I’ve been seeking to understand for at least the last thirty years – but which I think I do understand now. All that time, I was been turning ideas around in my head and trying to grasp a core concept around which everything else is built. Unlike some people who turn ideas around in their heads, I don’t live in the clouds – I’m more like a storm drain on the side of the road, drinking in whatever happens to pass my way. So, I’ve been informed by my mother’s work. While I don’t agree with her on some things, she was a great philosopher. I’ve been informed by my education in Intellectual History. I’ve been informed by the wide variety of people I’ve met, interacted with and listened to. And I’ve been informed by my professional reality. I’ve worked in aerospace, high-tech, automotive, banking, pharmaceuticals, international tax etc… etc… I’ve worked for many different companies in those many different positions. The one thread connecting these jobs was that I was brought in when traditional approaches to solve problems had already failed. My job was to take a step back and try to use a broader perspective to solve a problem. And, of course, I’ve been unemployed for extended periods of time – and even, at times, somewhat homeless.
Put it together, and I’ve done my best to feed my understanding of the world with data from it. Just not data from one tradition or another, or one profession or another, or one social class or another. But data gleaned from many sources and then understanding gleaned by continually stepping back and trying to make sense of an ever-broader picture.
I don’t have qualifications for exactly this reason. I’m not an expert in any thing. Instead, I try to connect many things. Ask me about the details of photosynthesis and I’ll have nothing useful to share. Ask me about the nature of systems – whether plants, cultures or individuals – developing around the reality they find themselves in and we can have an interesting conversation. Put another way, I’m not an expert in the determined world – my attention tends to focus on the immeasurable and the unpredictable. As my mother used to put it, we can predict what a pool ball will do when hit with a cue. But try playing pool with kittens instead of balls. Unless you hit them really hard, it suddenly isn’t so straight-forward. And yet, in many ways those kittens have a fundamental importance the pool balls never can.
My attention tends to focus on that which I think is truly valuable – that which can never be truly encapsulated by science.
This is my qualification. It just, inherently, doesn’t come with a certificate.
Since I was a kid, I’ve known that I needed a mission. I had lots of blessings and I knew I had an obligation to use them. But I didn’t know what to use them for. Since that time, I’ve tried more than a few things out. In college, I started WhoCanHelp. It was inspired by Hurricane Hugo. The idea was to identify organizations who already had ‘boots on the ground’ in potential disaster zones so people who wanted to help wouldn’t have to go through the multi-national organizations that often lacked those effective local links. A lot of those organizations were religious and I discovered that, despite Jews technically having no objection to evangelical/Catholic etc… organizations running orphanages in Africa – those who were not evangelicals/Catholics etc… were loath to donate to such organizations even in emergencies.
In my 20s, I started an organization called GiveDaily, whose purpose was to encourage people give Tzedakah every day so they could experience that act and integrate it into their lives. We identified hundreds of charities, coordinated the giving, and sent email updates describing what people had contributed to. That effort took longer to fail.
Most recently was the still-born theGreaterI.com, which sought to acknowledge and recognize (albeit anonymously) the good work everyday people do, well, every day.
And all this time, I was writing. I was writing, in no small part, to take broader and broader perspectives on the world around me. At one point, I was writing a story a day and I wrote a short story about a young man immigrating to Lagos from a village in Upper Nigeria. A few weeks later, a Nigerian was hired by my group at Nike. I shared the story with him, curious what he’d think. After reading it he came back and said, “How long you live in Lagos, man?!”
I’d never been to Africa. But he’d been a young man who’d immigrated to Lagos from a village in Upper Nigeria and I described what he saw, heard, smelled and felt on that bus trip. I realized then that I really could put myself in the shoes of others.
What followed was 8 books (including lots of short stories) where I did just that. I was trying to broaden my perspective, and apply what I’d been learning about the world.
By any measurable metric, all the books were failures. In grand totals, I’ve probably sold a total of 400 copies of my 11 books. If you want to look at it in a monetary sense, I’ve made about 16 cents an hour as an author. But in the immeasurable world, I’ve learned a great deal – and I like to think that some of my readers have grown as well.
In the middle of all of this (well, kind of before it), I launched another failed initiative. But this one changed me. It was called Bible4Community. The goal was to break down every word and pasuk in the Chumash and show parts of speech, shoreshim, objects and subjects of verbs etc… etc…
Screenshots from the Bible4Community application
It too is dormant now. But I set up the system and a Rabbi friend of mine (Nehoria Kotkin) did the actual work of inputting the grammatical data. The underlying software was called the “In the Original Tongue Application”. The idea was that, instead of reading a translation or a commentary, you could build your own understanding as if you were a native reader of the language. That’s what it did for me. At the same time, I began to speak in the Sephardi synagogue I was a gabbai of. I gave 30-second speeches between each aliyah. I was trying to make Torah interesting, while defending it. But I couldn’t zoom out to the parsha level. I was forced to engage with every reading. In other words: all the controversial and boring bits. I did this for a few years, building up a catalog of about 590 little Torah thoughts.
Then we moved to Israel ,and I began integrating those ideas (while speaking and writing). Throughout, I engaged the Torah as if it were an internally consistent, self-explanatory document written by G-d Herself. It started as a working assumption, but as I learned more it became my reality. And that reality gave me the answers I’d been looking for the whole time. Chunk by chunk, it knocked away my political and economic preconceptions and led me to a new view of the world.
And it gave me my mission.
My mission is to enable and encourage people to live fulfilling lives. This fulfillment – and ultimately happiness, honor, love and all the rest – comes through intentionally walking in the divine path of creation and dedication to the timeless. Walking that path can then build a relationship with G-d – which is why we are here. While Torah has many faces, this is one of the foundational concepts. On the one hand, we grasp every opportunity to create while distancing ourselves from loss and destruction (even if just symbolically). And on the other, we dedicate ourselves to connecting to the timeless while enabling others to overcome that which binds them to the here and now. As just one of many examples: one of our greatest blessings is that we will grow new grain and eat very old grain. We will not need new grain, but we will – like G-d Himself – create in the absence of need. And of course, we will bless those around us with our bounty.
This path is remarkably simple and well-understood. Every religion – whether monotheistic, polytheistic or atheistic – has an echo of it. They might downplay the creation side of the equation, but it is creation that pays for connecting with the timeless. And so, we see Buddist prayer caves in India, magnificent Islamic mosques in Turkey, Christian Cathedrals in France and Hindu Temples (back in India). We even see attempts to understand the origins of the universe, which would seem to have almost no practical implications. All of these are attempts to connect to the timeless. And, of course, we Jews have one of the highest forms of connection with the timeless: the experience of Shabbat. It is no accident that the magic of Shabbat is something that can never be captured in any quantitative sense.
For years, I had thought that political or economic freedom was the key to lifting people up. But recent decades have shown this is hardly the case. In the U.S. today, many look at mental health as the key to a good life – but at the same time rates of mental illness, suicide and drug abuse (a slow form of suicide) are skyrocketing. This ‘scientific’ method of making people happy is objectively not working. Those who focus on fairness as the key to a good society have increasingly pivoted to education. Like Platonists or Marxists, they imagine they can educate a ‘new man’ – one free of the curse of judgement – who will in turn give seed to a new utopia. But all too often those kids have no drive, no purpose and no pathway to a rewarding life. Society tends to crumble around them. Equality is not joy.
I now see that many (my past self included) have understood things in exactly the wrong way. Spiritual health is not a result of mental health or fairness or wealth or freedom. No, spiritual health is a building block for all of those things. And spiritual health is built by walking the path of fulfillment. It is built by walking the Path of G-d; the path of intentional creation and dedication to the timeless. It is a path that illuminates the meaning of our lives and encourages us to reach ever higher as we live out our days. It replaces nihilist despair with a sense of everlasting purpose.
This, of course, doesn’t address all mental health, or economic or fairness questions – it is simply a building block which I believe is a necessary precondition for reaching satisfying answers.
My policy ideas on taxation, health care, welfare, foreign relations, parenting and spousing [?] are all based on finding ways to encourage and enable the path of fulfillment. My stories focus on how people can unlock this reality. My divrai Torah all center on this concept.
But the concept is so wide, so all-encompassing, that it can be hard to see my mission. And it is so wide that I don’t speak anybody’s language. To Jews, I sound like a Christian minister. On the other hand, my Christian readers often tell me they are baffled by my references – and they ascribe it to my Jewish perspective. I always use the wrong language – even when talking about secular concepts.
I live outside normal traditions and I push global ideas – from taxation to Torah.
I’m not qualified as anything.
Nonetheless, I have a mission.
I probably won’t go anywhere with my mission. It is too broad, too multi-faceted, to gain traction. But still: I have to try. And so… I write, I think, I speak, I raise my kids and I hope that something will speak to someone and I will have nudged the great gears of our existence in a positive way. Maybe I’ll simply help people be more aware of what they are already doing – adding the ‘intention’ to the cycle of creation and dedication. Maybe I can help you by tossing a thought at you that you find inspiring or that can help you on your road.
Whatever my impact is, I do know I’ll never be able to measure it. I also know that that doesn’t mean that it won’t be important.
The fact is, I believe everyone can live an impactful life. This is why I write the profiles. I want to lift up the lives of others and highlight the ways in which they have walked the path of G-d. And it is why I think, speak and write.
Fundamentally, it isn’t about me. This is why I so rarely write about myself.
No, we all need to find a way to walk the Path of G-d, each in our own way.
יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְקוָק, נְבִיאִים–כִּי-יִתֵּן יְקוָק אֶת-רוּחוֹ, עֲלֵיהֶם
“Would that all Hashem’s people were prophets, that Hashem put His spirit upon them.”
Thank you for indulging me and Shabbat Shalom.
P.S. In a way, the above is a very condensed version of A Multi Colored Coat, the book I wrote for my kids. The second half of the book talks far more about how these ideas practically impact my life as an individual, husband and father. Thankfully, it is more entertaining than this write-up. Help support my mission by getting paid to buy the book!
 The name itself as a bit of a clever play on words. IOTA is an ancient and since disappeared Greek letter. In Hebrew it is IOT (or ‘yud’). And it means something small and immeasurable.
 I was, once, an expert in global transaction taxes!