Back in the early 1950s, a large shoe consortium with stores across the U.S. and Canada decided to take its business venture into the emerging continent of Africa. They sent two of their salesmen there. After just one week, they received a cable from the first salesman, “I am returning at once. No hope for business. Nobody here wears shoes.” They did not hear from the second salesman for four weeks. Then one day, an urgent cable arrived: “Send 15,000 pairs of shoes at once. I have leased space in five locations. We’ll open a chain of stores. This place is full of opportunity. Nobody has any shoes!”
The way companies typically approach risk assessment is to focus on managing the downside. This analysis weighs risks against returns, but it does not encourage managers to look outside of this narrow frame to see opportunities.
Interestingly, psychological research has identified a number of ways in which entrepreneurs and innovators differ from others. A key difference is their ability to see opportunity within the risk. So too, the difference between the two salesmen.
This month, we celebrate the creation of the world with Rosh Hashanah, as is the constant refrain in the prayers, “Hayom harat olam” (Today the world was created). What we are really celebrating is the greatest risk that was ever taken — the very creation of humanity. Creating people makes the world a complicated and risky place, but like the shoe salesman, God looked into a world without any people and saw endless opportunity.
Of course, the downside risk was evident immediately, when Adam ate from the tree of knowledge, only to be followed by his son, Cain, killing brother Abel. Perhaps it would have made sense for God to pull back and mitigate any further risk. Instead, God affirms the decision by continuing to create. Not only does God re-create the world after the flood, but God re-creates each day and every moment, as we pray “Hamichadesh b’tuvo bechol yom tamid ma’ase breishit” (God, in his goodness, renews creation each and every day). And what is true for God is the case for humans as well. For to breathe and to live entails constantly taking risks. This is exactly what we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah, the fact that God took a leap of faith and created humanity. We aspire to imitate God and seize the risk of living.
This Rosh Hashanah, as I reflect upon my first year as the rabbi at B’nai Israel, “The Downtown Synagogue,” I am inspired by this message of seizing the opportunity within the risk of unchartered territory. Fewer and fewer people are surprised when I tell them that I am the rabbi downtown. But I still get occasional confused looks and questions, “Are there Jews downtown? Is there a shul there”? In truth, it is precisely those questions that make the work so exciting and fruitful. Not only are we creating a thriving community downtown, but the opportunities are endless. Thank God, we have seen a marked increase in membership and activities, and dozens of young families and empty nesters who have previously been unengaged Jewishly are becoming social leaders by actively creating vibrant Jewish life downtown. Instead of seeing nobody wearing “shoes,” these Jewish entrepreneurs, young and old, are seeing a vast landscape of people who are looking for “shoes.”
Rabbi Etan Mintz is spiritual leader of B’nai Israel Synagogue.