Tonight is the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, when the annual cycle of reading the Torah finishes for the year with the end of Deuteronomy and starts again in the beginning of Genesis. It is celebrated in a variety of ways in the many different Jewish communities across the world, but some things remain the same. The Torah is taken out of the Ark, we sing and dance with the Torah, we celebrate the blessing of having completed another annual cycle and that we are once again gifted with a new year to start the reading again. One familiar with the holiday could be present for the holiday anywhere in the world and feel comfortable. While the melodies and length of celebration may differ (the Carelbach Shul in Manhattan, for example, will celebrate until dawn Friday morning and then lead directly into Friday morning services!), there is more than enough commonality for them to not be all that different. That similarity and the weight of tradition mark a key transition in the Jewish calendar as we close the holiday season that began with Rosh Hashanah a few weeks ago. We go from a period of intense celebration and introspection to a time that simply… is.
But those transitions can be thought provoking and challenge us to examine what it means to continue to look at each day as a time of celebration. Inspired by the apples and honey we eat on Rosh Hashanah as a sign of a sweet new year, I found myself thinking of Apple’s old slogan: “Think Different.” While the idea was that Apple’s products are so different and distinct from anything else on the market and that using them is a sign of distinction, it wasn’t about thinking differently but instead buying something as a symbol of thinking differently.
But stripped from that commercial context, “Think Different” is a compelling idea with some validity; changing your mode of thought can certainly lead to significant changes and innovations. While change isn’t always easy nor is it always necessarily good, it should be driven by something significant rather than seen as an end in and of itself. But truly thinking differently and affecting positive and powerful change can be amazing on any scale. We have all heard the oft-cited (and constantly misattributed) definition of insanity as “doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.” Regardless of the source (which appears to be a 1981 Narcotics Anonymous handbook), it raises a valid point even if that point has nothing to do with actual insanity.
It is in fact the natural extension of the idea to “think different.” Frank Herbert asserted that “whether a thought is spoken or not, it is a real thing,” but that only extends beyond the individual when the thought is acted upon. Thinking differently makes a difference when it leads to acting differently. How many times have you had an amazing idea that you simply didn’t act upon? Why? Seriously, why didn’t you act on it? Whether that was an idea for “the next big thing” or “something that will revolutionize an industry” or even “that would have made my life so much easier,” why was it not acted upon and made into reality? If it would have made even one person’s life better, would it not have been a worthy endeavor?
There are myriad reasons why you might not have acted, far more than I would have space for in this column. But even if I were to list each and every possible reason I could think of for inaction, not only would I still miss some, but also it simply wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter because an opportunity has been lost, but perhaps that loss will inspire the creation of a new opportunity for the future. What it takes to create that opportunity is the courage to not only think differently, but to act on those convictions. When those changes break a negative or destructive cycle, it is all the more important that they not only be made swiftly but that they be affected in as broad a manner as possible. Having the thought is easy, but the courage to act on it and the will to realize it are often challenging for even the best of us.
This past Friday night, my wife and I were blessed to bring our son into the world. Tonight begins his first Simchat Torah, a day of significant celebration and one that he will certainly not remember this year. I know that in future years it will be a holiday he celebrates and enjoys with the community, and that it will inspire him and others to continue to not only perpetuate a positive cycle, but to have the courage to think and act differently. Not simply to act for the sake of acting, but to act because it is the right thing to do.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav.