The Other Side of Groupthink
This week’s Torah portion introduces us to the founder of Judaism, Avraham. Avraham is famous and known for a few different things. He is erroneously called the father of monotheism as if he was the first to believe in One God but that is not entirely true. Noah and others believed in One God.
But the big difference between Avraham and the rest is that they did not publicize it like Avraham did. But by the time Avraham came along, most of the world had forgotten this notion and believed in a multi-god pagan worship. Avraham went against this grain and tried to teach mankind that there is only One God and along with it an absolute set of values and morals. More than once the Torah describes Avraham as travelling about and ויקרא בשם ה’ that “he called out in the name of God.” He was God’s sole PR man.
What made Avraham tick? What was the essential trait that he had that propelled him to be the person that God made a covenant with and who would give rise to a nation that would be a source of blessing the world over and throughout history? The one thing that most animates Avraham’s life has to do with how he is referred to in this week’s parsha. He is called an עברי Ivri which is traditionally translated as “Hebrew”.
There are a few meanings behind this title. One is geographical. Avraham came from the other side of the tracks, or river actually – the Euphrates – relative to where he ended up in Canaan/Israel. The root of Ivri is עבר a’v’r which means “to cross over” which is what Avraham did in his travels. Another reason he is called Ivri has to do with his genealogy and how it relates to the Ev’er lineage from Noah.
But the most telling meaning comes from the Midrash. Avraham, and he alone, stood ideologically on the other side and apart from everyone else in his time. While there were some selective individuals who believed in One God, the vast majority did not and Avraham was the only one who challenged others on their false belief. Avraham the Ivri was Avraham the Other.
In essence, Avraham was a radical. He went against and really didn’t care at all about the “conventional wisdom” of his time or its cousin Groupthink. He was an intellectual in the truest sense of the word and if something was true, that is what he would do and follow no matter what everyone else was thinking or doing.
And this is what it means to be an Ivri/Hebrew. It means to be an outlier, to buck conventional wisdom and go against the grain. Avraham was the consummate Renaissance Man who looked beyond the lemming mentality of everyone around him.
And indeed this has always been a hallmark of the nation he created, the Jewish people. Not to accept the status quo, to think outside the box and to view things from a different angle. Being an Ivri means not walking lockstep with any worldview that is convenient but forging out on our own. It is why Jews have been at the forefront of creativity throughout history, become leaders in every nation we live in and are often alone on the side of moral issues. Today it has created Israel as a “Start Up Nation” with more companies on Nasdaq than all else except the USA.
One of the greatest curses throughout history and that still continues in our day and age is Groupthink or Conventional Wisdom. The curse of people just going with the flow and not thinking for themselves. Of accepting whatever virtue-signaling fad comes along and is promoted by academia, Hollywood and the press. Well, if that troika backs it, it must be true and good. They would never steer us wrong.
Conventional wisdom? Not a Jewish concept. Groupthink, Echo Chambers – the ruin of even the smartest and most powerful people who make the mistake of surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals and never challenging themselves to see the other side and perhaps hear uncomfortable truths.
If you want greatness and if you want truth you need to be like Avraham. You need to be willing to smash the idols of your time the same way he did. And you must do what God told him at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion – Lech Lecha…Go! Leave. Move from your land, your birthplace and father’s house. You need to uproot yourself from everything you are comfortable with and cross over – LaAvor and see the other side. Even if it means you will end up alone on that other side.
Be like Avraham. Be an Ivri.
I’m a soldier of freedom in the army of the Man
We are the Chosen, we’re the partisan
Well the cause it is noble and the cause it is just
We are ready to pay with our lives if we must
Gonna ride across the river deep and wide
Ride across the river to the other side