Friday, November 17, 2017

Parashat Toledot: Innovation

A Message for Parashat Toledot 2017
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…And Yisshak dug anew the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Avraham his father, which the Pelishtim had blocked up after Avraham’s death, and he gave them names, like the names his father had called them. And Yisshak’s servants dug in the wadi and they found there a well of fresh water…And they dug another well…And he pulled the stakes from there and dug another well... (Bereshit 26:18-22)

The Torah’s description of the wells that Yisshak dug is puzzling. The text meticulously detailed the various excavations and subsequent quarrels, but never explained their significance. How do these details contribute to our understanding of Yisshak’s life, mission, and accomplishments?
* * * *
One day in the late 1870s, a Parisian obstetrician named Stephane Tarnier took a day off from his job at a maternity clinic to take a stroll in the nearby Paris Zoo. As he watched the chicken hatchlings enclosed in their incubators, he was struck by an insight. He contacted the zoo’s poultry raiser, Odile Martin, and tasked him to construct a similar device for human newborns. Martin obliged, and Tarnier then installed the incubators at the medical center and conducted a quick study. He found that while 66 percent of low-weight babies died within weeks of birth, only 38 percent of those housed in his incubating boxes died. The medical world soon learned of Tarnier’s innovation, and more advanced incubators became standard equipment in all American hospitals. The use of infant incubators triggered a startling 75 percent decline in infant mortality rates between 1950 and 1998.

Modern incubators are expensive and complex. A standard American incubator generally costs more than $40,000 and requires specific parts and technical expertise to repair. Incubators are therefore rare in developing countries such as Liberia and Ethiopia, and the fatality rates of premature babies in those countries is consequently high. In 2008, MIT professor Timothy Prestero set out to design the appropriate incubator for developing countries. Realizing that even the smaller towns of the developing world seemed capable at keeping their automobiles in working order, he decided to design for them an incubator using car parts. Prestero reasoned that since the car replacement parts are abundant and their necessary technical knowledge elementary, the hospitals could more easily maintain such machines. Using sealed-beam headlights to supply the warmth, dashboard fans for air circulation and door chimes as sound alarms, he and his team solved a severely fatal situation.
* * * *
The scientist Stuart Kauffman wrote about the process to innovation and change. Terming it “the adjacent possible,” Kauffman explained that novelties are discovered through a course of “opening doors.” Following an initial breakthrough – a “door opening,” we are opened to a new perspective – an “entrance into another room,” wherein future breakthroughs are possible – “new doors can be opened.” While ideas that are “ahead of their time” may indeed be true, since the doors leading up to that room have not yet been opened, they will generally fail to be implemented.[1]

Steven Johnson used “the adjacent possible” to explain the ironic development of incubators for developing countries. He wrote that although we tend to think of our ideas as $40,000 incubators, shipped direct from the factory, they are in fact the result of an initial encounter at the zoo and subsequent project with spare parts that happened to be sitting around in the garage.[2]
* * * *
The wells of Avraham represent his lifetime’s accomplishments. Trailblazing a new path in this world, Avraham “brought forth water” in unprecedented ways. Following his death, however, the wells were temporarily closed. The effects of his legacy were halted until the emergence of Yisshak as a leader. Intuitively understanding “the adjacent possible,” Yisshak looked to build his own innovations upon the foundations of his father’s.  He returned to the wells of Avraham and undug them. Then – and only then – did Yisshak set forth upon his own path to growth and expansion – by digging his own wells.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Stuart A. Kauffman, Investigations (New York, NY, 2000).
[2] Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From (New York, NY, 2010), pg. 24-42.