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Starbucks and Tisha B'Av

July 23, 2009 | by Rabbi Yisroel Gelber

Taking the risk for greatness.

The Talmud teaches that the first Tisha B'Av of history was the seed from which all future national tragedies would develop. As Jewish history unfolded, numerous cataclysmic events befell the Jewish people with the same eerie timing -- Tisha B'Av -- as if the day itself was hardwired for disaster.

But why? What did our ancestors do to justify this day of mourning for generations to come?

The Talmud says it was the Sin of the Spies (Meraglim in Hebrew). After Moses had led the Jews out of Egypt and into the desert, they sent spies to check out the Promised Land. The spies returned with a dismal and disheartening report: "We cannot go up to the people... They are too strong for us" (Numbers 13:31).

Upon hearing the spies' words, the Jewish people wailed a collective cry, and with that cry, the Almighty sealed their fate for generations, saying that since today you "cried for nothing, on this same date in the future you will truly have something to cry for." That day was Tisha B'Av.

But what was so terrible about the Jewish people's reaction that warranted such a harsh decree?

Tragedy of Complacency

In all areas of human achievement, the next peak can only be scaled by letting go of the sure-footedness of the ground beneath. Greatness, by definition, requires risk. Risk of failure, risk of losing that which we've gained, risk of having less comfort, less certainty, less security.

The three original owners of Starbucks weren't interested in expanding.

We all know about the billion-dollar corporation created by Howard Schultz called Starbucks. But before Mr. Schultz was Mr. Starbucks, he was the vice president of Hammarplast, a Swedish manufacturer of kitchen wares. One fateful day, Schultz traveled to Seattle to meet with clients who were purchasing a specific type of coffee-grinder from his company. Schultz was so impressed with the coffeehouse he saw, he wanted to take it across America, in the style of coffeehouses he'd seen in Italy. But the three original owners of Starbucks weren't interested in expanding -- they were very happy with their business, just the way it was.

After opening his own coffeehouse, which was an instant success, Schultz finally bought out Starbucks for $3.8 million. The rest is history.

What if we could go back in time and pretend that Mr. Schultz had acted differently. How would things be different had Schultz decided to act more conservatively? After all, he had a stable, well-paying job in an established company. Perhaps it was just a bit too risky to go cross-country with a coffeehouse idea? Perhaps it was more prudent to keep his steady day job and forego the enormous loans necessary to start up a new venture. Schultz had a sure thing at Hammarplast, but Starbucks nationwide was a big question mark.

What if Schultz had decided not to leave his comfort zone and venture into the unknown? He would probably still be sitting behind his desk at Hammarplast, never having created the Starbucks global empire with 16,600-plus stores worldwide and $10 billion in annual revenue.

The great tragedy of Tisha B'Av is how the spies robbed us of the staggering potential for greatness. The Hebrew word for word "spies" -- Meraglim -- comes from the root word ragil, which means to habituate oneself, to become accustomed to. The meraglim put too much value on the habit and predictability of life. They weren't prepared to expand their worldview to include that which was unknown, unpredictable, uncertain.

Life in the desert was comfortable -- manna rained down from the heavens for daily nourishment, Moses was there to guide and lead the people, the Clouds of Glory protected the Jewish people from all forms of external danger. There was security and predictability. Life in the Holy Land was far less predictable. Would the land yield of its fruit? Would the Jews be able to conquer their enemies? Would they have competent leaders to guide them?

Any path of opportunity carries a commensurate risk.

Beyond the spies having slandered the land, and the lack of faith evident in the Jews accepting the negative report, there is something even more tragic: the tragedy of complacency. The fear of risking comfort for potential greatness. Entering the Land of Israel was a risk, but it was the path laid out for the Jewish people to reach exponential growth. Like any path of opportunity, it carried commensurate risk -- a risk that our ancestors weren't ready to take.

We are all drawn to the familiar, the secure, the habits and routines of everyday life. And we sometimes squander new opportunities since it's scary to take a risk for the sake of the unknown. We become complacent and forget that we are here in this world to achieve something -- not just to come out with as few bumps as possible.

Greatness is within every human's grasp. The loss of this opportunity is what we are mourning on Tisha B'Av. And that same day, we have the opportunity to affect a repair: to step outside of our comfort zone... and take our grandest ideas nationwide.

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