It has become trendy to speak about the demise of San Francisco as a tech destination. If you ask a VC or tech blogger about which city will assume the crown, you can be assured of a strong answer. Miami is popular with finance types, while creatives hype up Austin. Some say that cities don’t matter if you can work from home.
These discussions focus on practicalities, like low tax rates. Nightlife and culture gets a nod. But these are external aspects of a place.
Our tradition emphasizes the pnimius (the essential aspects) of a place. There is a connection between a place and its people. A place influences the people in it, for the good or otherwise. Similarly, we can influence a place...
It’s said in Midrash that the Jewish people never sinned in the desert until they came to Shittim. The Midrash also says that the waters of Shittim watered Sodom. The implication - not so subtle - is that the waters of Shittim caused the otherwise tznius people of Israel to behave out of character. No fewer than 24,000 men were indiscreet with the daughters of Moav.
“There are streams that grow strong people and streams that grow weaklings. Some streams grow handsome people, others grow ugly ones. Some streams grow chaste people, some licentious ones. The stream of Shittim, the water source of Sodom, was licentious.” - Midrash Tanchuma on Parsha Balak
This principle is all over our holy writings about Israel. “The air of Israel makes you wise.” But this concept is clearly not limited to Eretz Yisrael.
I wonder what was in the water in Silicon Valley. that made it into such a center for innovation? In contrast, there is something about Miami which makes you want to sip pastel drinks with umbrellas overlooking the ocean. Can the waters of Miami foster both retirement and entrepreneurial ambition?
Some places are known for business. Others for kedusha (holiness), or kosher cuisine. There is something special about a street lined with shuls and mezuzahs. There is probably at least one place that you would like to call home. But we may find ourselves in places far from our spiritual center, for whatever reason.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote: “Therefore, it goes without saying that when a Jew finds themselves in a distant corner of the world, far from their homeland, far from any established Jewish community, this is certainly not by chance.”
In his sefer Hayom Yom he expresses this concept in more detail: “Whoever has faith in individual Divine Providence knows that "Man's steps are established by G‑d," that this particular soul must purify and improve something specific in a particular place. For centuries, or even since the world's creation, that which needs purification or improvement waits for this soul to come and purify or improve it. The soul too, has been waiting - ever since it came into being - for its time to descend, so that it can discharge the tasks of purification and improvement assigned to it.”
The ancient shvatim chose their plots of land. For hundreds of years, ancient Israelites knew that they were living in the territory designated especially for their tribe.
But perhaps each of us is also exactly where we are supposed to be.
Writing to you from a tree lined street in New York City - I wish you a beautiful and blessed Shabbos, wherever you are.