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The Curse of Marketing

My first experience in marketing came as an IT analyst sent to support a new marketing group at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. As one never knows where we are going to find truth, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the clearest statements of understanding life came from one of the consultants in the room. “We always need to remember that when a patient has a good experience with a doctor, they will tell two or three people. When they have a bad experience with a doctor, they will tell ten.”

You can replace “doctor” with pretty much anything and the truth still holds. Look at Yelp restaurant reviews. Actually, look at the entire algorithmic underpinnings of social media.

It seems like Torah happened early upon this wisdom. In Parashat Re’eh we hear the opening salvo that will later explode in Ki Tavo.

“See, this day I set before you a blessing and a curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin you on this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Eternal your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin you this day and follow others gods, who you have not experienced.”

Later on, in Ki Tavo in chapter 28 of Devarim we see our marketing axiom hold true—there are roughly three times more curses than blessings that are uttered. But even here in Re’eh we see the glimmer of the inequality between the blessing and curse. A parallel literary structure would have simply presented the verse as: “Blessing, if you obey; curse, if you do not obey.” Instead, Torah presents “blessing” without embellishment and “curse” with specifically how we are going to fail to obey.

According to Rashi, the reason that the embellishment specifically entails idolatry is that the one “who serves an idol departs from the entire path of life that Israel has been commanded.” Why then isn’t there as strong of an encapsulation of the blessing that contains the entire path of life?

The unfortunate reality is that based on this underlying idea of how we communicate what we like versus what we don’t like, it is much easier to market fear. When we walk into our favourite supermarket, how many products are purchased because they are exactly what we need for the purpose they serve, and how many because a voice-over on the tele explains to us what we lack and how we are incomplete? It is one of the reasons that Reform Judaism in the larger Jewish world can be such a hard sell. In Israel, for example, one often hears the phrase: “the synagogue I do not attend is Orthodox.” This is expressed so often it has become a trope and a punchline. “Sure, I am not religious and I don’t attend shul, but if I did I would go to an orthodox shul.”

As always, this is not meant to be polemic, merely to point out at a very high level the different marketing requirements within the streams of Judaism. I will always make the case that “reform” is a process that has always been a part of Judaism and is not only authentic but central to our tradition but within the larger world, orthodoxy is seen as the “default.” Just look at an article that comes out of any major news magazine about Judaism, and inevitably there will be a prominent picture of a male Jew in a black hat with peyes, probably praying at the Western Wall. This image is a part of Judaism but is not in and of itself encompassing of the multiplicity of Judaism. But journalists need to present what are perceived as archetypal images and such choices are thus made. Moreover, as a Reform rabbi, I have removed myself from fear-based marketing. I cannot present the giving of Torah (matan Torah) as a literal event and thus double attendance via, “The Eternal literally commanded this at Sinai, therefore, show up at, well, Sinai.” And I certainly cannot follow that statement with any level of “or else.”

All this points to an underlying truth: positive marketing is hard. Saying, “Hey, do this and you get a blessing” is nebulous. What blessing? What is a blessing anyway? Curses are so much more tangible.

It seems that Re’eh is preparing us for the harder road. If we engage with each other in the process of relationship with our tradition and the building of our community, we know that our tendency is to do this through the curse. “If we don’t do x, then y will happen, and we certainly do not want y to happen.” Yet we still have a choice. It is not just knowing that building is harder than tearing down, it is reminding ourselves and challenging ourselves constantly to see which path we are taking. When we look at anything happening around us, do we focus on what we dislike and then tell ten people or do we search for what we like and find a way to beat the marketing odds?

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