Sunday brought bad news. Better Place, the Israeli flagship electric car network company, is closing its doors. It was surprisingly hard for me to break the news to our sixteen-year-old daughter, who wrote a school report on the enterprise a few years ago. I remember her excitement and pride as the assigned research led her to appreciate the scope and significance of the company's project. That excitement was translated into pride, and for the last few years our whole family cheered every time we saw a Better Place car or station. We believed that, with this innovation, Israel could truly lead the world to a better place.
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- Better Place, for better or worse?
- Two groups eyeing purchase of Better Place: American Jews and Canadian investors
Better place innovated a new approach to extending the range of electric cars with a network of battery changing stations spread throughout Israel. They were able to lower the cost of the vehicle to the consumer by the company maintaining ownership over the battery, the most expensive component of the car. Consumers would pay for use of the battery and subscribe to the battery changing service, similar to popular cellphone models where the cost of the phone is subsidized by a long-term contract with the service provider. In an ironic twist of fate, Israel was uniquely fit to pioneer this model due to our many closed borders - how far can you actually drive here? - of course this venture was dependent on a critical mass of consumers choosing to make the leap.
The sad news of Better Place's fate was no surprise. An online search will turn up a list of articles, some going back years, analyzing where Better Place went wrong and I am sure that more will be written on the topic. Businesses fail all the time, but Better Place captured the imagination of a generation, exemplifying the Start Up Nation's ability to innovate “out of the box,” and leverage our small country to bring “light unto the nations.” For many of us this is a real disappointment.
These events appropriately coincide with this week’s Torah portion, where Moses leads the people of Israel from Egypt to the land of Canaan - a better place. Twelve spies are sent to explore the land, and their daunting report on the military might of the local populace serves to demoralize the people leading to forty years of wandering. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, exhort the people to trust in God and enter the land, for it is “so very very good! Two against ten, they do not take the day."
The story of the spies is a story about fear. It does not take much to play on our fears and our tendency to imagine the worst. It is much more difficult to inspire courage, trust, and visionary risk. Let’s be honest, while we cheered from the sidelines, not enough of us bought a Better Place car. While there may have been many factors in the company’s failure there can be no doubt that an overwhelming public vote of confidence in the form of vehicle purchase would have provided much needed wind in the sails.
One of the deepest readings of the story of the spies I have heard is from the late, great Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. He says that the spies saw the land with prophetic vision, sensing the destruction of two temples, millennia of exile, even the loss of the six million. This horrific vision is what led to their report. He points out that while the spies’ vision of disaster upon entering the land was true, what they missed was that they were seeing the very results of the report they were about to give.
There are subtle yet powerful dynamics at play in the psychology of a nation, of a culture, a generation. Humanity is in some ways quite fickle, motivated by fear, stuck in the familiar. I can’t help but feel that in some ways it is we who have failed. A minority of entrepreneurs and consumers stood up to lead us to a better place, and we were afraid to proceed.
A day will come, perhaps in forty years, when we will embrace some form of sustainable transport. I trust in God's process and in the survival instincts of the human race. Regardless we must face the heartbreaking truth that we may have missed our chance to play a definitive role in that process, the chance to lead the world to the “promised land.”
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.