Steven Weinberg
PhD Student at Rutgers University

Haftarah BeHar: Why Judaism and Apple are wise – if boring – investments

I was late to the party, and it wasn’t until 2015 that I bought about five or 10 shares of Apple stock. In the beginning of the new millennium, Apple experienced a rise in wealth, power, and stardom which can only be described as meteoric. The genius behind Apple, Steve Jobs, reshaped the company in the early 2000s and set it on a path to unparalleled dominance which has yet to abate to this day. In the first decade of this century, Apple released the iPod, the iPhone, and then the iPad. The stock soared beyond the greediest expectations of investors. It doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and then multiplied tenfold. Apple became the darling of Wall Street, sleek Apple Stores began popping up all over malls and cities, one day everyone suddenly had their own iPhone. (I got my first one in 2012 and haven’t stopped since.) In 2011, Apple became the most valuable company in the world. Eleven years later in 2022, it continues to be the most valuable.

By the time I bought the stock in 2015, however, the train had already left the station and I was running behind it, racing to jump on. Everyone knew about Apple at this point. Expectations were set. Competition had been awakened. The exorbitant profits which could have been made ten years earlier with a stock purchase were now out of the question. About a year or so later, however, some folks on Wall Street began to grow skittish of Apple. In the second half of the 2010s, Apple continued to release a new iPhone, year after year. The iPhone 5, 6, 7, 8, and on and on. Investors began to justifiably worry that Apple was riding the wave of past success but had nothing truly innovative left to offer. In short, investors wondered why consumers would purchase an iPhone 8 if they already had a 7. At some point, a new iPhone model is only marginally different from the prior model. This reasoning made sense to me. The Apple frenzy was ready to burst, I thought. It could not go on any longer, I thought. Time to search for the next Apple, I thought, because this one was on its way out. I sold my stock.

That was a mistake. When this bad press surrounding Apple came out, the stock did dip for a couple of weeks. But after this temporary setback, the stock continued to magically climb upwards like it always had. I learned my lesson and repurchased the stock I’d sold a few months later, missing out on those profits. Since then, I’ve held onto Apple, even with the fear that one day its good luck will run out and it will need to step aside for the next financial comet. Yet, each year, Apple continues to be the best stock one can have in one’s portfolio, never disappointing, always going up, no matter what.

The skittish investors who realized that Apple did not have another revolutionary product up its sleeve were correct. Apple was no longer new and would never be new again. But what these investors did not account for—and what I myself was then unaware of—was that Apple’s oldness was now its new advantage. Apple didn’t have to be new and innovative anymore, at least not to the degree it had been in the past. Apple had already established itself and rooted itself as the dominant company in phones, computers, and other electronics. Once upon a time, Apple had needed to attack the medieval castle surrounded by a moat upon a hill using the new crossbow invention which no other army had yet to develop. Now, all the other armies also had the crossbow and Apple’s new crossbow was a lot like the old one. But none of that mattered. Because Apple was no longer attacking the castle; it was the castle. Apple’s rootedness is the reason why it continues to shine year after year even though it will never top the iPhone. Due to its past success, Apple has made itself into an immoveable mountain, an impenetrable castle, with the resources, methods, cash, people, and reputation to allow it to continue to stay atop the hill and lord over the land.

This does not mean that Apple will never fall—obviously, like all companies and empires, it will eventually topple. But to assume that Apple will fall because it has gotten too big or too established or too revered is misguided thinking. It is ill-advised to think this way because it contradicts one of the most fundamental principles of life: things are more likely to stay the same than they are to change. Things are more likely to stay the same than they are to change. This does not mean that things will never change—after all, another fundamental life principle is that everything changes. And it is true, everything does change. But in any given moment, it is far more likely that something will stay the same than that it will change. And this statement becomes more accurate the more ingrained, entrenched, and embedded that “something” is. One day, Apple will fall. But nobody knows when that day will be. And to try to predict when precisely this time will come is as unwise as betting against the house in a casino or against an empire each time it faces a rebellion.

Germany is a relatively young country. Until 1871, it was a mere collection of independent city-states. Otto von Bismarck, the de facto ruler of Prussia, decided to forge Germany into a unified nation. He did this, however, not to make Germany strong, but rather to make Prussia strong. Germany was to be ruled over by Prussia from Prussia’s local capital of Berlin. That Berlin remains Germany’s capital to this very day demonstrates the legacy of Bismarck’s vision. And so, when Prussia defeated France in 1871 in the Franco-Prussian War, a new nation was born—the nation of Germany, or more accurately, the nation of Prussian Germany. Because this new Germany was to be ruled from Berlin by the Prussian Emperor Wilhelm I and his devoted Prussian chancellor Bismarck.

Germans, however, did not want to believe or to accept how young, fragile, and arguably illegitimate their new country was. They compensated for this fragility to some extent by turning to patriotism and militarism. But they did not attempt to mask their country’s youth. Instead, they viewed the recent birth of Germany as evidence of its destiny to be a pioneering world power. In comparison to old, rickety, lumbering countries like England and the Hapsburg Empire, Germany was dynamic, sleek, and hungry. Germany believed that it could outwit and outperform these older dynasties because Germany was new and innovative whereas these were tired and outmoded.

Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844. At the age of twenty-seven, he published his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy in 1871. This was the same year in which Germany declared itself a nation. One can imagine, then, how young, even infantile, Germany must have seemed to Nietzsche. He was literally twenty-seven when it was born. He was old enough to be its father. Nietzsche noticed how Germany seemed to have developed an inferiority complex. Germany had impostor syndrome. Afraid of being exposed as a fragile, undeveloped power, Germany reacted by overcompensating. It stressed how unified, “ancient,” and superior it was when in fact it was the opposite of all three: decentralized, unestablished, and severely flawed. Nietzsche criticized the German Empire by depicting its newness not as an advantage but as a dangerous weakness. He made the same point which I have tried to highlight: things are more likely to stay the same than they are to change. From this idea we may also infer that things which have never been this way before will tend to be ephemeral flashes in the pan. In the following excerpt from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, written just fifteen years after Bismarck inaugurated the German Empire at the Palace of Versailles, you may hear how Nietzsche exactly makes this point. He writes: “[The Germans oppress the Jews because the Germans are a race] that is still weak and uncertain, so that it could be easily erased, easily dissolved away by a stronger race. But the Jews are without any doubt the strongest, most tenacious, and purest race now living in Europe. They understand how to prevail even under the worst conditions (better even than under favourable conditions), as a result of certain virtues which today people might like to stamp as vices—thanks, above all, to a resolute faith which has no need to feel shame when confronted by ‘modern ideas.’ They always change, if they change, only in the way the Russian Empire carries out its conquests—as an empire that has time and was not born yesterday—that is, according to the basic principle ‘as slowly as possible!’”

Nietzsche’s theory, which would have been unimaginably provocative at the time, was that the Jewish nation offers the counterexample to the German Empire. The Jewish nation was, unlike the German one, breathtakingly old. Even to the Romans, Jews were thought to be ancient. We need not count the years, but if the Germans counted their history in decades, Jews counted theirs in millennia. The Jews are, in this sense, a bit like Apple. We may now better understand how Jews have survived—and often thrived—as a people for all of those millennia. It is because, quite simply, we are old. We do not need to prove ourselves or overcompensate because our roots go thousands of years deep. Put another way, the very fact that we have been around is what allows us to stay around—like Apple.

The haftarah from the parsha of Behar comes from the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah takes us to a moment in Jewish history in which the Babylonian army is laying siege to Jerusalem. The year is 587 B.C.E. Jerusalem is not yet fallen, but Jeremiah predicts—accurately—that the Babylonians will ultimately conquer it. Nevertheless, at this moment of “doom,” Jeremiah chooses to purchase a piece of land in Israel at the price of seventeen shekels. Jeremiah makes this purchase because of his unshakeable confidence that, one day, the Jews will regain control of the territory and he—or his descendants—will be able to enjoy this land.

One way to approach this story is to conclude that Jeremiah simply has an unshakeable faith in God. I am certain that this conclusion is part of the reason why Jeremiah has the conviction to buy this land. But there seems to be more going on here. Here, allow me to quote Gerald O’Hara, Scarlett’s father, from Gone with the Wind: “Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land, doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.” Apple may be a sturdy and reliable company, but in terms of durability, it is incomparable with land—the place where real apples grow. Because we live in the digital nomad era, we forget how sacred land once was. Today, Gerald O’Hara’s words sound dated and out-of-touch. Yet, we should question whether they are just as accurate today as they ever were. That which is already long in existence is more likely to stay in existence than is a newcomer—unbelievable as that might seem to us today in which old lifestyles, old products, old technologies are continually vanquished by the up-and-comers and the next wave. Last week I said that the star of the Torah was the Law, and I stand by this. However, its co-star is, once again, not Abraham, Moses, or God, or Jacob but rather: the land. The land. The Torah, we might say, invested in that which it knew would last and which, because it would last, would last even longer. When Jeremiah puts down seventeen shekels on land in Jerusalem, he is not merely saying “I believe in God.” He is also saying: I am going to invest, first, in an ancient people, and second, in that which is even more ancient—the land on which these people dwell and which is, in many ways, their reason for being.

The idea that things which are established are more likely to stay that way than to fall seems to be a relatively straightforward, incontrovertible idea. Except that we have a tendency to forget this most simple fact of life. Instead, we reach the opposite conclusion. When a country grows powerful over decades or even centuries, we wait anxiously for it to fall like the Roman Empire. When a new war breaks out, we assume that it will turn nuclear. When a virus sweeps over the globe, we quickly compare it to the next Bubonic Plague and wait for half of the population to be killed off. In fact, countries which are empires already tend to stay as empires. If nuclear war has been avoided for this long, then it will be highly improbable for the nuclear threat to pierce the status quo. And humans are, as Richard Dawkins has written, survival machines. If we have continued this long as a species, it indicates that we will continue to continue as a species.

The reason we have this distorted view of change comes from our mind’s internal biases. We overexaggerate, overemphasize, over-worry-about apocalyptic, catastrophic, earth-shattering scenarios. The idea that Apple will generate steady profits over the next five years is not as enticing to our restless minds as the story that Apple will fall in the next five weeks. Even though the former is truer than the latter, it is the latter which impresses itself upon us. Our minds are drawn to drama, to extremes, to downfalls and meteoric rises. But Jeremiah seems to have been aware of our cognitive distortions. He did not “invest” in the latest megastar of the Ancient World—Babylon—but instead in just some boring old piece of land. In this sense, Jeremiah knew the following mantra, which is the mantra of every wise investor: good investing should be about as exciting as watching grass grow.

[Excerpted from my weekly podcast The Schrift: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for Modern Times, available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts]

About the Author
Steven Weinberg is a PhD student at Rutgers University in the German Department. His dissertation is on Franz Kafka and the Kabbalah. He grew up in Philadelphia, but moved to Israel in his late twenties, where he studied literature at Ben-Gurion University. Currently, Steven live in Berlin, but travels to Israel and America as often as he can. His blog is based off his podcast, The Schrift, a weekly lecture series on Torah, German literature, and meditation. The Schrift is available on Apple and Spotify platforms.
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