Posts in Thought Tools

Where Did I Hear That?

April 18th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 9 comments

“When we were young, we were taught again and again that we shouldn’t get pregnant. Now we can’t!”

That plaintive wail from a childless 43 year-old woman caught my attention. Holly Finn describes the mortification and expense of countless in-vitro-fertilization procedures she endured. A little cashmere baby sweater goes everywhere with her; she bought it years earlier for the baby she hoped she’d one day have. Now Holly weeps about having the sweater but not the child. Her most excruciating experiences are being in the company of other women chattering happily about their children, or with men, most of whom simply don’t get how she feels.

Holly’s sad situation echoes the Biblical account of Rachel. When Leah repeatedly gives birth, the childless Rachel cries out in agony to her husband:

…give me children otherwise I’m as good as dead.
(Genesis 30:1)

Jacob responds truthfully, but with little emotional sensitivity:

…am I in place of God…
(Genesis 30:2)

From this and other Biblical examples we learn that men find it almost impossible to relate to the pain of childless women.

Interestingly, the phrase, “Am I in place of God?” only appears on two occasions in all Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures). The first appears above when Jacob seems to shrug off responsibility for his wife, Rachel’s, grief.

The second instance comes after Jacob dies in Egypt. Ten of his sons fear retribution from their brother Joseph for having cruelly sold him into slavery so many years earlier. They concoct a story of their late father begging Joseph to forgive them. In response, Joseph explains that though they meant to harm him, God planned it to work out for the best. His opening words are:

…don’t be frightened, am I in place of God?
(Genesis 50:19)

A permanent principle of ancient Jewish wisdom is that we must scrutinize all occurrences of rare Biblical phrases to discover hidden message that link the separate instances.

Clearly Jacob’s hurtful response to Rachel when he basically said, “What do you want me to do about it, I’m not God,” must be linked to Joseph. The son of that very Rachel uses that very phrase, “I’m not God,” to the other sons of that very Jacob.

What is the link?

Nothing we ever do or even say vanishes. Its impact endures forever in one form or another. When you light a candle and let it burn down, you might think you’ve made the candle vanish. In reality you converted it into light, heat, and various gases released into the atmosphere. Joseph was attempting to reassure his brothers, yet his words must have reminded them that while he might forgive them, they still need to answer to God for their actions. Jacob’s lack of sensitivity impacted the world in a way that endured, resurfacing and causing pain in the next generation.

I once witnessed high spirited bantering about corporate downsizing at a business lunch; only I knew that one of us at the table had received his pink slip that morning. Did his heart break?

How often have I been insensitive to the inner pain of others? The Biblical repetition of words reminds us that as we work on improving our tennis game or losing another three pounds, we should also embrace the exciting challenge of increasing our sensitivity to the hidden pain felt by others.

                                                                                                 Reprinted from July 26, 2011 

Thank you to those of you who sent us Passover wishes. Immersed in the holiday as we were, we neglected to note that the final day of our Passover sale fell on Easter Sunday. We hope many of you were busy with faith and family rather than being online. 

However, we don’t want you to miss out on this rare opportunity to get the Library Pack or Library Pack PLUS at 15% off by using the promo code PASSOVER at checkout. Now that we are open again after Passover, we are extending the sale for an additional day, through Wednesday.

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From Stress to Salvation: A Passover Story

April 12th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 29 comments

To the dismay of my parents and the bewilderment of my wife Susan’s parents, some years back we sailed our family from Los Angeles to Honolulu on our small sailboat. We spent nearly a year in preparation. Susan planned the meals for the entire voyage and wrote down where each item of food was stored, while I strengthened the vessel and polished my celestial navigation skills. We departed on the fourth of July and by mid-month we were about a thousand miles from the West Coast and the same distance from Hawaii.

That night, as usual, I measured our water supply and in an exhausted state from too many hours on watch mistakenly determined that we had only one more day’s water left. In a terrible panic, all I could think about was how would I keep my family alive till we reached Hawaii. In my mind that became the only problem.

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Is There Food in Your Purse?

April 4th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 23 comments

As the rabbi of a large congregation, my father attended many weddings and bar-mitzvahs.  My mother usually accompanied him and on rare occasions I got to go as well.  I always assumed that when this happened, I was being rewarded for good behavior.  It wasn’t until years later that my mother confided that the times when I was taken along were when the babysitter positively refused to have me at home.

While attending one particular bar-mitzvah with my parents when I was about ten years-old, I clearly remember spotting a woman surreptitiously sweeping some cookies off the table and into her rather capacious purse.  I instantly realized that she was harboring a fugitive to whom she needed to get food.  My fevered mind needed to know whether her fugitive was a criminal or a hero.  Clearly the only way to find out more was to place her under my diligent surveillance for the rest of the afternoon.  I observed her sneaking some fish and fruit into her bag.  Sooner or later, I would surely catch her leaving  the hall and by following her I would determine the identity of the person she was hiding.

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Did I Really Peek Into Your Closet?

March 28th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 19 comments

I don’t mean to startle you by revealing a secret of yours, but here goes.  I know that in your closet, you have items of clothing you haven’t worn in a very long time.  There! I told you.  You have garments that have been hanging there for years that you just can’t bring yourself to discard.  Even without skulking creepily around your closet, I know this to be true.

This is not the place to provide you with guidance on how to sort your wardrobe and decide what should stay and what should go.  But this is just the place for me to offer ancient Jewish wisdom’s explanation behind your reluctance to trash the old trousers.  The good news is that your sadness at slinging out that old suit reflects really well on you.

I am sure you are one of those well-organized souls whose home and work space are clean and neat.  You are quick to purge unneeded papers, books, tools, recipes, and kitschy family heirlooms.  You even threw out last Thursday’s perfectly delicious dinner leftovers with barely a twinge.  But you just cannot throw out clothing.  You’ll be relieved to know that there is a perfectly good reason.  Clothing is different.

Our clothing imparts identity and dignity to us and those are more important to us than even food.  We all remember stories of the down and out salesman who spent his last few dollars, not on a meal but on a new suit and a shoeshine, knowing they would buck him up for his next interview even more than hot food.

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Say Little and Lead Much

March 21st, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 19 comments

Leaders enjoy many benefits.  People seen as leaders get promoted and opportunities come their way.  Parents whose children respect them as leaders have more functional families.   But how do you begin the process of getting others to see you as a leader?

We have all seen leadership in action.  Perhaps one participant at a meeting emerges as the clear leader of the group.  Or people listen more attentively to one person than to another.  Groups coalesce around the one individual who is regarded as more authoritative than anyone else.

I’m sure you’ve seen parents who enjoy such excellent rapport with their children that obedience is almost automatic.  It is clear that the children view the parents as leaders.  Authentic leadership skills that are effective in a work environment are also effective in a family or social environment.  We just need to know what these skills are.

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Snow Day; Grow Day

March 14th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 12 comments

A couple I knew, misunderstanding the meaning of being loving parents, raised their children with no rules and little restraint.  You won’t be shocked to hear that their two kids grew into demanding little monsters.

The parents blamed the children’s teachers for why their children were ‘difficult’.  They explained that their children ‘had issues’ because of preservatives in food. They blamed the tiny tyrants’ grandparents.  They never were able to see their poor parenting as the central problem.

It’s hard to live an effective life when you are blind to cause and effect.

Imagine someone waking up on a recent morning in Washington DC, to discover that forty inches of snow fell in the night.  Shivering with cold, he turns up the thermostat to no effect.  He tries to turn on the lights, but the electricity is out.

Listen to him saying, “I can’t believe this!  What bad luck!  On the same morning, no heat, no lights, and on top of that, there’s a load of snow all over my yard.”  He sees three separate, simultaneous but disconnected inconveniences, not comprehending that they are all linked.

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Intelligent Life in Outer Space

March 6th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 49 comments

While he was directing the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, Winston Churchill found time to write on topics millions of miles from Pearl Harbor, the siege of Leningrad and the fall of Bataan.  As a matter of fact, a week before General Douglas MacArthur fled the Philippines for Australia, Churchill penned an essay entitled, “Are There Men on the Moon?” which appeared in London’s Sunday Dispatch on March 8, 1942.

He wrote that he was not so conceited to think that our sun is, “the only one with a family of planets.”  Furthermore, he mused, with such an unthinkably large number of stars and planets out there, some must have the necessary conditions to sustain life and it would be a strange thing if some of those didn’t actually have living creatures. 

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Face Time

February 28th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 24 comments

The defining question of our times: Are people no more than sophisticated baboons?  Are we the product only of random, materialistic evolution?  Why does it matter?  Because if the answer is ‘yes’ then whenever men do bad things, they do so only because of genetic imperative or imposed societal influences.  It would mean that humans have no more choice about their behavior than do baboons.  The political, social, criminal and economic consequences of how this question is answered are colossal.  The past fifty years of American cultural change substantiate this assertion.

The consequences to the personal and business lives of individuals are no less significant.  If I decide that, like bears, bunnies, and baboons, I too must act upon urges, appetites, and emotions, neither my wife, children nor my business partners can ever truly trust me.  As a business professional of this bent, I would mistakenly assume that my employees and customers have only materialistic desires, assumptions that would surely mislead my enterprise.

Yet to any genuinely curious person with no axe to grind, the evidence that humans are distinctively different from all other species of life on the planet is overwhelming.  We are the only species that will imperil our physical bodies in order to gain some spiritual solace.  We risk damage to our systems by absorbing alcohol, drugs and tobacco for non-physical benefit.  Some of us engage in risky sports for non-physical benefits like a rush or a thrill.

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Gender and Geography

February 22nd, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 33 comments

As a child growing up in South Africa, National Geographic magazine was not just something to pick up idly in the dentist’s waiting room.  It was a monthly magic carpet ride that enchanted me so much that a subscription bringing that familiar yellow cover to our mailbox each month was one of my favorite birthday presents.

It wasn’t only the spectacular photography of faraway places, it was also the advertisements.  In my mind’s eye, I still clearly see that rapturous red 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air.  There were intoxicating ads for cameras carrying names like Leica and Haselblad that I could but dream about.  There were pictures of housewives in American kitchens that I gazed at in wonder.

Mostly, however, the magazine sparked my life-long love for travel and appreciation of scientific exploration.  It taught me that wherever in this big, colorful world they were, humans want pretty much the same things.  From icy landscapes to the Sahara Desert, from mountain top communities to valley villages, people try to build families and make it possible for their families to thrive.

I haven’t looked at the magazine for years now, so I was quite shocked by a recent issue of National Geographic.  Its cover carried a picture of a boy dressed to look like a girl and bellowed out GENDER REVOLUTION.  Huh? In National Geographic? Really?

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Lasting Lights

February 14th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 9 comments

Imagine a room full of shouting people; walls plastered with large sheets of paper covered with scrawls. What is it?  A kindergarten for children with poor social skills?  No, it is a typical brainstorming session.

Originated in the 1940s by advertising man Alex Osborn, brainstorming with its freewheeling tossing out of ideas and absence of criticism, is controversial. Some swear by its effectiveness while others dismiss it as nothing more than entertainment for executives.

I frequently facilitate corporate brainstorming sessions and I’ve also done some rewarding ones with my family. They can work well. However, a certain Torah principle must be followed.  Once ideas and solutions have emerged during the fun period, you’re only halfway through.  The tough process of analyzing, critiquing, and reconciling conflicting ideas must be tackled or the first part was a waste of time.  Expecting to achieve insight without hard work ignores reality. Let’s take a clue from Scripture.

The Torah is divided into 54 sections called Sedras, each with its unique name. A Sedra encompasses a number of Biblical chapters. The chapters as we know them are not part of ancient Jewish wisdom. They were put in place by Archbishop Langton during the 13th century. While the chapters are useful for locating verses in Scripture, they occasionally distort God’s intended divisions. Sometimes, Stephen Langton even presented one chapter as bridging two different Sedras, causing us to miss a shift in focus. Analyzing the original Sedra divisions and their names is a worthwhile endeavor. For instance, only six Sedras have names of people in their titles; 3 who were Jewish and 3 who were not.  In each group, two are righteous and 1 is wicked.  Sarah, Pinchas, and Korach comprise the first group while Noah, Yitro, and Balak make up the second.

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