Posts in Thought Tools

If It’s Tuesday, I’ll Be In Texas

June 5th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 17 comments

What is interesting about these cities:  Naples, Oslo, Paris, Quebec City, Rome, Stockholm, and Tokyo?  No, it’s not the alphabetic sequence; that’s just me messing with you.  Here’s a clue:  Jerusalem is probably the only city that doesn’t fit that pattern.  What other great city older than two hundred years is not built on either a river or the coast?

That so many cities were built on water is no surprise.  To this day, the majority of the world’s goods and commodities still travel by ship.  Cities grow and thrive where trade occurs, and rivers and oceans have always been the arteries of trade.  The mystery is how Jerusalem grew and thrived.  It was never on a trading route like other inland cities such as those on the old Silk Road.  Because of its elevation, trading caravans would have taken flatter routes to the Mediterranean.  Thus it never had the large markets or “shuks” of cities like Baghdad and Beirut.

Yet, after more than two thousand years, Jerusalem’s vitality and endurance continue undiminished.  On May 28, 1948, the Jordanian army expelled every Jew from Jerusalem’s original old city and destroyed their homes.  In order to ensure that Jews would never return to Jerusalem, the Jordanians destroyed every synagogue and violated the cemetery by building their army latrines over the ancient grave stones.  On June 7th, 1967,  the Jews recaptured Jerusalem.

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Do I Believe Or Do I Know?

May 30th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 18 comments

The Beverly Hills tycoon was dismayed by his son’s decision to study in a yeshiva instead of joining the family business.  After several years the son returned home to his father’s sardonic question:  So what have you got to show for your years of study?  “I know that there is a God,” replied the young man.  Angrily the father leapt to his feet and pointed out the window at the gardener patiently mowing the vast lawns.  “He also knows there is a God,” shouted the older man.  “No father,” the boy quietly responded.  “He believes there is a God; I know.”

The challenge to the person of faith is to acquire so clear an understanding of how the world really works, that God’s role becomes obvious.  It’s not a matter of fervent proclamations of faith or moments of spiritual epiphany.  Instead, it takes disciplined devotion.  It’s not easy, but neither is body building.  In both cases, devotees consider the effort worthwhile; what is more, both provide highs along the way.

The path to knowing God, for me, is the Torah which I find to be a comprehensive blueprint of all reality.  I do not mean the book of stories that many view as nothing but mythology for children or, at best, for adults with childlike minds.  No, I mean the majestic and mysterious data stream of 304,805 Hebrew letters making up a Torah scroll and the ancient Jewish wisdom that accompanies them.

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Vital Values

May 23rd, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 4 comments

On July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, two of the men most instrumental in its drafting died. Former presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within a few hours of each other.

To me, it was God linking these two statesmen for all time.  I can just see them approaching the Throne of Glory, arms around one another’s shoulders in eternal bonds of brotherhood.

On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse transmitted the words, “What hath God wrought,” (Numbers 23:23) from Washington to Baltimore using electrical pulses and his Morse Code.  That year, May 24 fell on the Bible holyday of Shavuot/Pentecost, which this year begins after sunset a week from tonight, on May 30th.

Serendipitously, Shavuot, the anniversary of the day upon which God gave His message to mankind through Moses on Mt Sinai, was the first time in the history of humanity that people thousands of miles apart could communicate almost instantaneously.  Of course, for those of us who believe that serendipity or coincidence are simply words that people use to mask God’s involvement in the world, the date of the telegraph’s launch is striking.

What lesson did the Lord intend when He guided Morse to give the world electronic communication precisely on the Festival commemorating His bestowing upon us the Ten Commandments?

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In with the Old; In with the New

May 15th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 28 comments

I’ve never met my friend in San Francisco. Hanna was a regular caller to my three-hour show on the Bay Area’s KSFO.  In the radio business we discourage regular callers and most shows have a rule about how frequently they will accept calls from any one listener.  With Hanna, the rule went out the window.  She was so passionate, her voice quivered with emotion.  She always had an original take on the topic. Much of my fan mail mentioned Hanna admiringly.  One of my ongoing conceits on the show was my general assumption that every male listener to my radio show was handsome and virile and every female, young and nubile.  Nonetheless, I suspected that Hanna had seen a few years.  Her voice and accent suggested she immigrated in response to World War 2.

One day during an on-air conversation, I discovered she was without a computer and determined to humorously influence her to acquire a laptop or tablet.  She resisted with great resolve, irritating me by insisting she was too old to learn new technology.  During the ensuing few months I begged, cajoled and beseeched.  I began to feel my credibility was on the line so I threatened to start a fund among listeners to buy her one. She finally agreed to visit a store.  End of the story:  She bought a tablet.  She fell in love with it and it changed her life.  She often called the show  explicitly to thank me for encouraging her to leap forward into the email age.  I just got another welcome email from her last week.

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Escape from Lithuania

May 8th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 49 comments

It was still dark that morning, but my father was first in a growing line outside a government office in a small Lithuanian town.  It was September 2nd, 1939 and Hitler had invaded Poland the previous morning.  Possessing a neutral South African passport, my father hoped to cross Poland and Germany and reach sanctuary in Switzerland.  While nobody knew when South Africa would join the Allies, my father knew it was a matter of days or perhaps hours, at which point escape from Lithuania would be impossible. As it turned out, South Africa declared war against Germany on September 4th.

When the office opened, my father anxiously placed his passport, literally a magic carpet to safety, on to the counter and took a seat to wait.  Every subsequent Jewish person, equally desperate to escape Lithuania, placed his passport upon my father’s and sat down in the waiting room.  When the official finally arrived to grant exit visas, he started with the top passport and called out the name of the applicant.  With a sinking heart, my father realized that the official would never reach his passport way down at the bottom.

Suddenly the official stood up.  Placing one of his hands beneath the tall pile and the other at the top, he crossed his arms and inverted the pile. Reaching for what was now the top document, he called my father’s name.

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How the Smartest Man Failed

May 3rd, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 25 comments

Since pencils were invented about five hundred years ago they have needed regular sharpening.  For most of this period, sharpening was accomplished by a person wielding a knife and whittling away the wood to uncover more of the graphite core.  Finally, in the 19th century, people began trying to build a mechanical pencil sharpener that would require no skill to operate and that would deliver consistently sharp pencil points.

The earliest were clumsy contraptions attempting to mimic the reciprocal movement of a hand holding a blade.  It finally dawned on inventors that they were not trying to build a duplicate of a human sharpening a pencil; they were trying to build a better way of sharpening a pencil. And they did. What they came up with was the now-familiar device into which you insert your pencil and which contains two or three helical cylindrical cutters that rotate about the pencil when the handle is turned.

The first versions of many inventions like the tractor, sewing machine, and airplane all failed because their inventors remained locked into the old way of doing things. Subsequent versions succeeded as innovators discarded the old visions opening their minds to solving the problem rather than merely improving the old system.

We’re all susceptible to the trap of not being open to entirely new and revolutionary ways of solving problems.  Do I really need a full-time secretary and an office in which to house her or could I use a virtual assistant? Do I really need a car or could I make do with Uber?  Let’s see how even the smartest man in the world, King Solomon, slipped up by clinging to an old model.

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Crime Doesn’t Say

April 25th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 33 comments

On news broadcasts and interviews I have noticed something scary.  Boys involved in violent crime are largely illiterate.  This chilling correlation has been confirmed to me by friends in criminal justice and law enforcement.  You’d think that just by the laws of probability, at least some assailants and murderers when caught would have more to say than just meaningless gesticulations and obscenities.  I have been looking for just one carjacker who, upon being apprehended, told the policeman, “It’s challenging to understand, officer, I know, but while taking my afternoon constitutional, I was seized by an irresistible desire to inflict physical harm on an innocent citizen and to transfer his motor vehicle to my possession.”

Ancient Jewish wisdom suggests that the desire to communicate is present from birth and that parents who neglect this most crucial of their responsibilities may be complicit in their children’s later lack of socialization skills.

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Where Did I Hear That?

April 18th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 12 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)

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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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