Posts in Thought Tools

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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Stop Lumping Us All Together

February 6th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 32 comments

Exactly 60 days before America’s historic presidential election of November 8th, 2016, while speaking to a group of supporters in New York City, Hillary Clinton made the following declaration: “…you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?”  Candidate Clinton was still at the podium when one of her closest advisors on the campaign texted a friend saying, “With that statement Hillary just lost the race!”  He was right.

How could a smart and ambitious woman say such a stupid thing?  True, she had abandoned the TelePrompter, gone off script and was speaking from her heart.  But still, it was political suicide.

Why did she say it?  Because the temptation to lump many into one is all but irresistible.  How often do you hear politicians bolstering their own positions by saying, “The American people…”  Nice sentiment, but there has never been one American people and there certainly isn’t one now.

One often hears the phrase, “the Black community”   There is no such thing.  There could hardly be a greater gulf than that between Al Sharpton and the late, great Pastor Ken Hutcherson who was an NFL linebacker before he began pastoring the successful Antioch Bible Church in Puget Sound.  There’s nothing those two would have agreed upon other than perhaps that both their skins were black.

And for a real laugh, listen to people referring to “the Jewish community.”  The only thing  that all of America’s 4 million Jews would agree upon is that Hitler was a very bad man.  Yet most of us find ourselves saying things that lump the many into the one.

Why do all my children always pick a busy morning to act up?  All the available men out there are emotionally needy adolescents.  None of my employees appreciate how much I do for them. 

This is not to say that generalities have no value.  Of course, there is some truth to generalities.  In general, teenage boys drive more recklessly than teenage girls.  In general, customers in that zip code look more to quality than price.  By using the phrase “in general” we acknowledge that not everyone is included.

Why do we feel drawn to lumping the many into the one?

Reason 1:  It is emotionally satisfying to strip the individuality of those annoying us and see them all as sharing one common negative trait.  Those Moslems are all the same.  All TSA agents are recruited from a special pool of the dimwitted.

Reason 2:  We are subconsciously enchanted by the unity of monotheism.  Everything is created by and controlled by one God.  I may not fully understand that, but I believe it and love living in a world explained by that simple reality.  One is appealing.

Just think which of these feature articles you’d be most likely to read.  (a) The Number One Reason Women Wear Makeup.  (b)  Twelve Reasons Women Wear Makeup.  (a) Seven Really Fast Cars Below $70,000.  (b) The Fastest Car You Can Buy for Under $70,000.

When he died, Albert Einstein was trying to discover what he called The Unified Field Theory.  We already had four perfectly solid theories that explained the behavior of different forces like gravity, magnetism, and nuclear.  But Einstein wanted one simple theory that did it all.  Lumping the many into the one is nothing more than asserting a unified field theory for the many different things or people on our minds.

Lumping the many into the one misleads us.  Often in casual conversation, the damage is minor and short-lived.  However, when we start habitually thinking in terms of lumping the many into the one it accustoms us to an incorrect way of judging reality.  We lose our ability to observe subtle distinctions.

Consider the first chapter of the Bible.  Quick now…what did God create on Day One?  That’s right, heaven, earth, and light.  Day Three? Dry land and vegetation. Day Four? Sun, moon and stars.  Day Five? Sea life and birds.  Day Six?  Animals and humans.  That’s basically the story of Creation.  But wait!  I left out Day Two.

What did God create on Day Two?

And God said let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters and let it divide water from water.
(Genesis 1:6)

Do you know what a firmament is?  The only definition I can confidently share with you is that firmament is the word the translators of the King James Bible in the 17th century came up with for the Hebrew word RaKiaH.

And God made the firmament and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament, and it was so.
(Genesis 1:7)

Back to my question, what did God create on Day Two?  Apparently some inexplicable and unnamed thing that divides between one set of waters and another.  Distinguishing between two or more humans is usually quite easy.  One should easily be able to avoid the temptation of saying, “All my customers try to irritate me.”  Distinguishing between different makes of cars is quite simple.  But the one thing that is hard to distinguish is one cup of water from another.  Or for that matter, can one really tell the difference between water from one ocean and water from another? Where do the waters of the Indian and the Atlantic oceans really meet?  Cape Town’s tourist bureau insists that this occurs right in the shadow of Table Mountain, but the truth is that nobody can know.  It’s impossible to separate one water from another.  Yet that is exactly what God does on Day Two.

Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that on Day Two God created distinction and separation. Day Two is the only one of the six days on which we don’t hear God saying, “it was good.”  Separation, distinction, and division are absolutely necessary, but they have the potential to drive humans apart and we must know how ‘not good’ that can be. Our challenge is to make distinctions while respecting each other.

At the moment, our society feels an almost irresistible temptation to lump the two genders into one group of humans utterly indistinguishable from one another by any fixed sexual reality.  The sixth and seventh verses of the first chapter in Genesis teach the importance of making distinctions, appreciating those distinctions and recognizing their value.

The magical but highly improbable living arrangement we call ‘marriage’ functions precisely because it is between two different kinds of humans, men and women.

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