Monthly Archives: March, 2010

Fly High with Humility

March 23rd, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools 1 comment



I knew we were in trouble when I learned that many universities have students evaluate their teachers.  Schools that embrace utter equality of students and staff make authentic education impossible.


Outside of some religious schools, students are rarely taught to respect teachers.  Yet, hierarchy still has a role in a free and democratic society.  How does one show respect?  By lowering oneself and acknowledging subservience.


The Biblical book of Samuel opens with Hanna praying for a child and promising that she will offer him in service to God.  The second chapter describes Hanna and her husband Elkanah presenting their son Samuel to Eli and we find the following phrase.


….the lad served the Lord before Eli the priest.

(I Samuel 2:11)


Chapter three presents Samuel well into his apprenticeship and starts with a similar sounding phrase:


And the lad, Samuel, served the Lord before Eli.

(I Samuel 3:1)


The subtle wording brilliantly hints at how Samuel has changed.  In chapter two, his lowly status didn’t deserve a name.  He was merely ‘the lad’ while his master was identified by both name and status, Eli the priest.


However, as time goes by, things reverse.  In chapter three, the lad is worthy of being identified by name while Eli’s stature has slipped because of occurrences in his life.  He is no longer ‘Eli the priest.’  Now he is merely Eli.


But that is not all.  In English the two phrases look similar.  However, in Hebrew, they are quite different.  Hebrew employs a two letter word ET which is untranslatable. If a phrase includes it in one case and not in another, the translations will look identical. But, its inclusion in the Hebrew has several implications, one of which is identifying the object of the sentence. I Samuel 2:11 has two objects—telling us that Samuel served ET the Lord, and that he served ET Eli, the priest.  Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that at first Samuel served the Lord Eli by serving Eli the priest.


Later on as chapter three opens there is only one ET in the verse, preceding the word Lord. This suggests that there is only one object, namely God.  Samuel has graduated and can now serve God directly, though Eli is still there.


What an elegant life lesson!  Although destined to become one of God’s most faithful servants, Samuel must begin his career by serving Eli.  Only by serving God’s priest was he able to serve God.  Eventually, after demonstrating his ability to be subservient, he was fit to begin his ascent.  By the time chapter three opens, he has reached the point of serving God under the supervision of Eli. Later, he will overtake Eli in his leadership capabilities.


Part of military effectiveness can be attributed to routine application of this principle.  One only earns the right to issue orders after demonstrating the ability to follow orders.   A boss who has worked his way up the ranks usually wins more respect than one who simply appears at the top.


Parents and teachers are sometimes unsure of themselves and reluctant to wield their authority. Have you heard a mother pleading with a toddler or seen a student lecturing a teacher? Young people who never learn humility and service will never become effective leaders.


Anyone seeking proficiency in some field should find an expert in that subject and apprentice himself with humility.  We do the same thing by acknowledging God’s mastery over us.  Wise parents ensure that their children see them demonstrating subservience to God every day. 


One way I respect God is by striving to obey His commandments, including those about not working on Festival days. . Next week’s Thought Tool will therefore be sent on Thursday, as our office and store will close for Passover on Tuesday and Wednesday.


I wish my Jewish friends a Passover of fulfilling redemption and my Christian friends a joyous and uplifting Easter.


Romance in the (Corporate) Air

March 23rd, 2010 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

Corporate America is adjusting to two realities. A) The workplace is staffed by men and women; B) Men and women are attracted to each other.


Fortunately, we are talking business rather than government, so the taxpayer didn’t spend millions of dollars arriving at these startling conclusions. Nevertheless, while both of these factors have been realities for a while, for the past few decades the assumption existed that you could control (B). So, inter-company romances were frowned upon and were even cause for termination.


A recently released study shows that in most companies this is no longer the case. As long as the relationship is between unmarried peers as opposed to an adulterous affair or boss/employee mix, romances no longer need to be kept secret.


But there does seem to be a difference between romantically seeing someone in your office vs. someone you meet in a college class or at your local coffee house. Unlike students, employees seem to be aware that actions have consequences. Your boss may not care if you date the guy in IT, but should things end badly, she certainly will mind your ducking behind the copier machine every time he walks by.  You can rather easily change a class schedule or stagger the time you get your latte, while avoiding a team meeting because you are mortified at how you behaved the night before has more severe ramifications.


So co-workers are behaving in a rather old-fashioned manner. They are actually getting to know one another slowly, building a relationship one step at a time and avoiding hasty physical intimacy. Sounds a bit like courtship, doesn’t it? This places it at the complete opposite extreme of the “meet/hook-up/break up” culture so rampant on college campuses and featured on sitcoms.


This suggests that thousands of people function with a warped view of reality. Threat of money loss leads them to orchestrate their personal lives in a mature and thoughtful way but not the threat of even more serious personal damage. After all, there is tremendous potential for debilitating physical, psychological and emotional consequences from unhealthy male/female relationships, which is perhaps the very definition of  a hook-up. So, few people are willing to risk their paychecks or careers for a fleeting thrill, however large swathes of the population are willing to offer up their very beings.


There are so many ways that being in the workplace, in contrast to school or volunteer work, provides a dose of reality. To that long list we can now add learning healthier ways for men and women to relate. Can I, only slightly tongue in cheek, suggest that instead of increasing student loan access and channeling as many students as possible to college or so-called public service, society would benefit more from making a few years of work experience a pre-requisite to either of those options?



Feed the Pig?

March 16th, 2010 Posted by Susan's Musings 2 comments


Have you been hearing ads on the radio telling you to “feed the pig”? The ads, sponsored by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and The Advertising Council,  offer suggestions for cutting expenses such as brown-bagging lunch or cutting out your morning latte at the local Starbucks. As cost-cutting measures, these might have been good tips well worth mentioning when people were earning money. At a time when so many are unemployed and higher taxation is sharpening its claws preparing to pounce, this is a bit like bailing out a sinking boat with a teaspoon.

Nevertheless, if your boat is sinking and all you have available is a teaspoon, you should use it. Maybe you will only gain 20 seconds, but those may be exactly the 20 seconds needed for a rescue helicopter to spot you. At the very least, you will be a partner in your own salvation.

One can only wish that similar ads were played for Congress. Am I the only one tired of hearing that the response to suggested cost-cutting measures is, “That will at most save only 1.4 million,” so it’s not worth discussing? Or as Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D., N.C.) said while explaining why he doesn’t return leftover taxpayer funds given to him for use on a Congressional trip, ” I won’t deny that sometimes I have a little left, but it’s not much—maybe 80, 90, or 100 dollars.” Unfortunately, Rep. Butterfield is expressing normative thinking for many elected representatives of both political parties.

Granted, when we are running up trillions of dollars of debts, taking careful stock of $80 or even $1.4 million may not do very much. However, not treating the money in a responsible fashion does a great deal to eradicate trust in government and destroy any pretence that those who govern are actually men and women worthy of their offices. The ad council may be referring to piggy banks when they tell us to feed the pig. Somehow, when one thinks of Congress an entirely different image of pork comes to mind.


Passover and…Sex?

March 16th, 2010 Posted by Thought Tools 1 comment

Movie screens suggest that sex is public and everyone’s business.  However, just try criticizing sexual misbehavior and you will be quickly told that sex is private and none of your business.  So, which is it?


It’s actually neither, or maybe we should say both.  Sex should be private but it is everybody’s business. 


Society rightly cares about what people do in their bedrooms.  Polygamy, promiscuity, incest, homosexuality and adultery have broad social consequences.  It is naïve to believe that, “What people do behind closed doors is only their own business.”  Reality demands that we acknowledge the genuine psychological, emotional, economic and civic consequences of these unions.


But nowadays many accept the strange notion that sex is nobody else’s business.  Fortunately, the holiday of Passover reminds us that this is untrue.


Exodus chapter 12 informs us that the Seder in Egypt included eating the Passover lamb.  There were rules surrounding that original Biblical Seder which can offer guidance for our times.  Three of these rules were:


(i)   Each family gathered to eat its own lamb; 

(ii)  The lamb’s blood was painted on the doorposts of each home;

(iii)  Males participating in that Seder had to be circumcised.


Years of slavery in Egypt damaged Jewish family life.  For its very first ritual as a nation, God gathered the Israelites, not into political, tribal, gender, or labor groupings but into individual families. By asserting the bond between husband, wife and children, God was reestablishing the importance of the family as society’s fundamental element. Hence, rule number one.


Painting blood onto the front door informed the world that behind that door lived a unique group of people.  Behind that door a man and woman engage in physical intimacy and behind that door they raise the children who, spiritually through adoption or physically through birth, are the fruit of that special union. That bloody door symbolized a boundary between the home of one’s blood family and the rest of society.  It reminds us today that the bonds uniting a family are entirely different from the bonds uniting a labor union or a tennis club.  Thus, rule number two.


Finally, being an uncircumcised Jew is incompatible with Passover because God did not take disparate individuals out of Egypt; He took a nation composed of families. All families and all societies thrive when everyone recognizes that sex is everybody’s business. When a baby boy is circumcised, there are two main requirements:  The procedure must be conducted during daylight and preferably in the presence of many people.  Thus every Jewish male knows that in broad daylight before other members of his community, a sign was placed upon his genital organ to remind him that what he does with it will always concern the community.


Society flaunts sex publicly while claiming it is private. Yet the truth is that sex is a private act with immensely powerful public impact.  Passover reminds us that how a country treats sex and family impacts every aspect of its existence.  Mishandling this volatile area can jeopardize a nation’s vitality, economy, and culture. The same is true within families.  There is a wise and Biblical way to teach the next generation about sex and family, and many wrong ways.  Families thrive when it is done correctly and are imperiled when it isn’t.  Pretending that sex is nobody’s business can wreak havoc.



Truly “Grate”ful

March 9th, 2010 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

Just over a year ago, on the day after Thanksgiving 2008, a fisherman in East Texas’ Lake Sam Rayburn pulled in an 8 lb bass. Inside it, he found a beautiful blue-stoned class ring engraved with the name of its owner, Joe Richardson. Through the Internet, the fisherman located Joe who had lost the ring 21 years earlier while out fishing just two weeks after his 1987 graduation from Universal Technical Institute in Houston. His mom had bought it for about $200 and was not pleased when it went missing.

My ring story isn’t quite as dramatic.

This past summer, my daughter Tamara and I were in the kitchen when I removed my rings in preparation for baking. We both watched in horror as my engagement ring rolled off the counter, bounced along the floor and dropped into the hot air grate.

If this was a shot I was trying to make, I don’t think I could have managed it, but there we were, staring at the floor hoping that the ring would bounce back up. No such luck.

Whatever activity we had planned was immediately cancelled. We lifted the grate and took turns reaching into the venting trying to feel the ring. When that brought no results we stuck masking tape on the end of a broom and fished around, bringing up quite a bit of lint but unfortunately no ring. Our third attempt had us placing pantyhose over the vacuum cleaner wand in an attempt to suck up the ring. By the end of this try we had a very clean heating vent but still no ring.

Thinking that perhaps our eyes had tricked us, we thoroughly swept the kitchen in case the ring had hit the grate but rolled elsewhere. No luck.

A few weeks later, Tamara left for a year’s study in Jerusalem and the months passed with my husband and me occasionally saying, “We really should call the insurance company,” but never doing so. To tell you the truth, I don’t think my husband ever really believe the ring went through the vent and so he didn’t know what to say to the insurance people. He knew that Tamara and I thought we had seen what we said we saw, but his imagination just couldn’t wrap itself around the physical realities that had to coalesce for the ring to have actually fallen through the grate.

Furthermore, the ring’s financial value is hugely exceeded by the sentimental value. And while I admit to an emotional twinge when the ring was out of bounds with no recovery in sight, it actually seemed pretty unimportant. Contrary to Hollywood norms we got engaged without a ring and in fact it only came into being because my future mother-in-law disassembled a brooch of hers and lovingly offered three small stones to her son. At the time I accepted the ring it was a token of promised affection and commitment; over thirty years later tokens are nice but blessedly redundant. The proof has been in the daily pudding.

Then, about a week ago my husband heard an ad on the radio for a business that cleans out the crawl space under houses. He called the company, related our tale and asked the person who answered the phone if he had any ideas. This person went the extra mile.  Although his company couldn’t help us, he recommended another company that specializes in cleaning hot-air ducting. The owner of the company himself answered the phone. It turned out that Jack was a long time radio fan of my husband’s and he offered to come over and see what he could do.

This past Friday this kind man drove up, taking time from his work day to poke around underneath our house. He found my ring. It had not only gone through the grate but had then rolled quite a way down the hot air ducting.

The word “grate”ful has taken on a whole new meaning.


Flower Fraud

March 2nd, 2010 Posted by Susan's Musings No Comment yet

A few weeks ago, some delightful Shabbat guests presented us with a simple but striking flower arrangement. Six yellow roses stood in a long, narrow vase, while colored stones nestled on the bottom. On my own, I would not have thought of arraying roses in such a way, but I did see that I could, more or less, duplicate the look.

This past week, using the same vase, I did so. We happened to have a number of out of town guests, each of whom was meeting us for the first time. This put me in the uncomfortable position of accepting compliments on artistic talents that I do not possess. When I deflected the praise with an explanation, I simply sounded artistic and modest.

In the grand scheme of things, this was unimportant. After all, none of our guests are going to hire me to do the floral arrangements for their daughters’ weddings based on their visit to our house. In fact, they probably forgot about the flowers by the time they finished dinner. But I was left with a reminder of how frequently we categorize people based on first impressions that lodge stubbornly in our minds.

Paradoxically, “first impressions” of the people with whom we are closest can form over years rather than instantaneously. For instance, we might pigeonhole two of our children as the shy one and the one who loves the limelight, or perhaps the studious one and the athlete. It’s almost impossible to separate label-fulfilling prophecy from what might have been had we treated behavior at a certain age as simply that – behavior at a certain age.

My second daughter, Rena, communicated quite well with facial expressions and hand motions as a toddler. However, she shunned verbal communication until way beyond the “normal” window. Two years later, we nicknamed her Chatty Cathy when we couldn’t get her to be quiet. Instead of learning from that experience not to stereotype, a few years later when Rena wasn’t thriving in school, I jumped to the conclusion that while she was a lovely child, she simply wasn’t terribly bright. While this assumption serendipitously introduced me to the wonderful world of homeschooling and as such was a blessing to our family, I discovered that it was totally erroneous. Rena was perfectly intelligent. She and the classroom – at that early age – simply weren’t a good match.

When I was pregnant with our next daughter, Rachelle, she kicked so hard that I was often propelled forward a few steps or woken up in the night. Since I was unaware of the baby’s sex, I used to joke that while the baby might be a girl, it certainly wasn’t a lady. Rachelle’s lively behavior in her early years and disinterest in the finer arts of embroidery, sewing and cooking, did nothing to dispel that conclusion.

This week, Rena and Rachelle, along with their respective husbands, Yoni and Zev, celebrate wedding anniversaries. (My husband calls all four of our sons-in-law, along with our son, Ari, “The Great Nobleman” and considers them to be far better sons than he deserves.) Rena and Rachelle as adults are quite distant from the childhood first impressions. Rena’s conversation is interesting and intelligent while being neither too loquacious nor too taciturn. Rachelle is a charming and sophisticated hostess whose Shabbat table is laden with plentiful and delicious food. Had I only known how wonderfully they would grow up, I could have saved myself many nights of worry.

Flowers may be arranged in different ways, but a rose remains a rose and a tulip remains a tulip. Fortunately for us, people grow and change, which means that first impressions can be just as wrong as they are powerful.

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