Posts by Rabbi Daniel Lapin

Blind as a….Cardiologist?

November 14th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 22 comments

My earliest recollection of seeing a man knowledgeable in one specialty making foolish pronouncements in another area was South African heart-transplant pioneer, Dr. Christiaan Barnard.  It was March, 1969, and his successful transplant of a healthy heart into middle-aged South African grocer, Louis Washkansky, 15 months earlier had transformed Barnard into an international celebrity.

At a charity event in Johannesburg one evening, I watched the handsome superstar beguile a bevy of socialites hovering around him.  I edged closer hoping to hear more about his historic medical procedure.  Instead, what I heard was Dr. Barnard explaining why the Americans’ race to land a man on the moon was doomed.  Then, in response to a question from a pretty young thing, he launched into a lesson on how to maintain a long and happy marriage.  His audience hung on his every word and as a young guy with very limited life experience, I can’t claim that I felt any particular skepticism.

Only a few months later, two events taught me caution about pontificating outside your area of expertise.  Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and Christiaan Barnard and Aletta, his wife of 20 years, divorced. I decided that although his medical expertise was epic, his knowledge of space travel and marriage left much to be desired. This idea was reinforced when Dr. Barnard’s second and third marriages each lasted 12 years.

It is easy for even remarkable human beings possessing enormous, but specialized knowledge, to be blind in other areas.

This truism returned to me the other day while reading that one of the founders of Paypal and the force behind the remarkable Tesla automobile, Elon Musk, had made a completely ridiculous announcement.  During a speech to the nation’s governors, he insisted that the biggest threat facing civilization is artificial intelligence.  Really?  Furthermore, he assured the roomful of politicians that the only way to cope was by vastly increased government regulation.  The way government regulation has improved medicine, education, and Amtrak?

Spiritual blindness is more prevalent and far more dangerous than ophthalmic blindness.

God expects us to make use of existing medical knowledge to heal our physical bodies, so when Scripture discusses maladies, they are usually spiritually based.  For instance, let’s glance at the three instances of blindness in the Bible.

The prophet Eli had sons who were behaving abominably:

Now, Eli had become very old, and he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and that they would lie with the women who congregated at the entrance
of the tent of meeting.

(I Samuel 2:22)

Not surprisingly, it was emotionally untenable for him to accept that his sons and heirs were such failures.  Consequently, he is soon described as ‘blind’.

And it was on that day, that Eli was lying in his place, and his eyes had begun to grow dim; he could not see. 
(I Samuel 3:2)

Another example is Isaac.  His older son, Esau, is a bitter disappointment.  He denigrates the family’s spiritual birthright and marries women who do the same.

And Jacob said, Sell me this day your birthright.  And Esau said….
what use is this birthright to me?
(Genesis 25:31-32)

And Esau was forty years old when he married Judith.the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bosmath the daughter of Elon the Hittite;
and they made life bitter for Isaac and for Rebekah.

(Genesis 26:34-35)

Not surprisingly, it is emotionally painful for him to acknowledge the truth about his son so he too is described as blind.

And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old,
his eyes became dim so he could not see…

(Genesis 27:1)

The only other instance of “natural” Biblical blindness needs a little help from ancient Jewish wisdom.  You’ll remember that after Cain murdered Abel, God imposed punishments.  One strange part of God’s retribution for his crime was to assure Cain:

…the killer of Cain will arise in the 7th generation…
(Genesis 4:15)

I am of course aware that the conventional translation, based on the King James version, reads “…Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold…”   Not only is this not exactly what the Hebrew original says, but as we all know, there is no record of anyone being punished ‘sevenfold’ for killing Cain.

Now, let’s see who is the seventh generation from Cain?  Turns out his name was Tuval-Cain and he was responsible for casting formidable weapons from iron.  (Genesis 4: 17-22).  In a strange verse, his father, Lemech, makes a confession to his two wives.  He admits to having killed a man and a boy and adds a mysterious allusion to Cain dying.  (Genesis 4:23)

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains what happened.  Weapon-obsessed son Tuval-Cain, took his blind father, Lemech, out hunting.  Thinking he’d spotted a wild animal in the bush, he placed a powerful crossbow he had built into his father’s hands and pointed him towards the target.  Lemech fired and with his son guiding him they raced to see their victim.  To Tuval-Cain’s shock, he saw that the ‘prey’ was his legendary ancestor Cain. When Lemech realized what happened, he lashed out in horror and dismay and accidentally killed his son.

Once again, we find blindness linked to a father resisting seeing and acknowledging the truth about his son’s failings.  In this case, a fresh and developing world did not exactly need a weapons-maker.  Like Eli and Isaac, Lemech was blind to Tuval-Cain’s shortcomings.

We can all be quite blind in certain areas particularly if there is any emotion involved.  The emotion can be ego, either a result of our pride in our accomplishments or on account of our emotional involvement with the topic on which we pontificate.

If “blindness” can happen to Lemech, Isaac, and Eli the prophet, and if it can happen to super-achievers like Barnard and Musk, it can also afflict you and me.  Arrogance at our own achievements can bring on blindness as can emotional involvement.  It is hard to keep blindness at bay when people we love (or are infatuated with) are concerned.

It is not hard for an adored celebrity to start believing that he knows everything about everything.  It is not hard for a super-successful entrepreneur with no failures on his resume to think that his mechanical inventions have the power to take over the world.

The Eternal Guide Book assures us that artificial intelligence will impact the world just as the internal combustion engine did when it replaced horses, and just as radio and the Internet did when they arrived.  But a threat to civilization?  Don’t be ridiculous. The best source for everything from marriage secrets to societal threats is not from an oft-married celebrity or an entrepreneur, but from the Manufacturer’s Instruction Manual.  Studying Scripture doesn’t just bring knowledge.  It brings something far more valuable—wisdom.

  *   *   *


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Fight or Fall

November 7th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 12 comments

For how long must you leave a beautiful garden abandoned before it reverts to jungle?  One summer will show the deterioration well under way and within five years it will be hard to discern that any manicured garden was ever tended there.

For how long must you leave a bustling city abandoned before it becomes overgrown ruins?  The Scientific American calculated that within four hundred years the buildings and bridges will fall, the tunnels and subways will collapse and from the air it will be virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding jungle.

Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that we need to be waging a constant battle in order to maintain standards.  Consider these two Biblical discussions regarding the soldier.

In one place we read a sad account of a soldier, after the battle is over, desiring a woman from the enemy camp.  And God says, “Well, I kind of understand you want her, so here’s how you should proceed”.

When you go forth in war against your enemies, and the Lord your God has delivered them into your hands, and you have taken them captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her, that you would have her as your wife; then you shall bring her home to your house….
(Deuteronomy 21:10-12)

We also read a second account describing the elevated and lofty principles demanded from the soldier.

When you go out to make war against your enemies, then keep yourself from every wicked thing.  If there is among you any man, who is not clean…then shall he go out of the camp…You shall have a place also outside the camp, where you shall go out to it [to relieve yourself]  And you shall have a spade among your weapons; and it shall be, when you will relieve yourself outside, you shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover your excrement; for the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to save you, and to give your enemies before you; therefore shall your camp be holy; that he should see no unclean thing in you, and turn away from you.
(Deuteronomy 23:10-15)

This focus on hygiene sends a message that even being in the midst of battle doesn’t grant permission to behave in an animal-like fashion for even the most physical of activities.

How can God demand that men remember that they are not animals even while at war but then accept, after the battle is over, they won’t be able to ignore the pull of a beautiful captive?

While the battle is still raging, maintaining a high level of conduct is part of that struggle. When the battle is over and one ceases the fight, demoralization sets in.  In other words, there is a metaphorical level to this discussion.  Not only are we being taught about actual, real-life military combat, but we are also learning how we human beings work.  As long as we expend effort and demand ever more of ourselves, we thrive.  When we quit the fight and tell ourselves that it is time to relax, we often find ourselves in moral peril.

Military leaders know that their troops are most vulnerable to a decline in morale once the battle or the rigorous training is over.  Many of us have experienced behaving in a way on vacation that we would not condone while in the middle of our regular lives where we fight for family and livelihood on a daily basis.

The idea is best captured by King Solomon when he wrote:

To the wise the way of life leads upward, that he may depart from doom below.
(Proverbs 15:24)

In other words, the wise always keeps climbing upwards. That is the only way to avoid the alternative, which is decline and deterioration.

Whether we have a garden, a city, a family or a business project, we are either improving it or it is deteriorating.  If we stop gardening, the garden doesn’t retain its splendor.  Instead it begins its decline toward jungle the very moment we cease the struggle.  That is how the world REALLY works.

The descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael have very different views of life, battle and death. This Biblical contrast still exists today, with Scriptural prophecy linking the brothers to events that took place in Germany during the Nazi period, in America on 9/11 and others yet to come. Delve into the verses that reveal the core of the conflict in our audio CD set Clash of Destiny: Decoding the Secrets of Israel and Islam. Both the MP3 and physical versions are on sale right now.

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Compassion Confusion

October 30th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 20 comments

Have you ever endured the ugliness of having to step cautiously past a comatose vagrant and his smelly bundles blocking the entry to a store you’re trying to patronize?  I know what you’re thinking. “Our rabbi lacks mercy for the homeless,” right?

Have you ever visited a home where the parents are meticulously raising monstrous little brats by bribing them for basic compliance?  Did you have to stop yourself from rolling your eyes as mom and dad yielded to a toddler’s terrible tantrum?  Are you thinking that your rabbi lacks kind feelings for children?

Many employers fail to demand adequate performance from certain classes of employees thereby imposing additional pressures on other employees who are not deemed worthy of special compassion.  Even in education, many grades and admissions are not bestowed impartially but on the basis of compassion.


Don’t Blame Me

October 24th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 8 comments

On June 4, 1944, recognizing how easily D-Day could fail, Gen. Eisenhower prepared the following:

“Our landings…have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold… The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

As a family member or business professional, learning to accept responsibility is profoundly valuable.  Learn to say, “I messed up and I accept all consequences.” The character strength needed for this is increasingly rare and we need to acquire it ourselves before we can hope to influence others.

Hebrew reveals one aspect of owning one’s actions. Referring to Leah and Rachel’s sibling relationship in Genesis 29, two words are used, GDoLah and K’TaNah, older and younger. Earlier, when Lot and his daughters flee the destruction of Sodom, we encountered two other words BeCHiRah – firstborn, and TZeiRah – younger (19:31).   In chapter 19 we find a clustering of the root letters TZ-R.  Lot escapes to the city of TZoaR whose name occurs six times in this chapter. The associated word TZeiRah — younger— appears four times.  In just these few verses, the TZ-R root is used ten times; more than in the rest of Genesis all together.  Word clustering is one of the ways that ancient Jewish wisdom unpacks Scripture’s deeper meaning.


The Birds, the Beasts and Me

October 17th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 6 comments

Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People appeared years before Mark Zuckerberg elevated the importance of acquiring friends on Facebook.  Yet, most healthy people realize that collecting “friends” only to further your own interests or in a fake world has nothing in common with establishing authentic relationships.

Let’s see if we can get an insight into real relationships through an unexpected Biblical connection:

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field
every bird of the air and brought them to Adam
to see what he would call them…
(Genesis 2:19)

God brought Adam two categories of creatures (i) every beast of the field; (ii) every bird of the air.


Good Gracious, You’re Pregnant!

October 9th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 7 comments

“Just five more minutes,” “One more chapter,” “I guess I can stay a little longer.” The temptation to stretch out an enjoyable activity just a little bit more is one to which we can all relate.

After a month of reveling in God’s closeness, culminating with the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), the Jewish people felt the same way. In response, God granted them an extra holy day, Simhat Torah, that begins as Sukkot ebbs away (starting this year Wednesday night, Oct. 11). Literally translated as “The Joy of the Torah,” it is on this day that we conclude and begin anew the annual cycle of reading the Five Books of Moses.

That makes this week a particularly apt time to highlight the idea that the first time in Genesis that a specific letter is used to start a word, that word provides a key to the inner meaning of that initial letter.


What Happened In Vegas Did Not Stay in Vegas

October 4th, 2017 Posted by AAJC Happenings, On Our Mind 13 comments

What happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. Its pulsating shock waves raced out across the country, whiplashing into every American heart. The very thought of that merciless rain of hot lead thudding into the flesh of unknowing innocents just elicits sad gasps of incredulous agony.

It only took a few hours for the predictable flood of media and political responses. Many were the standard clichés mentioning prayers, thoughts, shock and horror. Others sought explanations for this massacre or explored the means to prevent similar events from ever happening again.

We human beings are created with both head and heart. This means we should always respond to circumstances both intellectually and emotionally, but never both at the same time and never confusing head and heart.


L’Chaim: To Life – and Death

October 2nd, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 6 comments

“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life,” said Steve Jobs during his 2005 Stanford Commencement address.  This phrase aptly describes one of the themes underlying the most joyous Biblical festival, Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).

Before beginning the Passover seder meal, which falls half a year distant from Sukkot, we extend an invitation to those who are hungry to join us.  However, before the Sukkot meal,  we invite seven dead people to join us; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.  Sounds a little like Halloween dinner at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion doesn’t it?

Yes, Sukkot, which is set by an exquisitely precise lunar calendar, always occurs close to Halloween.  That time of the year as the leaves die and the days get colder and shorter, can feel quite lifeless.  Hence Halloween’s frivolous mocking of death.  Sukkot’s association with death couldn’t be more different.


Who Me?

September 25th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 9 comments

Which word connects these five sentences?

  • The world of baseball went wild in the spring of 1974 when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.
  • It was at the height of the hurricane when three men and a woman, crewing the Coast Guard Sikorsky Jayhawk helicopter, took off hoping to home in on the radio distress beacon that had been deployed by the stricken cargo ship.
  • There were no signs of trouble the day that newlyweds, Mary and Allen moved into their new home.
  • Almost everyone knows that in sports, the home team enjoys an advantage but nobody knows exactly why.
  • China prices its car exports far lower than they do at home.

In each sentence, the word “home” has a slightly different meaning but with a little thought one can see how these five different applications might be connected.  But there is little point in the exercise.


It’s a Holy Day; Let’s Eat

September 19th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 7 comments

A four-week window of Jewish holy days is approaching. I understand why we will spend more time in synagogue than usual. However, we will also spend more time at the dining room table. This isn’t a concession to human frailty; it is recognition of human greatness.

Ever since the start of our lives as babes suckling at our mothers’ breasts, eating provides us with not one, but two benefits.  They are (i) physical nourishment and sustenance, and (ii) spiritual and emotional sustenance.  The link between eating and emotion is well studied.  Many of us have ‘comfort foods.’  Gloom and uncertainty are often banished by a meal that fills our heart as well as our stomach.

Have you ever wondered why so many young people nowadays suffer from eating disorders that were virtually unknown a generation or two ago?  Surely the answer is the spiritual desert in which so many young people live.  Eating disorders are more often treated by a psychologist than by a nutritionist because there is a powerful spiritual component to eating. In other words, food and faith go together.