Posts in Thought Tools

Take to the Desert

January 25th, 2021 Posted by Thought Tools 2 comments

Over the past year, many businesses have been forced to switch directions in order to survive. Restaurant owners stopped prioritizing friendly and competent wait staff in favor of finding efficient web technology and delivery drivers. As more locations required masks, skin care and eye makeup took precedence over lipstick, causing cosmetic companies to revamp their lines. 

Even without the current upheaval, changing direction is a feature of life.  Parents unhappy with their children’s school sometimes move to another neighborhood.  A husband and wife might switch directions to escape the unhealthy rut into which their marriage has fallen. And, of course, countries change leaders in ways that dramatically change the nation’s course. 

Switching directions can destroy or save a floundering firm, a failing family, or a nation. Nevertheless, conceiving of the new path is incredibly difficult and fraught with peril.  Inertia tends to make us think the current way is the only way.  How do we escape these shackles and open up limitless possibilities?

The fourth book of the Torah, opens with these words:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai…
(Numbers 1:1)

After setting the scene “in the desert of Sinai” the book continues with a detailed census of the Israelites followed by an equally detailed description of how the Israelite campsite must be laid out.

Isn’t it odd that the Children of Israel are to be counted when the Torah records God’s promises to Abraham  (Genesis 15:5 and 22:17)  and to Jacob (Genesis 32:13) that their descendants will be too numerous to count?

Second, why is so much time spent arranging the camp site when, at this point in the narrative, they are heading directly for the Promised Land?  (Numbers 10:29) The decree of spending forty years in the desert hasn’t happened yet.  Why worry about a few weeks of camping details until they reach Israel?  

Ancient Jewish wisdom reveals how both the counting and the camp layout were crucial preparations for the permanent settlement of the Land of Israel and the future of the Jewish people.

The Hebrew name for Numbers is Bamidbar, meaning “in the desert.”  However, ancient Jewish wisdom offers a second name for the book, “Sefer haPekudim.” This can translate as “The Book of Numbers,” but Pekudim also means appointments, positions, purposes, or assignments, or the “Book of Assignments.”

It follows that the numbering and positioning in the first two chapters of Bamidbar share a function, namely establishing everyone’s physical position in the community as well as everyone’s purpose or assignment. Switching direction from their earlier lives in slavery was essential if they were to succeed as a nation.

Determining how all the elements in the organization would dovetail is best accomplished in a desert!

In ancient Jewish wisdom a desert does not suggest a physical place like the Sahara, Kalahari or Mojave Deserts. In Hebrew, “midbar” or desert means barren emptiness.  No sight of wildlife, no sounds of birds, nothing growing. Just the people and God. 

This desert is a metaphor for a place of no distractions, no pre-formatted reality, and no life pattern into which the visitor must fit.  It also shares a root with the Hebrew word for “speech.” It is the place open to almost anything and where you can hear yourself and others speak of ideas in a safe environment. It is also the place, where you need to format and organize your plans, just as random words are useless but when gathered together purposefully they possess unlimited power. 

Today, in our busy lives so often in need of realignment, taking time to be alone (without even having any technology within reach) is vitally important. 

In other words, when having to develop a new paradigm for your family or your business, get yourself into a desert.  Strip away all structure and let your imagination soar. It is a ‘place’ increasingly difficult to find in today’s world, and increasingly necessary to access.

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Afraid? Who, Me?

January 12th, 2021 Posted by Thought Tools 36 comments

Unexpected political developments can be scary.  Over the past year, Americans have been barraged by disturbing events and images on an almost daily basis. 

It was really scary for people living comfortably and securely in England when they awoke on Wednesday morning, December 5th, 1914. A nation that hadn’t seen rationing or military conscription in living memory was at war with Germany.  Many people stayed home that day in sheer panic about what was to come.

It was soon after lunch on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, that Americans in New York and Washington discovered that their Pacific naval base in Hawaii had been bombed by Japanese aircraft.  People were rightly frightened by the unknown terrors that lay ahead.  For almost an entire day, most people just sat at their radios.

On Tuesday morning, September 11th, 2001 Americans were glued to their television sets in uncomprehending numbness as they watched the Twin Towers fall.  Like most frightened people, they remained passively watching the attacks again and again as news outlets replayed the frightening footage.

Well, of course once you allow fear to grip you (which is exactly what it does – hence the figure of speech, “he was gripped by fear”) you discover that there is no short- age of things to feel frightened about. Your health, your finances, your children, earthquakes, spiders – I’d better stop right there! I certainly don’t mean to get you started now. But what is one to do when feeling utterly demoralized by fear? 

To find a clue, I high tailed it to the Bible and found this verse: 

Be not afraid of sudden fear. 
(Proverbs 3:25) 

In Hebrew, the word “fear”, PaCHaD, is made up of three letters and looks like this (remember: Hebrew reads right to left): 

פ ח ד

In Hebrew, many important words read forwards and backwards with opposite meanings in each direction.

Thus, looking at PaCHaD backwards is important – and we find the word DaCHaF. 

No, you haven’t caught me in a mistake. In Hebrew the letters P and F are the same and as languages evolved this left its stamp as you can see by looking at the word “fish”, which derives from the same word as the astrological sign “Pisces.” Just change the P of Pisces into an F, and you’ll see how this works. 

Back to DaCHaF – what does it mean? It means to propel or to push forward. We can see it used in the Bible here: 

And Haman was propelled into his house. 
(Esther 6:12) 

The word used for propelled is DaCHaF. Well, if DaCHaF means propelled, then not surprisingly, its reverse, PaCHaD which we know means fear, also must mean restrain, handicap, keep back.  So being paralyzed with fear is exactly what fear does and so it makes sense that the opposite of fear is advancing forward. 

Isn’t that precisely what fear does to us? Fear freezes us in place. Ever read anything like this? “He stood rooted to the spot with fear” or “paralyzed by panic.” It is therefore obvious that ancient Jewish wisdom’s advice when gripped by fear is: start moving! Overcome the tendency of fear to suppress action. Deliver yourself from the trance of passivity. 

Yes, but how? Again, a Biblical clue: In Exodus 14, the Israelites, just out of Egypt are transfixed by terror. The ocean stretches out in front of them and the mighty Egyptian army rapidly approaches from the rear. Trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, one might say: 

…they were utterly terrified and they cried out to God. 
(Exodus 14:10)

Their fear completely dominated them. 

God’s response was not to split the Red Sea as you might have thought. It was the momentous lesson you and I can learn from verse 15: 

And the Lord said to Moses, “What are calling to me for?
Direct the Israelites to march forward! 

What do you mean? Into the ocean? Yes! And it wasn’t until Israel marched forward into the water that God told Moses to initiate the miracle of splitting the Red Sea. Verse 22 soon confirms the sequence of events. The Israelites went into the midst of the sea, and only thereafter come the words: on dry land. 

They activated their own miracle and contributed to their own deliverance by conquering fear generated inertia. If you want your own Red Sea to split, you’d better “March Forward.” Do not retreat–in that direction lies your personal equivalent of the Egyptian army. But above all, don’t become paralyzed and passive. March Forward. 

Regardless of what geopolitical, epidemiological, or economic crisis is terrifying you, do not allow it to immobilize you.  March forward and take care of your essentials; your family, your finances, your faith, your fitness and your friendships. 

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Wonder Bread

January 4th, 2021 Posted by Thought Tools 5 comments

I am a fan of population growth. To survive and thrive, both societies and economies need children brought into the world and raised properly. Knowing this, you might expect me to sympathize with a request for advice that I received from an individual starting a non-profit educational organization created to encourage large families. While I do appreciate his goal, I found one striking omission in his message. Nowhere did he discuss the importance of earning a living and managing finances while raising these families.  

As regular Thought Tool readers have learned, the Five Books of Moses are divided into 54 portions or sedras, each with its own name and theme.  (In Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s Recommended Bible, the start and end of each sedra is clearly marked.)  Which one would you guess contains the most frequent usage of the word ‘bread’? (Yes, we are still discussing the same topic!)

Would it perhaps be Bo*, the third sedra in the Book of Exodus, containing extensive instructions about eating unleavened ‘bread’ or matzoh on Passover?  Wrong!

Okay, how about Beshalach*? The fourth sedra in Exodus does describe ‘bread from heaven’ or Manna. But you would be wrong again.

Terumah*, the seventh sedra of Exodus, mentions bread several times in the context of the Tabernacle table upon which the bread was displayed.  It too is not the correct guess.

It turns out that Emor*, the eighth sedra in the Book of Leviticus contains no fewer than fourteen mentions of bread, making it an easy winner.  Yet the theme of this sedra seems to have little to do with bread.  It is chiefly about developing and maintaining closeness to God; first by means of purity (Leviticus 21 & 22), then festivals (Leviticus 23), and finally by rule of law (Leviticus 24).

To understand why bread is so central to maintaining closeness to God, we need to remember what bread means in Scripture.

He who works his land will have enough bread*…
(Proverbs 12:11)

In Scripture “bread” means money just as it does in colloquial slang: “Got any bread?” “Can you lend me some dough?”

Similarly, ‘field’ means the work you do to obtain your bread.  To this day, when inquiring about professional activity, people ask one another, “What field are you in?”

Prepare externally your work, and make it fit for yourself in the field;
afterwards, build your house.
(Proverbs 24:27)

Acquire from outside yourself a means to earn a living.  In other words, find out what people around you need that you can supply. Once your field is producing, get married (build your house).

A lightweight who can afford servants is better
than one who honors himself but lacks bread
(Proverbs 12:9)

This is amazing! It’s better to have enough bread to pay for the services you need in life and be considered a lightweight by some, rather than thinking a great deal of yourself but being poor.

Again and again in the Bible, the word bread plugs us into reality.  Bread/money reminds us to keep our feet on the ground.  Unless you are in the fraud and robbery business or doing something immoral, making money means you are serving other people as well as helping yourself.

Regardless of what drives you, forgetting finances is sheer folly.  By repeatedly mentioning bread, Emor teaches that being deeply dedicated to getting close to God means being rooted in the reality He created. That is a world in which money allows us to live with dignity, follow His commandments and form positive relationships with many other people. It is what allows us to provide shelter, food, medical care and clothing for our families. Our children do not need luxuries and we do them a disservice by providing too many material goods, but we are responsible for supporting those we bring into this world.

Faith is not a justification for stressful poverty. Articles that discourage having children because “experts” reveal how much it costs to raise a child are usually foolish and biased. Ignoring the importance of establishing a livelihood that allows one to provide for a large family similarly presents only part of a picture. God does not want His children to make their love for Him, including His commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” a refuge from reality, but rather a part of the total vision.

References in our recommended Bible:

*Bo – p. 190, in the margin, 2 lines from the bottom (see English transliteration on p. 191, 3 lines from the bottom).

*Beshalach – p. 204, in the margin around ⅓ of the way down the page (see English transliteration on p. 205, spelled Beshallah.)

*Terumah – p. 238, in the margin around ⅔  of the way down the page (see English transliteration on p. 239, spelled Teruma).

*Emor – p. 368, in the margin around ¾ of the way down the page (see English transliteration on p. 369.)*bread = לחם, for example, p.1992, 8 lines from the bottom, last word on the line.

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The Snake that Roared

December 28th, 2020 Posted by Thought Tools 19 comments

We knew a frustrated father whose 20-year-old son was enrolled for the fourth year in some go-nowhere-course at a local college while emerging from his room only for the occasional meal. The manner he displayed towards his parents was typical of that displayed by those living on charity towards their benefactors, which is to say generally sullen and resentful.  The many long and loud conversations during which dad tried to motivate his son were about as productive as that college course, “Women, Culture, and Society” in which Sonny Boy was enrolled. 

After some family coaching sessions with us, during which we not only advised dad what to do but helped him find the strength and determination to do the necessary,  Sonny Boy returned home one night to find that his key did not work on the front door.  He circled to the rear of the house in order to find an open door or window, but to no avail.   Regardless of the late hour, he tried to phone his parents. There was no response but he did find a text on his phone from his father. 

It detailed the monthly rent that would henceforth be charged, a separate fee for meals, and at what times of the day the father would be available to the son for a phone conversation.  The next three months went by painfully for both parents and son, but thereafter an almost magical transformation occurred.  The son found a job in which he excelled, the silly college course long forgotten. He discovered a new respect for his parents and their relationship became loving.   

Sometimes, talk eventually becomes counterproductive. Only action helps. Have you ever  found yourself frustrated by endless conversation while you knew that the time for critical action was passing?  Here is your roadmap to transformation.

Genesis chapter 46 enumerates Jacob’s children and grandchildren by name, arriving at a total of seventy souls who came to Egypt.  All is as expected until we arrive at Jacob’s fifth son, Dan.

Dan’s sons: Chushim.
(Genesis 46:23)

That’s right, Dan’s “sons” suggests a plural, yet there is only one—Chushim*.  Strangely, his name ends in the manner that masculine plural nouns end in Hebrew—IM.  So yeladIM means boys; sefarIM means books, and susIM* means horses.  Though Dan only has one son, ChushIM, there is an important hint in the ending of his name that he is actually plural—two people.

We see another unmistakable sign of  a duality in the tribe of Dan:

When blessing his sons, Jacob compares Dan to a snake:

Dan will be a serpent on the highway, a viper by the path…
(Genesis 49:17)

By the end of Deuteronomy, Moses compares Dan to a lion:

…Dan is a lion cub…
(Deuteronomy 33:22)

From snake to lion is quite a leap.  It certainly seems that Dan has undergone major transformation in the few centuries separating the two verses.  In fact he is assigned a prestigious and protective post north of the Tabernacle during the desert journey. (Numbers 2:25)

What started this transformation? Ancient Jewish wisdom describes a rather strange story. When Jacob’s sons arrived at the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father (Genesis 50:13), their Uncle Esau confronted them saying, “That burial plot belongs to me.”  The stunned sons reminded Esau that he sold his inheritance to Jacob, but he refused to give ground. The brothers then dispatched Naftali, the swiftest runner,  back to Egypt to fetch the contract to prove that the plot indeed belonged to Jacob. Meanwhile they waited.

Chushim, the son of Dan, was deaf and did not hear the entire discussion.  When he asked, “What’s the delay?” his uncles explained how Esau was holding up the burial. This outraged Chushim. “Must my grandfather lie in disgrace until Naftali returns?” he yelled.  He immediately jumped up to strike Esau, killing him.  Jacob was then buried.  

What caused Chushim to have such an instantaneous and strong reaction?

Lengthy, protracted  conversation and negotiation can eventually start having  a numbing effect.  It can gradually erode the certainty of one’s position.  One begins to “understand” the other side.  Think of how many today have begun to “understand” those who claim that being born white is proof of being privileged.

By contrast, the deaf Chushim who heard none of the interaction with Esau knew only what he saw, namely that, “Grandpa lies in disgrace.”  He recognized Esau’s intent for what it truly was—a desire to remove Jacob and his descendants from continuing the heritage of Abraham and Isaac.  The delay was for the sole purpose of demeaning Grandfather Jacob rather than a valid confusion over a contract.

We are certainly not meant to model our behavior exactly on that of Chushim. However, those of us with ambition to improve our lives can learn from him. Sometimes we need to transform ourselves radically from snakes to lions as it were.  Such transformation is best brought about through action rather than talking, arguing, organizing or coordinating.  Often we can get ourselves out of the rut by a convulsive leap rather than by endlessly discussing detailed drawings and descriptions of the obstacles in our path.  Chushim really was two people—Chushim the First before transformation and Chushim the Second thereafter.

Are you ready for action? As 2021 begins, get off on the right foot with Chart Your Course: 52 Weekly Journaling Challenges with Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin. On sale now, this book guides you to make the most of every day. 

* Recommended Bible references:
Horses: SusIM – סוסים. p. 1826 – 6th line from the bottom – 2nd to the last word. The ב at the beginning of the word means ‘with.’
Dan’s son, ChushIM: חשים – p. 146, 15th line, last word

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Your Seven Solutions to Your Giant Problem

December 22nd, 2020 Posted by Thought Tools 6 comments

Please don’t be freaked out that I know this about your life.  Right now, there is an action you can take, some specific thing you can do, some commitment or decision you can make that will result in a huge improvement in your family life, your business life, your social life or your health. And I know this about you because it is true for my life also.  In fact, it is true for everyone.

So why have you been procrastinating?  I know the answer to that too.  We know what to do but we don’t do it, and the reason is usually fear.  We fear failure, we fear success, we fear change, we fear embarrassment, we fear commitment and so much more.  It started early in our lives.

“Leave the light on please,” says the child, “I’m scared of the dark.”  Perhaps the most common emotion expressed by little children is fear.  Long before they become comfortable articulating emotions like happiness, excitement, and sadness, small children speak of fear.

Though we speak of it less as we grow up, we feel it just as acutely.  Just ask the adult who has been invited to give a speech before a large gathering.  People fear approaching strangers and they fear harmless insects.

To be sure, there is a healthy fear that keeps us from doing dumb and dangerous things, but what about the fears we all have for activities with utterly harmless repercussions?  I don’t know what your particular fears and phobias are, but I’m sure you have them.  I know I do.

It’s worthwhile overcoming the fears that hold us back.  Though about 10,000 books on dealing with fears and phobias have been published, I find that I need only one book. 

Let’s glance at Deuteronomy, the book recited by Moses during the last thirty-six days of his life as he attempted to strengthen Israel and help them overcome their own fears of the next phase of their national development—conquering the Promised Land.

The book opens with the first verse providing geographic coordinates describing where this happened.

These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan…
(Deuteronomy 1:1)

Verses 2 and 3 provide time coordinates describing exactly when this all happened.

It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb…And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month…
(Deuteronomy 1:2-3)

And in a perfectly logical sequel, the fifth verse reads:

On this side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to explain this Torah, saying. 
(Deuteronomy 1:5)

However, just before verse 5, the narrative is interrupted in a most perplexing way:

After he killed Sichon the king of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon, and Og the king of Bashan, who lived at Ashtaroth Edrei.
(Deuteronomy 1:4)

Huh?  What has this got to do with anything?  Moses did many marvelous feats and vanquished many enemies along the way during the previous forty years in the desert.  Why interrupt the narrative with verse 4 mentioning just these two obscure rascals, Sichon and Og?

Well, it turns out that Sichon and Og are what are described as giants.

Og’s stature, as one of the refaim group of giants is colorfully described in Deuteronomy 3:11.  In fact, there are seven nouns used in the Five Books of Moses to describe giants: refaim, eymim, giborim, zamzumim, anakim, avim, nefilim.  And here is the strangest thing.  Far from being somewhat uniformly distributed throughout the Tanach, they are heavily concentrated in the book of Deuteronomy.  Though briefly alluded to in some of the other books such as Genesis, and Joshua, no book of the Bible contains anywhere near the number of references to giants as the book of Deuteronomy.

Do these seven words really allude to massive men of grotesque proportions? Are they what we imagine Goliath to have been?  Well, strangely enough, not one of these terms is used in describing the life and death of Goliath in I Samuel 17.  We are told he stood over six cubits tall, but he is never referred to as a giant.

While it is adequate to translate these seven words as ‘giant’ for purposes of the narrative, Ancient Jewish wisdom wants us to derive valuable life lessons from Scripture, not merely a narrative, so, therefore, reserves these seven terms for giants to mean specifically fears that terrify and paralyze us.  That is why Goliath, the most famous of giants; is never referred to in terms of refaim, eymim, giborim, zamzumim, anakim, avim, or nefilim.  These seven terms are reserved for fears frightening enough to freeze us in stationary poses.

The Book of Deuteronomy records Moses’ final speech to his people and he repeatedly uses these seven terms for giants, or more accurately paralyzing fears, in order to prepare Israel for the tough times they will face as a newly free and independent nation.   Moses repeatedly mentions the ‘giants’ reminding Israel in his fourth sentence that he already slew two of the monsters.  He describes how he confronted them and defeated them. Then he assures Israel that they too will be able to overcome these representations of all the paralyzing phobias they are yet to encounter.

Why does Scripture need seven different words for monster fears? Are there seven varieties of paralyzing phobias?  Not exactly; every fear is really a fear of loss. It could be loss of life, loss of money, loss of loved people, loss of loved things, loss of health and many other potential losses.  When we fear, it is always a loss that we fear.  In Hebrew numerology, the number seven always refers to natural completion.  We see this in days of the week, colors of the rainbow, notes of the Do-Re-Mi scale, and other examples.  Even the Hebrew word for seven, SHeVA* also spells out the word for full satisfaction.  When we are complete with no loss, we could be said to be in a state of SHeVA*, a state of satisfaction and a state of seven.

Our worst fears involve the loss of, well, everything.  We would lose our satisfaction or our state of seven. Each aspect of the ‘sevenness’ of satisfaction is removed separately by another aspect of fear, hence seven separate views of terror.

The procrastinators among us must immerse ourselves in a fear detoxification program where we learn that, like giants, fears can be conquered.

*See examples in our recommended Bible:
SHeVa = seven = שבע.  See Genesis 41:29, p. 126, 4 lines from the bottom, 6th word from the right. 
SeVa = satisfied, plenty = שבע.  See Genesis 41:29, p. 126, 4 lines from the bottom, 9th word from the right.

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Fire Up the Blender

December 14th, 2020 Posted by Thought Tools 4 comments

Successful living often involves blending two incompatibles.  For instance, raising great children means parenting with the perfect mix of tough, firm discipline and gentle, yielding compassion.  In running a business, entrepreneurs must exquisitely blend ‘the customer is always right’ with ‘some customers are not worth having.’  In courting, smart men and women combine ‘you’re the only one for me’ with recognizing that until the wedding, other options do exist.

Living without this ability to combine opposites is seldom successful.  Such parents run the risk of creating either brats or brutes. Such a suitor can endlessly submit to an excessively demanding and unsuitable marriage partner.  Such a storekeeper ends up with a collection of customers who spend very little and complain a great deal or with no customers at all.

Chanukah, whose fifth day starts tonight, emphasizes one of the most crucial of these blends—that between body and soul, between living in the physical world and also in the spiritual one.

In ancient Jewish wisdom, Greek culture represents a materialistic view of reality and is viewed as the source for a physical world view in which only those things that can be seen and touched have value.

One might suppose that the opposing view is that only spirituality matters.  However, that is not correct.  God gave Israel one of the great secrets of life—the importance of striking a balance between physical and spiritual and between body and soul.  The tension between the world views of Israel and Greece is the central theme of Chanukah.

How one feels about whether we live only in a materialistic world or whether we live in a world of both physical and spiritual will greatly influence the decisions we make in running our lives. For that reason, understanding the Greece/Israel tension is vital for successful living.

The Torah term for Greece is Yavan.  It appears many times throughout Scripture and always hints at a mistaken materialistic view of reality. It is first found early in the tenth chapter of Genesis*.  The word looks like this:


The word’s graphical appearance, three vertical columns of different lengths, suggests the famous columns that are the most enduring relic of ancient Greece.  What is more, if one slightly varies the pronunciation of the three letters that comprise the Hebrew word YaVaN, what emerges is ION, the origin of Ionia, the ancient name for Greece.

The word Zion captures the idealistic vision of God’s plan and purpose for us.

…for from Zion** shall go forth the Torah and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
(Isaiah 2:3)

The word Zion looks like this:


It is created by placing the letter Tsadi in front of the Hebrew word for Greece, YaVaN.

All Hebrew letters have meanings and that of Tsadi is a saintly human being.  Putting all this together reveals that the idealistic vision of Zion depends upon blending the spiritual saintliness of the Tsadi with the worldliness of Yavan.

While it is true that in the afterlife we shall be involved only in the spiritual, in this world, God intends us to successfully blend the physical and the spiritual.  We reflect this ideal on Chanukah by kindling our menorahs, creating a special light whose purpose is to shine as a beacon, blending physical and spiritual.  That is what scientists mean by the duality of light.  Light can best be understood as a mind-boggling blend of physical particles and spiritual information in waves.

In our exciting new teaching, Scrolling through Scripture (Unit 1), I explain the unique qualities of light, and how understanding it provides a path for thriving.   We start by noting that the word for light appears five times in the first day of Creation.  And how modern science seems to take its lead from the first 4 verses in Genesis as it recognizes that the origin of the universe has so much to do with light.  Our verse by verse exploration of the Six Days of Creation allows me to take you into so much greater depth than these Thought Tools can possibly provide and I invite you to join me on this powerful Bible study.

In our recommended Bible:
* p. 26, top line, 7th word (with the letter ‘ו’ meaning ‘and’ before it).
** p.  1222, line 18, 3rd word from the right (with the letter ‘מ’ meaning ‘from’ before it).


a verse by verse look through the eyes of ancient Jewish wisdom


Real Relationships

December 7th, 2020 Posted by Thought Tools 4 comments

If I was to paraphrase Samuel Coleridge’s ancient mariner’s words, “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink,” I might say, “Friends, friends everywhere and not a one to trust.”

There are many reasons that relationships, including those of friendship, marriage, and business are in trouble today. Social media leads us to think we have connections with others while it is often only a myth; our appliances wear out after many fewer years than they used to and we treat our marriages and jobs in the same way; as a society, we mock and scorn those tested rules that used to bond people together.

The Torah describes how to build a successful society. It teaches how men and women ought to relate; how lenders and borrowers must behave; details of how families should be structured.

Leviticus 26: 3-13 contains ten delightful verses enumerating all the good times that smart societies following these rules will enjoy.   

In contrast, Leviticus 26:14-44 sounds a bit like a veteran airplane designer warning interns of what will happen if they ignore gravity and mathematics when designing new aircraft.  Thirty harrowing verses detail the horrendous consequences that will befall any society that ignores certain permanent principles.

Which raises this question:  Do the words, “…and my soul will not be disgusted by you,” occur within the ten happy verses or in the thirty fearsome verses?

If it appeared in the tragic verses, it would be a bit of consolation amidst the horror. Instead, it appears among the verses of blessing, providing a strikingly discordant note. Wouldn’t it be nice for the pleasant verses to be completely pleasant? If something must be said, why does God use such harsh language, saying that He won’t be disgusted by Israel?

Let’s deal with the jarring language first. The stronger anything is, the more damage it can cause if something goes wrong. Nuclear power has the capacity to free mankind from drudgery but if, heaven forbid, anything goes wrong the destructive potential is incalculable.  A coal-fired boiler does not provide much energy but neither does it fail catastrophically.  Marriage is a powerful relationship, but when things go wrong, enmity is often the result.  Close family and business relationships can be equally volatile.

God’s relationship with His people is more powerful even than marriage. God is reassuring Israel that His commitment to them will never undergo a reversal changing intense love to extreme disgust.

But why is it among the blessings?  Well, what greater blessing is there than knowing that God will never burn His bridges with Israel? Even though He knows that Israel will sin and violate the rules, He will never find Israel disgusting.

When times are good, God tells Israel, “Look, I know that in the future, things might go wrong but I want you to know that our relationship is all-important and will endure regardless.” One lesson for human interaction is that we need to articulate our commitment to each other while times are good, emphasizing that we won’t abandon one another when the going gets rough.

We must seize opportunities to stress how much we cherish our relationships. While this may seem more obvious among parents and children, or between spouses, this idea is important in business and communities as well. While these affiliations sometimes do need to end, relationships need not. Estrangement is less likely if we take care during the good times to make clear how much we value each other. We can acknowledge that we know there will be taxing times and disappointments, but that we are committed to the bond between us.

Seen correctly, the Bible is the relationship manual for our world. Many of the important teachings only become clear when you analyze the Hebrew words and the accompanying ancient Jewish wisdom that delves beneath the text. We are incredibly excited to introduce our new online course, Scrolling through Scripture, in which I teach Scripture verse by verse, starting with Genesis 1:1. Unit 1 is now available. You will want to check this out!

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Taste the Difference?

November 30th, 2020 Posted by Thought Tools 6 comments

One of the signs of a COVID infection is a loss of smell and taste. Compared to other complications of disease this may be minor, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact. Possibly, only once we function without smell and taste, do we fully appreciate God’s blessing to us in providing us with food for our nutrition rather than a daily vitamin tablet. The variety, distinctions and diversity of our food add immeasurably to our pleasure in life.   

Being unable to see distinctions in more important areas than smell and taste makes unhealthy moral decisions more likely.

Jacob’s father-in-law, Lavan, initially seems to be an innocuous Biblical character, yet, during the annual Passover Seder, Jews label him as more wicked than Pharaoh.

What is Lavan’s background?  Abraham had two brothers, Nachor and Haran (Genesis 11:26).

Nachor had a son, Betuel (Genesis 22:22),  who had two children, Rebecca and Lavan (Genesis 28:5).

As we first meet Lavan, he is usurping his father’s role. When Abraham’s servant, Eliezer arrives at Betuel’s house after meeting Rebecca at the well, it is Lavan who takes charge. He steps forward rather than allowing his father the prerogative of welcoming a guest into his home (Genesis 24:29-33).

Once again blurring his relationship with his father, Lavan takes the lead in authorizing his sister’s marriage.

And Lavan and Betuel answered and they he said, “This matter is from God.”
(Genesis 24:50)

Ancient Jewish wisdom stresses that Lavan is mentioned before his father indicating that he obnoxiously preceded him.  Furthermore, the Hebrew word for “answered” is in the singular; VaYa’AN.  We would have expected the plural, VaYa’ANU, since both son and father responded*.  This grammatical hint informs us that Lavan rudely pushed his father aside and assumed full authority.

ויען    ויענו
and he answered  and they answered

            In a later verse, even Jacob identifies Lavan as the son of Nachor, his grandfather rather than his father Betuel.

“Do you know Lavan the son of Nachor?” They replied, “We know him.”
(Genesis 29:5)

It seems that it was universally known that Lavan identified himself as interchangeable with his father.

Lavan also treats his children as interchangeable.

After agreeing to allow his daughter Rachel to marry her cousin Jacob, Lavan ruthlessly replaced her with her sister, Leah (Genesis 29:23).

Lavan also regards the property of others as interchangeable with his own, keeping the entire flock under his control, though Jacob unquestionably deserved compensation. Later, he reluctantly agrees to the separation as an alternative to losing Jacob’s outstanding services.

Finally, so committed is Lavan to the utter blurring of everything that he even considers God to be interchangeable with false deities.

Let the God of Abraham and the gods of Nachor judge between us…
(Genesis 31:53)

With the stunning consistency that is the hallmark of God’s message to mankind, Lavan’s name perfectly captures his essential flaw.  The Hebrew word lavan means white whose essence is made up of a mixture of all colors. Just as raindrops split ordinary white sunlight into its constituent rainbow colors, the reverse is also true; all colors combine to form white.  Lavan suffers from moral color blindness.

Erasing the countless nuances of life can lead to great social peril and it is the foundation of Lavan’s wickedness.  When your God isn’t special, when family roles aren’t special, and when other people’s property is indistinguishable from yours, life goes wrong. On a large scale, this type of thinking leads to socialism with all its destructive pathologies and the dull, drab, grayness which socialism always produces.

Studying the Torah through the lens of ancient Jewish wisdom trains us to notice the nuances, spot the subtleties and dig beneath the surface. Our library packs provide hours of stimulating study via books, audio CDs and DVDs. As a holiday bonus, get a copy of America’s Real War for free along with your library pack before we increase the price to reflect the addition. These packs make wonderful gifts at this time of year and also provide a stepping stone to making next year one of growth in all areas of your life.

*In Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s recommended Bible: p. 66, 2nd line from the bottom, 3rd word from the left.

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A Holiday for Optimists

November 23rd, 2020 Posted by Thought Tools 15 comments

In pre-COVID days when I spoke to large audiences, I enjoyed asking groups to raise their hands if they were sales professionals.  Usually, only a few hands went up.  I then asked, “How many of you are justices of the United States Supreme Court?”  After the chuckles subsided, I asked, “How many of you are tenured university professors?”  Finally, I would say, “Look, if you’re not a judge appointed for life, and you’re not a professor hired for life, you are probably in sales.

At the very least, you must constantly sell your employer on the idea that you are worth keeping on the payroll.

Selling means helping others see things from a new perspective. Whether you are a dentist or a lawyer, whether you are a bookkeeper, a bartender, or a ballerina, you are in sales.  To a large extent, your success is as dependent upon your selling ability as it is upon your basic skill.  If you have a job or are looking for a job, you are in sales.  If you are a teacher, a pastor or a preacher, you are in sales.  And if you are seeking a spouse you are in sales. In other words, in any number of areas of our lives we are all in sales—perhaps even that Supreme Court Justice is.

Fortunately, ancient Jewish wisdom can help hone your selling ability. Not only can it help, but the prescription doesn’t include spending tens of thousands of dollars on tuition or demand that you have relatives or friends to pave your way. As the famous MetLife study brilliantly conducted by Martin Seligman and many other subsequent studies strongly suggest,  optimism is a prerequisite to being successful in sales.  But how do you become a more optimistic person?

To answer that question, let’s look at a perplexing piece of Scripture. We first meet Moses as a baby, then we follow him as he matures and seeks out his suffering brethren. We track his escape to the land of Midian where he rescues Jethro’s daughters and becomes a shepherd. We delight as God appears to him and sets him on his life-mission.

Surely Moses must have been confused when, at the very beginning of the plagues that will culminate in the Israelites leaving Egypt,  God instructs him to take a back seat and instruct Aaron to turn the Nile River into blood.  (Exodus 7:19)

Isn’t Moses to be God’s messenger to Pharaoh? Why does God assign Aaron to bring the plague of blood?

“Gratitude,” answers  ancient Jewish wisdom.  The Nile carried Moses to safety as an infant.  It would show ingratitude to turn that life-saving  water into a lifeless stream of blood.

Excuse me? This is a river we’re talking about. Can a river feel shunned? No. That is the entire point!  Expressing gratitude does allow those who helped us to feel our appreciation. But it benefits the speaker as much—or more— than the recipient.  Among other things, expressing gratitude dramatically increases one’s optimism level.

An article published this year in a National Institute of Health journal noting the correlation between optimism and gratitude stated, “Thus, optimistic people experience more gratitude, which could give more sense to their lives and, in turn, enhance life satisfaction.”

The researchers have the equation back to front. It is not that optimistic people experience more gratitude, it is that grateful people experience more optimism. Working on “being optimistic” is difficult to pin down. But it is simple and clear-cut to work on “being grateful.” Whether you start a gratitude journal or challenge yourself to express gratitude aloud, to God, to each person with whom you interact, or to your nation on a daily basis, there is no more effective way to induce the happy sensation of optimism and hope in our souls than finding opportunities to say, “Thank you!”

Rather than focusing on the deprivation and great losses of the preceding year, the early Pilgrims counted their blessings and gave thanks. Not surprisingly, they embedded in America a sense of boundless optimism. It is no surprise that as their descendants become ungrateful “it’s owed to me” citizens, they are increasingly pessimistic and unhappy.

Wishing all of us a Thanksgiving of first principles, where we remind ourselves multiple times a day of the many things in our lives for which we are grateful.

Did you know that Chanuka is a holiday for “praise and gratitude”?
Its timeless messages are for all humanity.
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A Prince and a Pauper

November 16th, 2020 Posted by Thought Tools 8 comments

There is no such thing as a level playing field in the real world. Some of us win what I call the ovarian lottery when it comes to health, others when it comes to place of birth. Some of us have genes wired for height and attractiveness, while other babies might enter the world with outstanding artistic talent lurking in their chromosomes. Newborns do not choose their parents, yet our lives are tremendously influenced by those who conceived us.

The Bible usually provides meticulous detail about family. Twelve spies are sent to explore the land of Canaan—each is identified with his father’s name. (Numbers 11: 1-16) Betzalel is to be the Tabernacle’s craftsman? Not only are we told who his father is, but, in a way that is extremely common, also his grandfather. (Exodus 31:2)   

This makes it all the odder that when we first meet King Saul’s son Jonathan, we’re not told who he is.

Saul picked 3,000 Israelites, of whom 2,000 were with Saul in Michmas and in the hill country of Bethel,
and 1,000 with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin;
the rest of the troops he sent back to their homes.
(I Samuel 13:2)

Only after King Saul has disobeyed the prophet Samuel and imperiled his kingdom, does Scripture inform us that Jonathan is the son of King Saul.

Saul and his son Jonathan, and the troops who remained with them, stayed in Geba of Benjamin,
while the Philistines were encamped at Michmas.
(I Samuel 13:16)

Shortly after that, Jonathan performs an act of both wisdom and courage, leading to terror and confusion in the Philistine ranks.

Saul and the troops with him assembled and rushed into battle; they found [the Philistines] in very great confusion, every man’s sword turned against his fellow.*
(I Samuel 14:20)

This is one of only two instances in all of Scripture where the phrase, “every man’s sword against his fellow” is used.

Here is the other:

For when the three hundred horns were sounded, the LORD turned every man’s sword against his fellow, throughout the camp, and the entire host fled as far as Beth-shittah and on to Zererah—
as far as the outskirts of Abel-meholah near Tabbath.*
(Judges 7:22)

When we are initially introduced to the hero of this incident, Gideon, we are told about his family. Yet the contrast to a royal prince could hardly be more striking. Gideon’s father is the most impoverished in his tribe and Gideon himself is the youngest of the sons.  (Judges 6:15)

Why are these two men, seemingly so different, united by a rare Biblical phrase?

In the 2nd act of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, his character, Malvolio, proclaims this memorable truth:  Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Gideon, plucked from obscurity by God, had no reason to expect to be great. Jonathan’s royal parentage is omitted from when we first encounter him to indicate that, although “born great,”  his distinction was not a result of being born the son of the king but was of his own doing.

Both these men stepped on the ladder of greatness by sowing internal discord in the ranks of their enemies. Although outnumbered and outflanked by their nation’s enemy, they both had complete faith in the rightness of their cause and their ability, with God’s help, to overcome their limitations. This moral spine of steel overwhelmed the opposition, leading the Midianites (Gideon) and Philistines (Jonathan) to turn upon and destroy themselves.

What a message to us! Each one of us must strive for greatness whether or not our backgrounds seem to predispose us to such or not. In our roles as parents, employers, citizens or friends, once we determine the right path, we should march ahead with steadfast determination. We mustn’t crumble or cower beneath opposition and we must never use the excuse of who our parents are to justify our being anything less than we can be.

A little boy whose seven siblings were each conceived by different men, none of whom was married to his mother, does not have the same chance in life as the eighth son of a couple whose long-term marriage is dedicated to raising their children.  Those two boys are not competing on a level playing field.  What is more,  not only is the lifestyle of one boy’s mother and father far more helpful to him than that of the other boy, it is also far more beneficial to society. Family does matter.  But your own actions matter even more.

*If you would like to see the phrases in the Hebrew using Rabbi Lapin’s recommended Bible: חרב איש ברעהו

Judges 7:22 – p. 762. Words 8, 9, and 10 in verse 22.
I Samuel 14:20 – p. 860. Words 12, 13, and 14, in verse 20.

חרב = sword
איש = man
ברעהו = against his fellow

3+ weeks to Chanuka – with its messages to all mankind. Be prepared.

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