Posts in Thought Tools

Forged in Steel

November 13th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 27 comments

You may have heard of the possibly apocryphal tale of the Detroit manufacturer of buggy whips early in the twentieth century.  Although he heard rumors of a newfangled horseless carriage that some chap called Ford was building down the road, he made no changes to his profitable business.  Needless to say, he was soon out of business.

When steel eventually was discovered in the nineteenth century and began to replace cast iron, a vast part of American and British wealth that lay in the many old-fashioned foundries and iron-casting operations was tossed aside as these now obsolete operations were destroyed and replaced with early forms of steel-making furnaces.  Then Englishman Henry Bessemer invented the Bessemer converter and made possible the economical manufacture of steel, which quickly replaced cast iron as the building material of choice for bridges and other constructions.  All the earlier furnaces were scrapped and replaced with the faster and more efficient system. 

Later, the Bessemer converter itself was replaced with the Siemens Open Hearth Furnace, which in turn was replaced in the middle of the twentieth century with the Electric Arc Furnace.  Innovation, even in the mature steel industry, is not over.  Mini-mills are famously encroaching on larger and less flexible operations many of whom have scrapped their plant and replaced it with several mini-mills.

We all must recognize that change is an inevitable necessity in business.  Regardless of exactly how we serve our fellow humans, we need to wake up every weekday morning asking ourselves, “How has my world changed since yesterday?  What should I be doing differently today?”  In business, we look towards the future.  Tomorrow will be different; embrace it.   

In our spiritual lives, however, we embrace the past.  It is our past that sustains our journeys into tomorrow’s unknown.  As important as it is to face change in business, it is every bit as important to recognize that we must resist forces that try to change our spiritual realities.  Those unchangeable fixed points that anchor me during the turbulent changes of life need to be protected.

Abraham, who relished the new experiences to which God exposed him, knew his unchangeables.  He moved to a new land, he encountered powerful kings like Avimelech and Pharaoh, he nearly lost a son, and throughout it all, Abraham walked before God.  (Genesis 24:40 & 48:15)

Is there anything in Abraham’s background that reveals him as part of a chain rather than completely forging a new path himself?  Amazingly, his father, Terach, was the first person in Scripture to name a son after his own father.  Nachor gave birth to Terach and Terach gave birth to Abram, Nachor, and Haran. (Genesis 11:24-27)

Not only did Terach respect the connection between the past and the future when he named his son, but he impulsively took his family on an unprecedented journey, heading toward a destination he’d never seen—Canaan.  (Genesis 11:31)  They didn’t make it all the way, but a generation later, following in his father’s footsteps, Abraham did.  (Genesis 12:5)

Why did Terach try to reach Canaan?  It was known in ancient times that the land of Canaan possessed especially close connections with God.  It was where Jerusalem would be established and it would become the land of His people. Terach, perhaps in ways he didn’t even understand, wanted connection with God and his son actualized that desire.  Terach gave a springboard to Abraham by recognizing the value of the past and the spiritual wealth that had been forgotten over the generations since Adam.

In matters of the body, we look towards tomorrow.  Food production, medical procedures, transport, and other similar concerns are all better today than they were last year.  But in matters having to do with the soul, we look towards yesterday.  When it comes to how to marry and build a family, how to pray, how to raise boys and how to raise girls, yesterday’s approaches were more correct than today’s.

We find direction for all these areas in ancient Jewish wisdom. Susan and I love hosting our daily TV show on the TCT network. We have the time to delve into these topics – we hope with humor and insight.  Now that the weather is turning cold we invite you to sit back and share 12 of our favorite episodes with our Ancient Jewish Wisdom DVD Set, on sale right now.

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Get Back to Work

November 5th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 36 comments

What engineer or architect would describe flaws in a bridge or building he’d never seen?  What doctor would describe the fractures in the bones of a patient he’d never examined?  But some who make their living in the mental health industry feel no compunction describing the psychiatric problems suffered by people they’ve never met.

Here are some of their pronouncements.  The great scientist and Bible scholar, Isaac Newton was bipolar and suffered from autism and schizophrenia.  Winston Churchill suffered from clinical depression.  According to the Journal of Medical Biography, Michelangelo, the artist who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, was autistic. Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Charles Darwin and many other great achievers of history are similarly described.

I must confess to being very skeptical.  Considering Churchill, most of the cited evidence revolves around his self-described Black Dog. Having spent some of my childhood in the United Kingdom, I remember that the term meant being in a bad mood or getting out of bed on the wrong side. Churchill’s own daughter confirms that there were times during World War II that her famous father was in a bad mood. There were also times when he felt and expressed deep, inconsolable grief at the loss of Allied soldiers. Does that translate into clinical depression? Certainly not.

So why the current obsession with diagnosing famous and accomplished figures with various mental illnesses?  Follow the money.  Since the 1960s our culture has been trying to label moral shortcomings like gambling and marital infidelity as mental illness.  “Cheating is Genetic,” was the breathless headline in one weekly journal. Well, of course it is! Indeed, cheating is far more common in humans with an X and a Y chromosome than in people with two X chromosomes.

Since the 1960s mental health costs have been rising at a significantly higher rate than general health costs.  This can have only two possible causes.  Either Americans have been stricken with growing epidemics of mental problems or else the colossal money machine of governmental involvement in medicine is incentivizing the “right” diagnoses.  The cascade of articles highlighting the mental problems of prominent people who are dead and can thus no longer contradict spurious claims suggests that the latter explanation may be more correct.

Obviously I recognize the existence of serious mental disorder.  My meanderings on this topic concern whether all that is today thus diagnosed is in fact that. One way to diagnose more mental disorders is by expanding the criteria. Surely those who carried heavy weight upon their shoulders might have experienced symptoms of depressive disorder.  They must have felt, at times,  an inability to focus on long term projects, feelings of hopelessness and withdrawal from relationships and even possibly had suicidal thoughts.  Well, almost everyone passionately engaged in life’s challenges will have periods like that.  Why wouldn’t Michelangelo and Abraham Lincoln have had terrible times of doubt and hopelessness? 

I don’t for a moment doubt that it has to be enormously comforting for any person who is not coping with life to receive a diagnosis that accounts for his problems.  It is just that I feel that prior to the 1960s, without these diagnoses available, many more people tended to cope.  Perhaps they dug deep into their reserves of grit and determination.  Perhaps they sought and received social and spiritual help.

Five Biblical personalities expressed a desire to die.  Without question they were experiencing a potent neurological cocktail of grief, disappointment, anger, and hopelessness.  They all recovered and resumed doing those things for which they were known.

The five who express a desire to end their existence (not counting actual suicides such as Samson and Ahitofel) are Moses, Jonah, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Job.

If You would deal like this with me, rather kill me I beg You,
and let me not see my wretchedness.
(Numbers 11:11)

Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live. 
(Jonah 4:3)

And he went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a retem bush and sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. “Enough!” he cried. “Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
( I Kings 19:4)

Accursed be the day I was born… Let not the day be blessed when my mother bore me…so that my mother might be my grave…
(Jeremiah 20:14-17)

Would that my request be granted, that God give me what I wish for; would that God consented to crush me, loosed His hand and cut me off. 
(Job 6:8-9)

Each of these extraordinary men is beset by disappointment, grief, and pain.  Their response, a hopeless throwing up of their hands and asking for it all to end, is a perfectly natural and perfectly normal feeling.

However, God neither indulges their whining nor expresses sympathy with a fatherly, “There, there, things will improve”.  Instead, God prescribes three medications: He reminds them that He never promised them that life would resemble a stroll through a rose garden.  He reminds them that the universe does not revolve around them and that unseen phenomena that they don’t understand are involved.  And, He demands that they get back to work.  And this is precisely what all five men do.

Everybody actively engaged in the fight we call life has bad days or even bad weeks and months.  Certainly there is sometimes a need for medical assistance and it must be sought. But,  just possibly, many diagnoses could perhaps be more safely treated spiritually rather than pharmacologically. Just like Michelangelo who had a ceiling to paint, and Isaac Newton who had to understand and explain gravity, and just like Churchill who had a war to win, we too can gain help during our more difficult times by remembering the three prescriptions. 

1) Whenever life happens to be easy and smooth, recognize those periods as highly abnormal and be grateful. 

2) Remember that this is a big world and we are not the center of it all. 

3) Finally, remember you are here for a purpose, so get on with it and get to work.

 *   *  *  *

Our actions and speech affect our psychology. It doesn’t surprise me at all that in the decades following the normalization of vulgarity, people are angrier, lonelier and less balanced. You may not be able to change the culture, but you can change you and influence those around you. Please take a good look at Perils of Profanity: You Are What You Speak, which is on sale for a few more days.

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Harvey and Montgomery

October 29th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 17 comments

If you’ve never seen the delightful 1950 movie in which Jimmy Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd whose friend is a six-foot invisible rabbit eponymously named Harvey, you might enjoy it.  I too have an invisible friend, though I don’t know how tall he is because he is, well, invisible!  He happens to be a highly intelligent Martian named Montgomery, who is entirely and utterly unfamiliar with everything on earth.  I find it ever so useful to be able to solicit his opinion about, or his reaction to, various earthly events.  Some people dismiss my friend, and insist that all I am really doing is conducting thought experiments but to each his own.

Let me give you an example.  I introduced Montgomery the Martian to two very different families.  The first, residing in Beverly Hills, California, presents their children with the keys to a new BMW car on their sixteenth birthdays and engages a small army of housekeepers and gardeners to free each child from any onerous household chores.  The children address their parents by their first names and receive lavish allowances with very little supervision and few rules.

The second family lives in a small town near Nashville, Tennessee.  Each child carries the responsibility for some aspect of the family’s smooth running.  Each child also has a job outside of school and is expected to say, “Yes, Sir” or “No, Ma’am” to his parents.  The family attends church each Sunday together and dinner times are also family occasions.  The children take turns mowing the lawn and tending to the flower garden.

My questions to Montgomery were this: Which set of parents is more likely to raise children with an enduring respect for parents and siblings? Which set of children are more likely to grow up into young adults who will endlessly complain to expensive therapists about how their parents ruined their lives?

Montgomery weighed it up and concluded that the parents who gave so much to their children, asking nothing in return, were surely the parents who would enjoy enduring gratitude and honor from their children.  As his earthly friend, it was my duty to inform the Martian that he was wrong.  In families where frugality is a fact of life and children are expected to behave like responsible family members and to carry their weight, family relationships are far stronger.

Montgomery wanted to know how I knew this.  In true rabbinic fashion, I answered his question with another question – actually, two questions.

Why should the description of the creation of the entire universe at the start of Genesis require only 34 verses whereas the construction of the Tabernacle takes 176 verses in the book of Exodus?  After all, the universe is huge and eternal but the Tabernacle was only the size of a small strip shopping center.  What is more, it was used only for 40 years in the desert and 369 years in Shiloh.  Surely it is not more important than the universe?

The second question is why the Tabernacle’s construction is situated in the book of Exodus rather than the next book, Leviticus?  Exodus is about the emergence of the people of Israel from slavery and their acceptance of their constitution at Sinai. It involves their preparation for entering the Promised Land and becoming an independent nation.  Leviticus is all about the rites and rituals conducted by the Levites in the Tabernacle.  What could be more natural than starting the book off with the description of how that very Tabernacle was to be built? Yet we find those 176 verses of construction details in Exodus.  Why?

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that the book of Exodus is liberally punctuated with the Israelites continually complaining and whining.  The more God did for them, the more they grumbled.  He took them out of Egypt; they asked why they had to leave Egypt.  He split the Red Sea; they whined about water.  He fed them manna; they demanded meat. And so it went.

When did the complaining stop? When God stopped giving and required the Hebrews to start giving.  As soon as they were unified in their commitment to construct this Tabernacle, their incessant complaints ceased.  As it is with our Father in Heaven, so is it with our earthly parents.  The more they give us, the more dissatisfied we are and the more we grumble.  Once we are led to becoming givers and not only takers, we become much better people.

Now we are equipped to understand why the creation of the universe requires only 34 verses but our construction of the Tabernacle takes up 176 verses.  We are more impacted by what we do for our Father in Heaven than by what He does for us.  We are also more impacted by what we do for our parents and families than we are by what they do for us.  Montgomery appears to be a bit baffled by this explanation but I’ve often noticed that Martians seem to see things quite differently. And that, of course, is his main value to me.

*    *    *   

We are impacted by words as well as by actions. As we suffer, once again, from violence in our society, we are well aware that angry words breed angry actions. Does it surprise you that making profanity and cursing part and parcel of daily life goes hand in hand with increased violence? Take a small stand for sanity and peace with Perils of Profanity: You Are What You Speak. If this is a challenge you or loved ones face, you will appreciate the practical, logical and Biblical lessons that provide incentive and guidance for leaving that path.

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Can You Describe That?

October 23rd, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 8 comments

Can you identify these four short excerpts?  Each is found in the opening paragraph of a popular book.

“He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck…”

“His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh.”

“He wore a short jacket of brown corduroy, newer than the remainder of his suit, which was a fustian waist coat with white horn buttons, breeches of the same, tanned leggings and a straw hat overlaid with black glazed canvas.”

“Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.”

Can you name each book?  Actually, it doesn’t matter.  As it happens the excerpts are from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,  To Kill a Mockingbird, The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Da Vinci Code.  But I wasn’t really trying to give you a short quiz on 20th century popular fiction.

In fact, I wanted you to notice how important visual descriptions are in most books.  Later in those four books, we discover how Professor Dumbledore looks and we find out how Atticus Finch, Michael Henchard and Robert Langdon look and dress.  This is how most books are written.  Such descriptions help the reader imagine the scenes and get to know the characters.

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Building Blocks – Not for Kids Only

October 16th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 28 comments

Jews around the world recently finished an annual cycle of reading the Five Books of Moses (the Torah) and immediately began reading again from the beginning of Genesis.  Since so many of us met the “stories” in Genesis as children, we sometimes neglect to view the book with adult eyes.  Ancient Jewish wisdom analyzes each letter and word, revealing treasure that we can only uncover with a mature viewpoint. I’d like to share one example. 

In the beginning, God created 92 basic elements including the well-known hydrogen, oxygen, gold, silver, copper, platinum, uranium, calcium and lead.  The remaining 83 include lesser known elements such as titanium, tellurium, caesium and cadmium.

While it is true that the periodic table today contains over 100 elements, only the first 92 occur naturally.  The others must be artificially made and are generally unstable.  They undergo nuclear rearrangement and radioactive decay shortly after being synthesized.

In other words, the entire universe is made with only 92 basic building blocks we call atoms.  Everything that we use and which makes life possible and wonderful comes about through combining the atomic building blocks into compound molecules.

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Who Are You Calling a Hebrew?

October 8th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 19 comments

The Mayflower’s historic 66 day voyage in 1620 from Plymouth, England to the New World was characterized by what was then typical hardship for both passengers and crew.  Arduous handling of the heavy canvas sails, coping with almost non-existent bathroom facilities, and barely surviving on non-refrigerated food were only a few of the challenges faced by those who made that voyage.

While much has improved for mariners, one activity that plagued those on the Mayflower still requires attention today.  Whether a cruise ship like the Symphony of the Seas at over 1,100 feet long (more than a thousand times larger than the Mayflower) or the small motorboat on which the Lapin family explores coastal British Columbia, all boats have bilge pumps.  Their purpose is to return the water that inevitably finds its way into the bottoms of boats back to where it belongs—outside the boat.

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Feel Your Way to Failure

October 2nd, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 49 comments

Our society is moving towards respecting feelings more than facts and placing emotions above the rule of law. That road to disaster is blatantly evident in the battle for civilization going on in Washington, D.C. right now.   It is clearly time for us all to relearn the following lesson from ancient Jewish wisdom.

Both individuals and societies can allow emotions to dominate us.  We then invariably  use our heads to rationalize the bad decisions we’ve just made. Alternatively, we can carefully make decisions and then invite our hearts on board to provide needed excitement and enthusiasm. The two ways we can choose to go lead to strikingly different places.

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Merry or Macabre?

September 25th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 16 comments

We are in the midst of Sukot, known in English as the Feast of Tabernacles. Weather permitting (easier in Israel than in many other locations), observant Jews spend as much time as possible in their Sukot, or outdoor booths, based on this verse:

In Sukot you shall live for seven days…so that your generations will know that in Sukot
I sat the children of Israel when I took them out of the land of Egypt,
I am the Lord your God.
(Leviticus 23:42-43)

This holyday is uniquely characterized as “the time of our joy” on account of the following verses:

…and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.
(Leviticus 23:40)

You shall make the holyday of Sukot for seven days…
And you shall rejoice in your holyday…
(Deuteronomy 16:13-14)

In another of those puzzling paradoxes we so frequently encounter in our Biblical studies and whose resolution inevitably leads to one more blinding truth about how the world REALLY works, we find death surrounding the holyday called “Time of our Joy.”  Death and joy?  Really?

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Storm Shelter

September 17th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 17 comments

I am spoiled. When I contemplate boating, I picture vacationing with my family among the magnificent islands of the Pacific Northwest. But except for a blessed few people and times, boarding a ship has not meant leisure, but instead was a risky way for crossing oceans.

Traveling by ship was dangerous and frightening in the days before exotic cruising. Ships served as the precarious means of transportation to start a new life, for trade or as a means of livelihood like the potentially deadly 19th century whaling ships and, indeed, today’s commercial fishing boats.

The book of Jonah opens with a different type of boating:

And Jonah arose to flee… from before God…
and he found a ship going to Tarshish…
(Jonah 1:3)

And God sent a big wind over the ocean and there was a great storm
upon the ocean and the ship appeared likely to shatter.
(Jonah 1:4)

And the sailors were terrified … and they threw all the articles
on the ship into the ocean to make it lighter
and Jonah went down
to the bilges of the ship, lay down and fell asleep.
(Jonah 1:5)

The word ship appears four times in these three consecutive verses. Only by looking at the Hebrew text can you see that the word in the first three instances differs from the fourth. The first three use the the Hebrew word ONiYaH. The final instance of ship uses the word SeFiNaH.

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Instant Happiness?

September 5th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 14 comments

Susan and I shared in the immense joy of dear friends while attending the wedding of their daughter on Labor Day.  Since Rosh HaShana starts this coming Sunday night, we heard many greetings of, “Shana Tova,” (have a good year) and, “Have a happy new year.” The sentiment is lovely. The words are not quite accurate.

Being happy is a purposeful decision we make. Being happy is our responsibility.  It’s not the responsibility of our parents, friends, family, or God.  God commands us to be happy regardless of circumstance. (Deuteronomy 16:15)

On both occasions when the Torah mentions Rosh Hashana, it fails to speak of new year.

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