Posts in Thought Tools

Flames, Family and Finance

December 10th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 5 comments

In which countries is it easiest to form a new business?  You’d think that with more than two-hundred years of entrepreneurial culture, the United States would rank fairly high.  And we did.  Until about 1962, starting a new business in the United States was quicker, cheaper, and easier than anywhere else.  Not surprisingly, the country enjoyed the highest rate of new business startups of anywhere in the world.

However, since then, America has been steadily slipping and sliding down the rankings until today the country ranks behind Poland, Lithuania, New Zealand, Singapore and about ten others.  Concurrently however, over the same fifty years, the number of U.S. government programs taxing money away from those who work for it and offering it to others has skyrocketed.   It is made available almost on request in the form of cash, free food, free cell phones, free housing certificates, and so on to almost everyone who applies. 

Not only has the number of give-away programs soared, but it has become ever easier to join the ranks of the receivers.  Why would a society of rational people make it harder for folks to start businesses and easier to become dependent upon one’s fellow citizens?

There’s another number that in the last 50 years has also climbed faster than a Blue Angel F-18 jet at a summer airshow.  That is the proportion of American children born to unmarried mothers.  We all know the basic rule that the more money you give for certain behavior, the more of that behavior you’re going to get.  Again the same question: why would rational people subsidize behavior that produces babies more likely to grow up in dire circumstances? 

The only possible answer is that it is not rational citizens making these tragic decisions but rather rational politicians who want votes and rational bureaucrats devoted to permanent tenure.  The only way for them to achieve these ends is to destroy families and limit financial independence.  Only a small minority of welfare recipients are people who live in intact families, using the word ‘family’ in its traditionally understood meaning. Harming both the finances and families of citizens is precisely what you do if you want to increase the size and power of government. 

As Chanukah recedes into the background for another year, let’s recall that nearly 2,200 years ago, in addition to outlawing certain religious practices, the Greeks attempted to destroy Israel’s families and their finances. (Maimonides, Laws of Chanukah)  To be independent means having family and finances so the Maccabees went to war against the Greeks to defend both. 

Before banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden late in the third chapter of Genesis, God made sure that they had each other along with the ability to make bread. (Genesis 3:19)  In Torah nomenclature, the word bread can also mean money.  Still today, many people refer to money as ‘bread’ or ‘dough’.  Directly after leaving Eden, Adam and Eve started their family.  If you’re going to be independent and free, you need your family and your finances.

Uniquely among Jewish holy days, on Chanukah we continue making money by going to work while at the same time gathering each evening with family to light the menorah and share traditional songs and stories.  It is the festival that more than any other blends together money and family. The candles we lit for the past eight nights were timed so that they would shine, in the words of ancient Jewish wisdom, “while people were coming home from work,” while the obligation to light falls not on each individual but on, “a man and his family.”  It is the only holyday on which there is a tradition to give children gifts of money. 

All Greeks, whether those from thousands of years ago or their secular-fundamentalist counterparts of today, know that if they can break the ties that bound parents and children together as well as the ties between productivity and reward, they can destroy a culture.  Our response must be to double down, forming families and celebrating family togetherness while also working hard for economic gain.

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Fat is Fine

December 4th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 9 comments

John Steinbeck’s 1937 short novel, Of Mice and Men, always brings a lump to my throat.  It tells the story of two migrant farm workers, George and Lennie, during the Depression.  Attempting to summarize it here would be futile.  It would also be a crime against great writing.  If you’ve never read it, I recommend you do so soon. For now, I quote a brief exchange that occurs in chapter three:

“Lennie drummed on the table with his fingers.  “George?”


“George, how long’s it gonna’ be till we get that little place an’ live on the fatta the land, an’ rabbits?”

You’ll have to read it to find out about the rabbits, but George and Lennie sustain themselves with their dream of their own little farm where they’ll live in comparative luxury.  Living on the fat of the land is an expression used widely in English literature and is correctly attributed to Pharaoh’s speech to Joseph in the Bible.

…and I will give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you will eat of the fat of the land. (Genesis 45:18)

But this is not the first time in the Bible that the phrase ‘fat of the land’ is used.  Many chapters earlier, Isaac evokes it when he blesses his two sons, Jacob and Esau.

And may the Lord give you of the dew of the heavens and of the fat of the land
and an abundance of grain and wine.
(Genesis 27:28)

and here:

…behold your dwelling shall be by the fat of the land and
of the dew of the heaven from above. 
(Genesis 27:39) 

What is odd, however, is that in Genesis 45, the Hebrew word for fat is CHeLeV whereas the two usages in Genesis 27 employ the Hebrew word SHeMeN. 

חלב               שמן

fat- SHeMeN                  fat- CHeLeV

Most English translations translate all three instances as ‘fat of the land’ and they are not wrong.  But there are no random uses of words in Scripture so we ought to try understand the difference between CHeLeV and SHeMeN, these two separate words for fat or oil. 

CHeLeV, while meaning fat is obviously linked to the word CHaLaV meaning milk. SHeMeN means either fat or more commonly, oil as in this verse.

… bring you pure beaten olive oil for the light, for the lamp to burn always.
(Exodus 27:20)

The most important difference between oil and milk is that milk is ready and available for instant use.  The baby is presented with this marvelous substance called milk.  No preparation needed.  It is ready for use.  Drink it and be nourished.

Oil, however, is only useful once I ignite it.  Until I light the oil in a lamp or heater, it will not cast its warm glow.  Unlike milk, I can only benefit from oil once I do my part to make its energy useful to me.

Pharaoh offered to take care of Joseph’s brothers fully, requiring nothing from them at all.  There is no surer way to lure people into slavery of the mind as well as body than by eliminating their incentive to work and providing for their every need.  For this reason, he used the word CHeLeV.   By contrast, Isaac promised his sons, Jacob and Esau, economic abundance, but of the SHeMeN kind, like oil.  Theirs would be the abundance that would flow from their own industry and effort.  This is a far higher category of blessing. 

Oil (SHeMeN) as a metaphor of financial survival appears in two other famous events.  Both the prophets Elijah (1 Kings 17:12-14) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:2-4) encounter a poverty-stricken widow.  Each has little but a small jar of oil (SHeMeN) and each is required to perform an action, thus participating in her own financial redemption.

The small jar of oil as the seed of redemption also finds expression in the eight-day festival of Chanukah which ends on Monday.  The tiny jar of uncontaminated oil found in the Temple after the rampaging Greeks departed miraculously burned for eight days. but only when the Maccabees lit the insufficient remnant rather than throwing their hands up in despair.

In ancient Jewish wisdom, the number eight always speaks to a God/People joint venture partnership. Not surprisingly, the Hebrew word for the number eight SHeMoNeH is almost identical to the word, SHeMeN, oil.  This means that when it comes to financial deliverance, God will help but only if we do our part also.  That is what living on the fat (oil) of the land, really means.

Part of the almost unbearable poignance of the book, “Of Mice and Men” is that Lennie and George don’t want to be taken care of.  All they dream of is a little land that they can work to take care of themselves.

“Lennie said quietly, “It ain’t no lie. We’re gonna do it.
Gonna get a little place an’ live on the fatta the lan’.”

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Reach for the Stars – Stay Grounded

November 26th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 9 comments

When I was seven, my parents signed me up for swimming lessons. For the first three days, the teacher discussed buoyancy, backstroke, and breathing.  We dunked our heads into basins of water and blew bubbles. We never even got our feet wet. 

The next weekend my parents took us to a pool.  My father, eager to see what I had learned, asked me to demonstrate.  I explained that I would need a blackboard.   This did not impress my father.  He walked me to the deep end of the pool deck, picked me up and promptly threw me into the water. After a moment of shock, I began swimming.

This method of instruction, let alone fathering, may not be in favor today.  Personally, I remember feeling rather proud of how quickly I learned to swim.  But whatever you think of the methodology, there is a lesson to be learned. The best way to own new information is to apply it. Few of us would want to be operated on by a surgeon who aced his written exams but never wielded a scalpel. There is a reason that driver education courses take place in the car as well as the classroom.

We need both theoretical and practical information.  One is mental and spiritual— in our heads.  The second, the application of that information, is usually physical and occurs in our interface with the earth and the physical reality it represents.

We humans do best exquisitely balanced between spiritual and physical, suspended between heaven and earth.  We must connect to heaven but not to the extent of losing touch with earth.  Praying all day while neglecting our jobs and families would be a mistake.

Likewise, we must connect to reality—the earth—but not so overly connected that we ignore spiritual truth.  Working all day to provide abundant materialism for our families while neglecting their spiritual needs would be just as much of a mistake. 

Even animals deemed kosher and suitable as food for Jews follow this principle.

Kosher animals must have a hoof lifting them off the ground, giving them a touch of spirituality, so to speak. However, if they are utterly isolated from the ground by having a solid hoof, like a horse, for instance, the animal is not kosher.

All who have a split hoof… you shall eat.
(Leviticus 11:3)

Ancient Jewish wisdom places great emphasis on shoes, the human equivalent of hooves. They serve to distance us slightly from the earth, emphasizing our reach towards heaven.

However, we must never lose all touch with the physical world. When God called upon Moses, thus lifting him far into the heavenly realm,  He made sure that Moses was also grounded.

…take off your shoes from your feet,
for the place on which you stand is holy ground.
(Exodus 3:5)

As God’s children we must not live floating in heaven, disconnected from reality, nor should we live anchored to earth and incapable of soaring to spiritual heights.  Instead, we must live between heaven and earth—within reach of both but chained to neither.

In our lives, we need information but we also need to be accomplished at applying that information in the real world.  Knowing medicine but refusing to heal would be an aberration.  Spending years studying business principles but never serving the needs of people would be equally aberrant.

Like swimming, driving and surgery, learning about something doesn’t mean being able to do it.  First attempts to apply the knowledge may be faltering and clumsy. But anything worthwhile in life requires effort and work. When we wed the spiritual to the physical and the physical to the spiritual, we maximize our potential.

We have been writing Thought Tools since 2008. Over the years, supported by the American Alliance of Jews and Christians (AAJC), Susan and I have added our Ask the Rabbi column, Susan’s Musings, my podcast, the Ancient Jewish Wisdom TV Show,  and recently the Practical Parenting column. Our goal is to encourage the real-life application of ancient Jewish wisdom, helping individuals and society to flourish.

Tens of thousands of you read, watch and listen to us each week. We are grateful for the many of you who express your appreciation by supporting the AAJC on a regular basis. If you are a regular contributor, or if you benefitted but have not yet transformed your thanks into action, we would appreciate your help. (This letter provides more information on our activities.)

While donations are welcome at any time of year, on Tuesday, November 27, Facebook and PayPal will match contributions, maximizing your support for our work. In addition, we would like to express our appreciation for your help in a tangible way, and anyone who donates on that day (via any method) will be entered into a drawing to win one of Rabbi Lapin’s most popular teaching sets. We appreciate you giving this your consideration.


No Margaritas for Me

November 19th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 10 comments

As the U.S. population ages, many members of the baby boomer group are rejecting the elderly housing paradigm of their parents and grandparents.   An article in  The New York Times describes innovative senior housing in Florida whose name, Latitude Margaritaville, is based on a popular Jimmy Buffett song.  In describing this over 55 housing development designed to resemble a non-stop beach party, the article quotes a University of Iowa anthropologist who says, “We have no shared collective articulation for what later life is for, what the value of living longer is, except not dying…”

I guess that depends on what your definition of “collective” is. The Judeo-Christian tradition has a very clear understanding. While Latitude Margaritaville sounds like a fun place, ancient Jewish wisdom isn’t keen on separating the generations. Listen to this exchange between Moses and Pharaoh.

(Moses relating God’s message) …thus said the Lord God of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me.
(Exodus 9:1)

And Pharaoh’s servants said to him…Let the men go,
so they may serve the Lord their God…
(Exodus 10:7)

…Pharaoh…said to them, Go, serve the Lord your God, but who exactly is going?
(Exodus 10:8)

And Moses said, We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds
(Exodus 10:9)

[Pharaoh said]…go now only you who are men and serve the Lord…
(Exodus 10:11)

And Pharaoh called to Moses, and said, Go, serve the Lord;
only let your flocks and your herds stay…
 (Exodus 10:24)

God planned to take the entire people of Israel out of Egypt—the young, the old and the middle-aged along with their material wealth as represented by their livestock.  Pharaoh’s courtiers advised him to placate the God of the Hebrews by temporarily allowing the males between twenty and sixty to go worship in the desert.

Considering that advice, Pharaoh asked Moses to clarify exactly who would go.  Moses answered unequivocally that it would be everyone as well as their possessions.  When Pharaoh tried to limit the group by arguing that only the men are needed to worship God,  Moses rejected that offer. God inflicted more torment upon Egypt.  Pharaoh made one last attempt to prevent an intact people launching their destiny by restricting their economic freedom through retaining their livestock.  This offer was also rejected. After the final plague, Israel left Egypt with all its population and all its possessions.

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that Pharaoh knew that Egypt was finished. His goal was to prevent Israel from becoming a powerful nation whose success would dim the luster of his legacy.  The best way to do that would be by depriving this incipient nation of its past (the elderly), of its future (the young), and by restricting its working-age individuals’ economic vitality.  Pharaoh correctly knew that a bunch of people whose focus was only on surviving today would soon be gone and forgotten.

Centuries later, at the time of the Chanuka story, the Greek-Syrians similarly attacked the past, present and future of the Jewish people. They banned circumcision, an act that seals Jewish baby boys into the community (the future); the Sabbath, which draws our attention to God’s dominion over us as our Creator (the past); and the holidays, those days around which we our current year circulates (the present).

Families, communities, businesses and nations gain their vitality and sense of purpose from the past and future.  A home filled with the rambunctious noise of little children while also possessing the seasoned presence of wise grandparents possesses strength. Likewise, a business is propelled forward by a sense of purpose gained by making its past and its future just as important as  its present. Expanding its employees’ vision to encompass everything from its founding to its tomorrow makes their work today more satisfying and successful.  A nation without a shared collective understanding that its older members must pass down values to younger generations is standing on fragile ground.

Similarly, living only among people of your own age group is intrinsically unhealthy.

Moses and the Israelites understood this lesson as did the Maccabees who waged a civil war against those Hellenized Jews who absorbed the Greek, rather than the Jewish message, about time. It is a lesson that is still vitally important today.

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Forged in Steel

November 13th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 28 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.   


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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