Don’t Build a House; Build a Boat

I’ve noticed that when someone in a group casually says, “Oh, I live on my boat down in the harbor” everyone hearing him perks up with interest.  Eager questions quickly follow.  But when someone says, “I live in my car behind the supermarket,” people go quiet and someone changes the subject.

There are, of course, many differences between living in a car and on a boat, but I enjoy this observation by an author, Arthur Ransome, who plays a big role in my family’s reading.  “The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage.  The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.” 

Someone living in his car is, well, living in his car.  (Living in a fully-equipped RV is quite different.) But someone living on a boat is on a journey. At any point he could cast off the mooring lines and head to Haifa, Honolulu, or Hong Kong.

Feeling settled is very seductive but feeling unsettled is more productive.  To their parents’ dismay, God arranged things so that when approaching those teenage years, children start feeling unsettled.  Other than when with their friends undergoing the same stage, young people approaching adulthood often feel they don’t really belong anywhere.  The last time they felt comfortably ‘at-home’ was as children cocooned in the security of parents and family.  The next time they are going to feel ‘at-home’ will be once they’re in their own homes. 

Without that God-given incentive, young people would likely want to remain as children in their parents’ homes forever.  That symptom of teenagerhood, the vague indefinable anxiety of not belonging anywhere, eventually helps trigger the quest to find a home by building one’s own. 

Regardless of how bad they may be, current circumstances possess inertia that is reflected in idioms like “Better the devil you know…”. A Jewish woman whose children live nearby us survived several years in Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen concentration camps.  She bore the number A-8603 tattooed on her arm.  She used to say, “Being in the camps was gehenom (hell) but emerging from the camps after liberation in 1945 was almost as bad!”  While the concentration camps and slave labor were absolutely horrific, and life was always in jeopardy, at least there was an infrastructure. Freedom was frightening; there was no structure at all.

Whether you are a single person vaguely contemplating matrimony, a harried mother wishing she could get her household under control, or a business professional struggling to build a profitable enterprise, just continuing to do the familiar exerts a powerful appeal, even when the familiar is unpleasant and unsatisfying.

Desiring tranquility is chasing an illusion.  It contradicts the reality of life which is not meant to be a relaxing snooze on a sunny beach.  Wanting to be settled in that way is a little like someone feeling so secure that he unlocks his door, turns off his intruder alarm, and goes to sleep.  Nobody is surprised to hear that uninvited nocturnal visitors inflicted losses upon him.  Ancient Jewish wisdom is quite specific about the negative effects of seeking tranquility. 

Jacob settled in the land where his father had sojourned…
(Genesis 37:1)

The Hebrew word for “settled” is VaYeSHeV and it hints at seeking tranquility.  Ancient Jewish wisdom points out that after Jacob ‘settled down’ the disagreements between his sons, between Joseph and his brothers, escalated to tragedy.  In other words, turning off and tuning out (as the Hippies used to say) is not an option for live people living life passionately.  If you decide to withdraw from the ever-fresh opportunities and challenges of life, God sends something your way in order to get your attention.

Let’s see another instance of where Scripture uses that word ‘settled’,  VaYeSHeV: י-ש-ב

And Israel settled in Shittim whereupon the people began to [behave immorally]
with the daughters of Moab.
(Numbers 25:1)

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that on their lengthy journey through the desert, Israel usually ‘encamped’.  They didn’t usually settle.  Encamped suggests an awareness of the temporary nature of one’s condition and a heightened state of alertness.  By contrast, settling hints at complacency which can invite problems.  Sure enough, settling in Shittim brought Israel a whole heap of problems.

The opening verse of the Book of Psalms:

Happy is the man who didn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked and didn’t stand in the ways
of sinners and didn’t settle in the company of scoffers.
(Psalms 1:1)

Ancient Jewish wisdom emphasizes that if life forces you into proximity with less than ideal people, keep on walking.  If you have no choice but to talk with them, don’t sit down, remain standing in order to remind yourself that you’re not joining them. Finally, whatever you do, never settle down with those people.  Of course, the Hebrew word for settle is again that same word we’ve seen before; the word that suggests throwing in the towel and giving up the fight.

It goes without saying that we all need our anchors in life.  As I repeatedly remind listeners to my podcast, the more that things change, the more we must depend upon those things that never change.  It is only by knowing exactly what anchors in our lives never change that we are liberated to embrace change.  It is what allows us to escape the tyranny of our current condition.  Having those anchors allow us to cast off the mooring lines that tie us to yesterday and thrill to the fight and challenge that is tomorrow’s journey.

31 thoughts on “Don’t Build a House; Build a Boat”

  1. Don’t want to sound too flattering or obsequious, but I thought this was one of the better thought tools. You’ve raised the bar. This missive was to the point, practical, scripture to back it up, something the average schlub like me can relate to, etc. Thanks…

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hey Art–
      I also disdain sounding too flattering or obsequious but you are no “average schlub”. You are very far from an average schlub. For a start, you read Thought Tools–average schlubs would be made too uncomfortable doing so and would refrain. Second, you can actually assemble an articulate sentence in English. That instantly raises you into the top tiers of the population. Again, very far from average–very far from schlubby. Finally, you know something about Scripture. A hundred years ago you might have been average (though never a schlub) but today you are again in a tiny meritocracy of the literate. Welcome!

  2. Just wonderful – you always hit the point (and sometimes it’s the weak points …). Who wouldn’t like to settle down sometimes and hasn’t considered a more tranquil lifestyle after all? Thank you for the alarm bell!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Manfred,
      Thanks for your encouragement. And of course we all have moments when the yearning for peace and tranquility becomes almost palpable. Then the spirit of living breathing adventure grabs us again and life takes us off on another madcap skid to new achievements.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      I am so happy to hear this from you. Knowing that our work is helpful thrills my wife and me and when it is also particularly timely, we are even more delighted. I hope you quickly overcome whatever is going on.

  3. Oh my Rabbi. Just when I thought I knew something about life, here you go showing me how much I still need to know. I thank God for sending this article to get my attention. Amein.

  4. Right: when one’s colleagues, associates or co-workers are less than ideal yet you must remain by their side for whatever purposes, stand with them, but don’t sit down “with” them. In using the two shades of meaning for the preposition ‘with’ I am reminded of your teachings on the prophet Balaam (Bilaam?) and the two Hebrew varieties of ‘with:’ ‘Go along with them in body, but do not join with them in spirit.’ Thanks, Rabbi! Everybody needs a Rabbi!

  5. Dear Rabbi Lapin,

    You are messing with my mind! Last month I was in a Westmarine store and picked up a copy of ‘Latitude 38′ magazine and was looking through the ads for boats for sale. I grew up with boats and have built 4 and restored one. I am currently working on building another and restoring a 9’ dinghy. Now to the dilemma at hand heightened by your latest writing:
    I very much enjoy and find great learning and support from the local Chabad rabbi and congregation. I have also met a woman, EVA, who attends there, is quite beautiful, and serious about Judaism; I find her to be very interesting. My late wife said I should remarry so as not to be lonely. I also have two sons and their families here in So Cal. I am very aware that being married involves much more than just not being lonely — I am a regular listener to your podcasts.

    The idea of living aboard is VERY ATTRACTIVE. At age 75, a sailboat is probably not the best idea, though a 50/50 motor sailer or displacement- hull cruiser might work for coastal cruising. There are Chabad Houses all along the West Coast. My relationship with Eva is not far enough along to even think about asking her thoughts of living aboard. I am blessed with good health and have and an active mind, baruch HaShem. Eva is herself a widow, and I don’t know whether or not she is even open to remarriage, let alone living on a boat. We plan to drive to a kosher market about an hour away from Riverside in about three weeks to restock our respective shelves. This will provide an opportunity for conversation. We are also planning to have a singles second night seder at my house. With this we can provide a service to university students and others, perhaps, who are away from their families — ulterior motive alert: this will also provide an opportunity to learn how well we can work together on a project. At some point we can go out in the back yard, and she can see the boats. She is aware that I very much value her as a friend — I have told her so. I don’t want to pressure her and scare her off, and, at the same time, if one were to ask me, I would have to admit that I am “in love” with her. I plan this coming Shabbat, to ask her if she knows of your work and ,if not, would she like me to send her the link to your Web site; it could be helpful to her, no matter what turns our relationship may take.

    There are a couple of factors that I am not sure are ‘speed bumps’ or roadblocks: she is 19 years younger than I and is working in real-estate sales, which she enjoys.

    Day sales and trips out to Catalina Island in the pocket cruiser I am building might suffice. On its trailer, of course, it can go to windward at 55MPH for longer distance travel.

    I want to be assertive — masculine — without in any way trying to change her — at least as far as I know her, she is wonderful as she is. I aspire to be the right man for her, (though I am stuck with the age thing,) so I am the one I am working on.

    Any advice you may have would be greatly valued.

    Don Belding

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Don–
      Messing with your mind is the last thing I want to do. You must be thinking of someone else. I am to the mind what a Furuno NavPlotter is to the ocean navigator. Living aboard is definitely enticing, especially in SoCal where you won’t have to deal with winter snow, slippery docks, nasty condensation and hard to heat corners of the boat. I recommend you do so on a trawler; kiss sailing goodbye (though you can carry that nice little 9′ sailing dinghy on the bridge deck). I say this because living on a trawler means fewer and easier companionways. Wherever you go, above decks or below, engine room or cockpit, on your sailing cruiser, you’re climbing up and down constantly. It can get tiring even well before 75! Life on a trawler is more on one level. Second, I have sailed up and down the west coast on a Peterson 44 sailing cutter. Going north is just plain unpleasant most of the time. Newport Beach to Catalina with a jaunt down to Oceanside or San Diego is fine but anywhere past Santa Barbara is really not fun. With a trawler you’ll discover the joys of twin 400HP diesels with 8-12 knots on call by press of a button. Thirdly, I am thinking of Eva. A woman can be quite comfortable on a 44 foot trawler but definitely not so much on a sailing boat of the same overall length. So, forget the sailing, Don. Those days are behind you and better ones are ahead!
      Don’t ask Eva if she’d like you to send her the URL to our website. No, tell her you’re sending it and you’d be very interested in hearing her reaction. (Of course she might read your question herein and my response–but I don’t see much problem there) Her age should not trouble you. If yours troubles her, you’ll have some work to do but it’s not insurmountable. She sounds wonderful so I’d waste no time in opening escrow. I’d not recommend any dates sailing to Catalina or anywhere else on any boat too small to have a fully electric flush toilet in a private and adequately sized compartment. (Of course if you invite me boating with you, I’m not fussy. An old paint can is just fine. But for a special lady…No.) Make sure that the chabad rabbi you’re both connected with is on board with the romance (shidduch/match) if you think his approval might matter to Eva. Try to be at a slightly more advanced level of Jewish religious observance than Eva if you can. Finally, if at all possible, ensure that you are making more money doing whatever you do than Eva does in real estate. That sums up my sailing directions for a wonderfully successful voyage ahead. Fair winds!

      PS: In ancient Jewish wisdom, a life journey is often compared to an ocean passage on a ship.

  6. Rabbi, my dear friend, I was particularly taken by the last paragraph:

    “It goes without saying that we all need our anchors in life. As I repeatedly remind listeners to my podcast, the more that things change, the more we must depend upon those things that never change. It is only by knowing exactly what anchors in our lives never change that we are liberated to embrace change. It is what allows us to escape the tyranny of our current condition. Having those anchors allow us to cast off the mooring lines that tie us to yesterday and thrill to the fight and challenge that is tomorrow’s journey.”

    In my almost 45 years in the investment business, there are some truths that have appeared in regards your writing. One is called the Trott Theorem, which the former A.G. Becker Strategist Don Trott hypothesized around 1982 wherein markets coalesce around economic certainty, if participants are split about a potential coming recession, the uncertainty can purport bad things for the market. If people come together on the same wavelength about the economy, whether it is going up or down, then the market can stabilize and do better. Second, and more importantly, is on taxes with the most recent tax cut as an example. When Congress was split as to whether President Trump’s corporate tax cut would prevail, the market rally stalled a bit and was trendless, after it passed, the market rallied. The market’s were fine until the fall election, when there was doubt (at least on the betting side) as to whether or not the Democrats would retake the House. After it happened, the Democrats were hitting hard with talks of corporate tax hikes. U.S. Corporations were at the top of most taxed and uncompetitive in the world then, with the tax cut, became near the most competitive in the world. But, with the uncertainty of the election bringing talk of higher taxes and corporate instability, a hard market fall came. Now that the tax increase is not at the forefront (at least for the moment until the D’s try to cut a deal around a big construction program in exchange for higher taxes), the market is rallying.

    Happy New Year to you and Susan!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Don-
      Your reputation as one of the most astute people in investment and finance is even strengthened by this note. I didn’t know of the Trott theorem but it’s beautiful. Thanks so much. It explains exactly what happened in the market during the past two months and I will keep my eye on this insight going forward. Wishing you and all the Ghers a 2019 of good health.

  7. Dear Rabbi,
    Your wisdom is not of this world and I know I definitely need a Rabbi! I am so glad I found you, now I am never letting you go. This piece is profound for me cos sometimes when you are in that place where you choose to not settle, it seems crazy to the ordinary person. “Why not settle since you just accomplished that major goal”- they say. I am so encouraged because this thought confirms to me that I am on track. The World better watch out.

  8. Dear Rabbi Lapin,
    I want to thank you especially for this thoughtful message. I don’t mean the others aren’t, but this time I was in a defining moment and I think God has speaking to me through your precious lines. God bless you and thank you for the diligence, dedication and time that you invest to bless others.
    Gretings from Germany

  9. My Rabbi, THIS Thought Tools addition is printed and kept in my journal so I may refer to it until it becomes solidly seated in my noggin. I am grateful for the freedom & direction it has brought. Be in good health.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Susan–
      I am so happy to hear that this Thought Tool liberated you to go airborne. The picture of the culprit, that person most responsible for holding you back, can be found upon your driving licence. If this Thought Tool allowed you to reboot your ‘software’ it fulfilled its purpose.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Sure, Alice,
      in fact, read that Thought Tool again. We write them for four readings, knowing full well that only a few ambitious people are reading it more than once.

  10. Thank you Rabbi Lapin. As an empty nester who is about to downsize and move in 2 weeks, this piece spoke strongly to me. I have been seeking tranquility and have been dreading change.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hello Tammy
      Letting today be all about yesterday can easily mess up tomorrow, as you well know, so, onwards and upwards. Don’t seek tranquility–not for many many years yet, and embrace change. Meanwhile, stay firm on your anchors that never change. Whatever yours are.

  11. I’m confused. Why is it that an unsettled person in a boat piques our interest and an unsettled person in a car doesn’t?
    I have an RV that I once lived in with my family, and it has never been a point of interest for anyone, rather a point of pity for my wife and children during that time. I was a soldier then and knew I wouldn’t be at a duty station very long, so my plan was to live on wheels economically until I transferred and had some savings. My commander wouldn’t have it. He ordered me to move out of the RV, so I bought a cheap house hoping to not get deeper into debt. That’s when the housing market collapsed and I had an even cheaper house in a neighborhood full of cheaper houses (and an RV payment) and a now mortgage that was even more expensive, just in time for that transfer I expected. Thirteen years later, I’m still digging myself out of that hole with none of the savings I hoped for. Had I stayed “unsettled” then, I would now be able to “settle” in my post-military self-employment working for people instead of working for money.

  12. As usual, a wonderful and thought-provoking Thoughttools. I had to chuckle, though, when you referred to hippies saying, “turning off and tuning out.” Clearly you had a non-hippie upbringing! As a former hippie (albeit in a minor way–I just had an Afro), I remember “Turn on, tune in, drop out” as a counterculture-era phrase popularized by Timothy Leary in 1966. Of course, I wasn’t turning, tuning, or dropping at that time as I was only seven…! Keep up the good work; your wisdom is appreciated.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Chris–
      With our long personal friendship that I cherish, I particularly enjoy hearing from you in this venue. This is true even when you correct my egregious error. I should be ashamed (but I’m not) of not remembering that it was exactly the opposite of how I wrote it. I was as contemptuous then as I am now of those self-important student radicals who were the flotsam washed up by the collective madness that swept through the youth of the world in the 1960s and left them all utterly maladapted to ordinary life for years afterwards. Sadly they became the professors repeating their folly for the young people of today. Enjoy your family and your work,

  13. Hi Rabbi Daniel,

    This article surely helped me realize the reason why I am continuously experiencing challenges in my life. Indeed, the more I wish to settle, the more God would send something that would remind me not to do so. I think that somehow this idea of not settling is tied up with not retiring at all.

    I have been learning a lot from you. You and Susan never failed to surprise me with new nuggets of wisdom.

    I do have personal questions which I would send at a later time.

    Thank you and I hope to meet you in person someday. 🙂

  14. Alessandro Mecle

    Dear Rabbi, the phrase “…Desiring tranquility is chasing an illusion” is concise. A lot of information clearly and in a few words; brief but comprehensive. That reminds me the Chapter 23 in Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language, where you wrote about the situation of Venice Beach vagrants compared to a husband who might have attended your sinagogue on the same beach, “the good kind of freedon”!

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Great observation, Alessandro–
      I hadn’t thought about that chapter in our “Buried Treasure” book for a while but you’re of course 100% accurate. We love freedom TO but abhor the perils of freedom FROM.

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