How the Smartest Man Failed

May 3rd, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 25 comments

Since pencils were invented about five hundred years ago they have needed regular sharpening.  For most of this period, sharpening was accomplished by a person wielding a knife and whittling away the wood to uncover more of the graphite core.  Finally, in the 19th century, people began trying to build a mechanical pencil sharpener that would require no skill to operate and that would deliver consistently sharp pencil points.

The earliest were clumsy contraptions attempting to mimic the reciprocal movement of a hand holding a blade.  It finally dawned on inventors that they were not trying to build a duplicate of a human sharpening a pencil; they were trying to build a better way of sharpening a pencil. And they did. What they came up with was the now-familiar device into which you insert your pencil and which contains two or three helical cylindrical cutters that rotate about the pencil when the handle is turned.

The first versions of many inventions like the tractor, sewing machine, and airplane all failed because their inventors remained locked into the old way of doing things. Subsequent versions succeeded as innovators discarded the old visions opening their minds to solving the problem rather than merely improving the old system.

We’re all susceptible to the trap of not being open to entirely new and revolutionary ways of solving problems.  Do I really need a full-time secretary and an office in which to house her or could I use a virtual assistant? Do I really need a car or could I make do with Uber?  Let’s see how even the smartest man in the world, King Solomon, slipped up by clinging to an old model.

Any king of Israel is prohibited from doing three things:  He may not acquire a large number of horses.  He may not marry many wives.  He may not acquire much silver and gold. Here is the relevant Biblical text:

When you come to the land the Lord, your God, is giving you…you shall choose a king…he may not acquire many horses for himself…and he shall not take many wives for himself…and he shall not acquire much silver and gold
(Deuteronomy 17:14-17)

God blessed King Solomon with wisdom (I Kings 5:26) so he certainly knew the above few verses, yet…

And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses
(I Kings 5:6)

King Solomon loved many foreign women in addition to the daughter of Pharaoh…and he had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines…
(I Kings 11:1,3)

And the weight of gold that came to Solomon every year was 666 kikars of gold…
(II Chronicles 9:13)

How is it possible that the great King Solomon stumbled over precisely the three restrictions that God placed over kings?

An unexpected sequence of facts provides us with a clue.

And Solomon became a son-in-law to Pharaoh king of Egypt by taking Pharaoh’s daughter, and brought her into the city of David…
(I Kings 3:1)

Only later do we read:

And Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father…
(I Kings 3:3)

Shouldn’t Chapter 3 have rather begun with the information that Solomon loved the Lord?  Instead it first tells us of his entanglement with the daughter of a nation that enslaved Israel and which Israel is repeatedly admonished to spurn.

It’s even worse than we suspected.  While building his palace he naturally would have built quarters for all his wives.  It is an ominous sign that he singled out Pharaoh’s daughter by building her special accommodations.

And his house in which he would dwell, was in the other court within the porch…and the house he made for Pharaoh’s daughter…was like this porch.
(I Kings 7:8)

While we are told very little about Solomon’s many other wives, this we know:

Pharaoh’s daughter came up from the City of David to her house,
which Solomon had built for her…
(I Kings 9:24)

Notice that she is never named. Instead she is constantly referred to as Pharaoh’s daughter.  This is yet another sinister suggestion: she remained more deeply connected to Pharaoh than to her husband.  Sure enough, here’s a piece of news that confirms just that:

Pharaoh, king of Egypt conquered Gezer and burnt it with fire,
and slayed the Canaanites who inhabited the city;
and he gave it as a gift to his daughter, Solomon’s wife.
(I Kings 9:16)

Pharaoh didn’t gift the city of Gezer to his son-in-law but to his daughter.

Clearly, Egypt and its leader had a channel of communication right into the heart of Israel’s governmental administration.  Equally clearly, Solomon’s connection to his Egyptian wife was not personal and romantic as much as it was philosophical and political.

Solomon was hoping to build a Godly empire.  He planned an entire God-centric nation, sculpted to a Biblical vision and governed according to Godly principles emanating from a grand temple in Jerusalem.  At that time of history, approximately the mid-10th century BC, Egypt provided the closest model of a large empire.  Instead of envisaging something entirely new and fresh, Solomon was seduced into trying to redesign the Egyptian civic and royal model into his Godly society.  Hence the baleful presence of Egypt in Solomon’s administration in the form of his wife, Pharaoh’s daughter.  Not surprisingly, his kingdom was doomed.

It turned out that a mechanical bird didn’t need flapping wings—it needed a propeller.

One’s marriage doesn’t have to be based on one’s parents’.  It might be something completely new and vastly superior.  If our parents’ relationship with money was unhealthy, we don’t need to tinker with their behavior patterns but to abandon them. When the model is wrong, and certainly when it contradicts God’s instructions, we must unshackle ourselves from the existing paradigm and be willing to break with what we know and create different templates.



Lynn Perrizo says:

How did Solomon get from the beautiful relationship of love in Song of Solomon to the place he is at in 1Kings? I’ve always thought his excessive wives were simply political. Is this true? Whatever happened to that relationship in Song of Solomon? Are there any clues in Ancient Jewish Wisdom?

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Lynn-
As we explain in this week’s Thought Tool, Solomon’s desire to achieve much for God can be a trap. His greatness in writing Song of Songs and Proverbs is in no way diminished by his failures elsewhere. We are humans touched by the finger of God, not piggy banks or financial statements where a debt of $100 wipes out assets of $95. With us, our credits stand and our flaws stand–each alone.

I’m stealing, er, borrowing that last sentence. Rabbis say the darndest things. I love it.

Carmine Pescatore says:

We grow old too soon and wise too late. I wish I had access to your insights on life when I was a young man fifty years ago.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Carmine–
Your comment is with out doubt the most frequent we receive. Poignant and true–we all have regrets about the past. This is one of the most challenging aspects of being a child of God. We grow and we look back with regret. But late is far better than never. Note, that I do not say “It’s never too late” since this is manifestly untrue–one can miss the flight. But gaining insight now is truly better than not ever getting it. And you get it!

Terry says:

I too wish I had better insights while I was still young, made some poor choices, but you are correct you can not go back. The saying “it’s never too late” is clearly untrue, it can be to late for a good many pursuits after 50, was considering pursuing more education, but my husband is looking toward retirement, and it would be unfair to him if I started over at this stage of the game. But the problem still stems from choices I made when I was much much younger, I find myself with very few employment options, because I did not set myself up better for a career, and age and health are also a factor. I am a little old for the type of employment which would be open to me, and I find I don’t want to do the most menial jobs at my age. I am aware that no one can start at the top, but starting at the very bottom seems like a waste of time also. Tell the young ones to get there education while they are young, tell them to have a good career also, tell them to choose to marry and have children AFTER these things are in place. Especially with our economy the way it is now, there is less in way of opertunities especially for the middle class than there used to be.

Michael Gries says:

We are constantly taught to solve our problems, or improve our present situation and paradigm by secular means. When we perhaps should trust God as the alternative, new way. For many of us, we don’t even consider God and His influence in presenting a better way.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

So true, Michael–
Trying to solve our problems and overcome our challenges without God and His spiritual powers is like trying to get from New York to London while consuming no fuel. You could row, this is true but lots of luck. You’ll do better using jet fuel, diesel oil or even nuclear power. Spurning spiritual power is just as foolish.

Mary says:

Dear Rabbi,
I love your thoughts. I do have a question though. If as people we are to prosper, then would you further explain this, “…and he shall not acquire much silver and gold…(Deuteronomy 17:14-17).” Maybe I’m not understanding the Jewish concept of “prosperity” can you help me please? Thank you in advance.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Mary–
The only way a king has to amass money is by the power of taxation. You and I can make money by serving other people and getting paid–the money serves as testimony that we indeed served another of God’s children. Thus when we prosper it is in response to serving other people, for a king to ‘prosper’ means he has taxed too much. This is obviously terrible. The verse you quote is exactly the one I quote in the Thought Tool above–it applies to the king, not to me and you.

Susan Gilliland says:

Love this explanation!

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thank you Susan–
Hope you’re all doing great!

Mary says:

Thank you Rabbi for taking the time to answer my question, this makes so much sense now. Thank you for bringing the Torah to life!
Sincerely, Mary

Jacinta says:

Thank you for the wise words. I am constantly learning & being edified but your teaching.

Camille says:

Thank you Mary as I had the exact same question!

In Christian circles that teach prosperity, Solomon is often mentioned as the model to form ourselves after. Also it is taught that due to his wisdom he gained the riches.

Rabbi who would be the better example of gaining wealth God’s way? Off the top of my head I’m thinking Abraham?

Thanks so much for providing constant and consistent clarity to God’s word!


Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Camille–
Solomon’s wisdom as in the Book of Proverbs supplies much information on money, its acquisition and its correct usage. But Solomon’s life is not meant as an example for us. It’s a case of ‘do as he said not as he did!’ No, Solomon gained riches like any other king does so or tries to do so. Taxation. There is no other way. Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, and everyone else in royalty. There is no other way for them. However we can use Solomon’s wisdom to prosper by serving God’s other children just as we ought to. Listen to my podcast on the topic the morality of making money here if you haven’t already done so:

Thanks, Rabbi; I needed to hear that. What it seems to be is that the generator of a “new” idea (coming from something familiar) is–at least at first–too close to it to see past it, as in the wings of Icarus. “We do not see the lens through which we are looking” –Ruth Benedict. I hope you will get around to answering the questions raised in a couple of the other responses here; this is a fascinating topic.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thanks Deb–
I am a big fan of Ruth Benedict (The Chrysanthemum and the Sword) so thanks for the RB quote.
I think I have answered all the comments here today so far.

Paula says:

I do like this teaching, and it’s very timely for me. Thinking outside of the box is not easy, especially for leaders who are strongly encouraged to follow existing patterns, but I think we’ll have to do this in our congregation in order to connect with the unaffiliated in our community. Never mind them joining the shul, we need to be introduced first! Think outside the box, and use Torah principals as your guide.

I am also very much enjoying the audiobook “Thou Shall Prosper” from Audible. I am learning a lot, and being reminded of other ideas. The only thing I would change, Rabbi, is to have you read the book yourself and not use a professional reader. I always enjoy hearing your enthusiasm come through, and frankly the reader is not all that exciting.

James Dorsey says:

Agree. His voice and the personality of his voice, if one can use that term, is quite helpful when listening to his teachings of ancient Jewish wisdom.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

It’s just that accent James!

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thanks for writing Paula–
Regarding your congregation, perhaps consider doing away with ‘membership’. These days people are discouraged by organizations that ask for money before doing anything of service to them. Welcome people, try find ways for the shul to be relevant and above all, useful in their lives. Then ask them to donate in proportion to the benefits they have enjoyed by shul affiliation. We did this in the synagogue we planted in Venice California in the early 80s and it thrived and continues to do so.
Yes, I should have read the book for Audible but they have a policy of not paying authors for reading though they pay ‘professional’ readers. I was discouraged about doing over 20 hours work for free. My decision was probably a mistake. I would have done a more passionate and engaged job.
I hope you listen to my enthusiasm each week on my podcast — oh tell me you do!

Sihle says:

Insightful indeed
thanks Sir

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thanks Sihle
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Man, that ended abruptly. I was wanting more, but then I reread it and realized nothing more was needed, but I still wanted more.

We would love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment.

Comments will be posted after approval by our moderator, so you will not see your comment immediately.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.This is a required field!

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Search Thought Tools

Yes! I would like to receive FREE weekly teachings

Sign Up Now!