Character, Not Curriculum

During the 19th century, when England was largely populated by Bible-believing Christians, Thomas Henry Huxley was ahead of his time.  He invented the word ‘agnostic’ to explain himself and later devoted his life to promoting what he thought of as “scientific rationalism” rather than religion. Among his writings is this paragraph:

“Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not. It is the first lesson that ought to be learned and however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.”

It serves to show how even smart people can say foolish things.  Huxley is suggesting that education can give us the ability to do what we should do, when we ought to do it, whether we feel like it or not.  In other words, he believes that will power and self-discipline can be academically taught.  If this were true, there would be some correlation between education and successful living.  However, many people with advanced academic degrees exercise no willpower and demonstrate no self-discipline whereas many people who failed to graduate high school possess those characteristics.

He is right that it would be most valuable to acquire early in life the ability to make yourself do the things you have to do when you ought to do them.  Conversely, it follows that acquiring the ability to refrain from doing those things that you ought not to do would be equally valuable.

But it just isn’t that simple.  There is no course you can take in high school or college that will equip you with these vital life skills.  If there were, there would be no such thing as a procrastinating professor.  Doing what you should do and doing it in a timely manner is not a matter of fact.  It is a matter of faith.  Refraining from things you ought not to do is not a matter of curriculum.  It is a matter of character.

Here is a little of ancient Jewish wisdom’s teachings on the topic.

Each of the three letters making up the Hebrew word for king—MeLeC—stands for a part of the human body.

M – Mo-aCH – Brain
L- LeV -  Heart
C – CaVeD – Liver

What is more, those three parts of the human body carry special spiritual allusions.  The brain alludes to our analytical and thoughtful abilities. Whenever the word heart is used in Scripture, it means our emotional beings.  Finally, the word CaVeD, liver, means base bodily appetites.

Furthermore, the word MeLeC, ‘king,’ occurs thousands of times in Scripture. Biblically, when discussing people, king can refer to anybody rising to leadership over his fellow humans.

Thus, aspiring to leadership means running your life and making your decisions based primarily on intellectual and thoughtful analysis.  Secondly, consider your emotions.  Finally, only once all else is in place, indulge the bodily appetites.  A successful life is lived firstly on doing what one’s head directs and only subsequently on what one’s heart wants.  Seldom, if ever, are important decisions made based on the calls of the body.

Conversely, let’s see what Hebrew word emerges by reversing the three letters.  What if one runs one’s life with paramount emphasis on food, sex, and fun?  Then if time and energy still allow, one does what one’s heart directs, and finally, if ever, one listens to the call of one’s head. What would that life look like?

Reversing the order of the letters making up the Hebrew for king, we now have:

Caved – liver – bodily appetites
Lev – heart – emotions
Mo ach – brain – the intellect

What does the Hebrew word CaLeM, (the opposite of MeLeC) mean?  Answer:  Embarrassment, shame, calumny.  Notice that words like calumny and calamity possess the root letters of CLM.

The lesson is clear.  To reach the heights of leadership and success, do first what your head tells you. Only then consult your heart, and finally, very finally, think of what your body craves. Failing to heed this guidance leads to calumny, embarrassment and shame.

The problem is that knowing this does not ensure that we will follow it.  Every business professional incarcerated for cutting corners and every politician publicly humiliated by his extra-marital affairs knows that he should have followed his head rather than his bodily desires or his heart.

Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that the basic requirement for a king of Israel was an active and healthy relationship with God.  The Israelite king had to write his own copy of the Torah and he had to follow it.  A connection with God is one of the strongest tools for building character.  Possessing deep conviction that regardless of where one finds oneself, the King of Kings is watching with the highest expectations is a guard rail of moral safety.

There are naturally agnostics and atheists with high character, just as there are sadly, religious people without.  However, what I say to atheists who ask me if I think being religious makes me better than they is this:  I don’t think my faith in God makes me better than you-I don’t know what’s in your heart. How could I know?  But I do know that my religion makes me far better than I would be without it. And me I do know.

Huxley was an intelligent man.  Of this there is no doubt.  However, he lacked wisdom, believing that character could be taught as if it were a page of historic facts.

It is often easier to think wisely when we are not emotionally involved. It is also almost impossible to face a challenge that no one else faces. Thousands of you present intriguing questions to our popular ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column. We hope that our answers help many look at life through a Biblical lens, making life’s path smoother. We’ve collected 101 of these questions and answers into a book that we are delighted to share with you. 

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Built to Give

Do you know what a “men’s room” is?  When I first heard the phrase soon after I immigrated to the U.S. from England where I’d been studying, my mind conjured up a big screen television, a comfortable couch, and a BBQ emitting wonderful smells of cooked meat.  That’s my men’s room!  Instead, I discovered that the term, like washroom, restroom, and bathroom are really all euphemisms for a room designed for relieving oneself.

Why would a society so comfortable with public expression of so many things, appear to be so squeamish about the perfectly natural bodily function of voiding one’s bowels.  You’ll pardon me. I don’t mean to be vulgar. However, I do think it important to ask why a society so openly public about every possible variation of sexual pleasure is so uncomfortable about simply saying, “Excuse me but I have to go and empty my bowels.”  Why do people instead say, “Excuse me, but I have to use the washroom.” For what—a shower?  “Excuse me, but I need a rest room.”  Why, are you tired?

Clearly, there is deep-seated discomfort with publicly acknowledging our need to relieve ourselves.  Therein lies the clue.  It is called ‘relieving oneself’ and not ‘relieving society’ or ‘relieving the world.’  Going to the bathroom is one of the very few human activities that in no way benefits, helps, (or relieves) anyone else other than the person involved.  One could say that, necessary though it is, it remains one of the few utterly selfish things that each of us does.  Not surprisingly, our souls are embarrassed by it.  Not because it is a bodily function, but because we feel subconsciously uncomfortable doing things that benefit only ourselves.

Even when indulging ourselves, say, in the purchase of an ice cream, our action produces other beneficiaries such as the storeowner.  This is why we feel no shame at purchasing some desired object.  We feel most comfortable as givers and not grabbers.

This is one of the reasons we love bringing children into the world and raising them.  They allow us to be givers.  We enjoy the sound of ‘Come here, Daddy, I need you.”  Children allow us to become similar to that Ultimate Giver in heaven, God Himself who gives so much to His children.

Indeed, we find the great King Solomon emphasizing how giving is in tune with God’s creation.

 There are those who give freely and yet prosper while others withhold what they should rightfully give and only come to shortage.
(Proverbs 11:24)

How can giving somehow bring abundance while grabbing and retaining often lead to destitution?  This is surely counter-intuitive.  However, knowing how the world REALLY works means understanding the mechanisms that God placed into reality.

Whether we are farmers, florists or framers; whether we are ballerinas, builders or beauticians, our abundance depends upon other people purchasing our goods or services.  In practice, that means an employer hiring me for the job rather than all the other applicants.  It means people patronizing my used car business or my janitorial services.  Why do people pick me rather than my competitors?  Usually it is more based on my interpersonal skills than because of technical proficiency.

Few of us know where our doctor ranked in medical school or even from which medical school she graduated.  We depend upon word of mouth and reputation; in other words, we depend upon how people that we trust feel about the doctor.

Not only do we become embarrassed when we become takers rather than givers, but we are put off by others who appear to be takers.  A characteristic that repels potential patients, employers, customers, or clients is projecting the personality of a grabber rather than a giver.  The super aggressive salesman, the store clerk almost pleading with you to purchase something, the realtor whose eyes seem constantly focused on his potential commission; these make us uncomfortable.  They come across to us as takers not givers.  Sometimes it is subconscious.  We may not be fully aware of why we are repelled by one vendor and attracted to another.  More often than not, it is that our souls are repelled by takers and drawn to givers.

Thus, when I become pleasingly useful to many of God’s other children, I automatically prosper. And the way to do that is to focus on how I can give something long before I focus on what I can get.  In so doing I am virtuously imitating God who gives His children so much, asking so little in return.  We are indeed correct to feel embarrassed about do things that benefit nobody but ourselves.

One of the things Susan and I treasure doing is helping guide our readers through some of life’s confusing situations. Each week we answer one on the many questions sent to us as people grapple with their families, livelihoods, faith and relationships. We have gathered 101 of the most representative and popular questions and answers into a book, Dear Rabbi and Susan, which we are excited to present. We hope you’ll use it as a way to stimulate conversation and debate—a give and take that benefits everyone.

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A Sailor’s Life for Me

You don’t need the power of command in order to be a leader.  You don’t have to be able to fire, fine or imprison people in order to lead them. It is possible to influence others by evoking admiration.

Let’s survey the first chapter of the book of Jonah, focusing on the interaction between Jonah and the sailors who take him Tarshish in his attempt to evade God and His directives.

At first, the crew is merely “them”.

…[Jonah] went down to Jaffa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare for it, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish…
(Jonah 1:3)

Even on today’s large cruise-liners, people tend to socialize.  In Jonah’s day, ships were much smaller, carrying mostly cargo.  Not surprisingly, experiencing a terrifying storm, Jonah and the crew became acquainted. In Jonah’s eyes, they were no longer a faceless “them.”  They were sailors, idolatrous but nonetheless, professional mariners.

Then the sailors were afraid, and cried each one to his own god…
(Jonah 1:5)

At this point, Jonah surprisingly goes below deck for a nap.

The captain awakes him, asking him to pray as well.

Now the sailors evolve still further, becoming men.  The Hebrew word chosen for ‘man’ here is ISH ISH suggests more than a male human, rather a man possessing nobility of spirit.

And each man said to his colleague, come let’s throw lots in order to discover on whose account is this evil coming upon us…
(Jonah 1:7)

God responded to the sailors and the lots reveal Jonah to be the cause of the unnatural storm.

And they said to him, inasmuch as you are the cause of this evil, please tell us what is your profession and from where do you come, what is your land and from what people do you come?
(Jonah 1:8)

By their brilliant question, these sailors show themselves to be quite different from what one imagines sailors to be.  After all, since time immemorial, sailors separated from family, society, and the institutions of civilization, tend to be rough, rowdy, and unrestrained.

However, these men realize that how one contributes to the world through work reveals a great deal about a person.   So does examining those with whom he associates.  They attempt to make sense of Jonah through their questions.

Jonah responds by essentially explaining that the only relevant thing they need to know is that this unnatural storm is due to his relationship with God.

And he said to them, I am a Hebrew and I fear the Lord, God of heaven…
(Jonah 1:9)

They ask Jonah what they can do in order to restore calm to the wild seas.

“Throw me overboard” he calmly assures them.

These men truly reveal greatness by rejecting this answer.  Verse 13 describes their mighty, but futile, struggle to bring the ship safely into harbor. Eventually, they accept Jonah’s words and obey him, throwing him overboard.

Through their interaction, Jonah comes to recognize the Godly spirit in these men. He relates to them not as faceless, unimportant individuals—them–but as sensitive and morally aware men. In turn, they recognize his holiness and pray to Jonah’s God, rather than to their gods. After the storm abates, validating their actions, these sailors become God-fearing men, bringing sacrifices to the Lord and vowing to lead upright lives.

The sailors’ behavior led Jonah to grow in the way he related to people; his understanding of God and willingness to sacrifice himself for the ship and her crew similarly made its mark on the men.

Jonah was merely a passenger with no power.  The sailors were not society’s elite. Yet each exerted enormous influence by evoking admiration. Jonah learned how to better relate to people; the sailors learned how to better relate to God. This is something each of us can do at home and in our marriages and family.  By having deep faith and moral clarity and behaving towards others with consideration and respect, we can all practice this principle of leadership.

If you are intrigued as to why Jonah went to sleep in the middle of a storm and wish more insights into messages for your life from the book of Jonah, you might enjoy our audio CD Day for Atonement: Heavenly Gift of Spiritual Serenity.

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Make ‘em, Don’t Break ‘em

Have you noticed how politicians in every country, even those only slightly influenced by the teachings of Karl Marx, tend to drive wedges between segments of the electorate?  They specialize in fanning the flames of resentment of the poor against the rich.  They encourage women to see men as their enemies.  And of course they increase hostility between people on the basis of the color of their skin.

Marx encouraged communist leaders to divide the population by class, race, and gender and to exacerbate grudges between them.  Secular fundamentalist seekers of political prestige do this almost instinctively.  They do it because it consolidates their power.  When your constituents are busy fighting each other, they have little time and less energy to oppose you. What is more, they all turn to you as referee, peacemaker, and allocator of rewards.

If you’ve noticed this in politics, you may also have encountered it in business.  Many so-called business leaders lead by fomenting savage battles among those they lead.  Doing so makes them more difficult to topple in any boardroom battle.  They believe that making team members see one another as competitors is more effective than defeating real marketplace competitors.  It is not only for-profit businesses; some churches and synagogues are plagued with this kind of leadership.

I have even seen parents who deliberately fuel ferocious fights among their children.  It makes them feel more loved by the children who, deprived of sibling support, vie for parental affection.  Increasingly we see, masquerading as leaders, men and women who specialize in splitting their followers into warring factions.  People are now accustomed to leaders who foster dissent, dispute and division.

A leader does not need to be maliciously intent on this mischief I have been describing.  Because squabbling is the default condition of humanity, a “Do-Nothing” leader will have exactly the same effect.  In his desperate desire to avoid conflict and escape decision making that will inevitably disappoint somebody, this kind of leader produces the same state of simmering tension in his organization.

Only the rare leader, possessing both a sense of security and a strong character builds unity in his organization as part of his mission.  Yet this is precisely what ancient Jewish wisdom expects from leadership.

Though Hebrew words such as ‘manhig’ meaning ‘leader’ have found modern usage in Israel, they don’t exist in Scripture.  This is because Scripture is more specific, preferring words for military leader, religious leader, and so on rather than a generic leader. The point is that just as a driver of a car is not necessarily able to drive a motorcycle, a jet plane, or a railway locomotive, a leader of one type of organization is not necessarily adept at leading other kinds of groups.

Nonetheless, the Scriptural word most relevant to our exploration of leadership is MeLeCH, translated as king.

As usual, when trying to probe the inner meaning of a word, we locate its first usage in the Torah.

And it came to pass in the days of Amrafel, king [MeLeCH] of Shinar,…
(Genesis 14:1)

That chapter continues to contain more than 25 usages of MeLeCH, king, which is fully one third of all the usages of ‘king’ in the Torah.  No other Torah chapter contains more than five uses of ‘king’.

This non-uniform distribution of a word like king, tells us that Genesis 14 discloses important insights to king and leader.  Clearly, we are intended to study the contrast between the 9 kings engaged in the first world war of history, and the ultimate victor of the entire conflict, Abraham.

In reading Genesis 14 we learn that much of humanity then was locked into rebellion, subjugation and warfare.  Not only was each king incapable of maintaining unity among his own people, he wasn’t even able to keep the peace with his fellow-kings.

By contrast, Abraham led only 318 men.  The Hebrew text alludes to them as those Abraham raised and educated.  (Genesis 14:14)  Isn’t that a wonderful way of viewing those you are responsible for leading?

The unity that Abraham engendered among his small band of followers was a main factor in the defeat he administered to the large military forces of the kings.

Not only does the Torah’s first usage of a word disclose secrets but also the last.  The final use of the word ‘king’ in the Torah is this:

And it was that when there was a king [MeLeCH]  in Yeshurun [Israel] the heads of the people were gathered together, the tribes of Israel were unified.
(Deuteronomy 33:5)

Which is to say that only when Israel had a real leader, a king worth of being called a king, did unity reign among the people.  As a leader, it is very tempting to allow disagreement to fester among your people as it appears to make you indispensable.  However this is a very short term strategy.  If your field of vision extends beyond the next election or the next annual report, you will want to lead Biblically and train others in your group to lead in the same way.

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Places I Remember

It’s sometimes difficult to force yourself to do your work, isn’t it?  Perhaps you allow the plague of procrastination to infect your soul.  Maybe you find unproductive ways to persuade yourself that you’re working, even though you’re not doing what really needs to be done.  How do we know what really needs to be done? One answer is whether the activity produces revenue from someone who is free to accept or decline your goods or services.

There is another way to know if we’re doing work, perhaps cooking or taking care of our home.  We can ask ourselves, “Who am I benefiting by doing what I am doing?” If the answer is, “Nobody!” or “Myself!” or even a vague, “Humanity!” then you’re probably not doing work.

In the Lord’s language, Hebrew, one word, AVoDaH, is used for serving God and for serving His children—in other words, work.  One way of serving God is through prayer and, though, of course, we can pray anywhere, there is an advantage to praying in a fixed place.

We learn from ancient Jewish wisdom that Abraham had a regular place to speak with God. There he prayed for Sodom (Genesis 18:23). Amazingly, after God destroyed Sodom despite his prayers, Abraham returned to the same place to continue praying to God.

And Abraham went [to pray] early in the morning to the place [MaKOM]
where he stood [in prayer]  before the Lord.
(Genesis 19:27)

By contrast, less praiseworthy people than Abraham changed their places of prayer when they failed to get the results they desired.  Rather than accepting a “no” or searching within themselves, they assumed the fault must lie in the geography and jumped from place to place.

And Balak said to him [Balam]  ‘please come with me to another place [MaKOM]  from where you may see them [Israel]… and curse them for me from there.’
(Numbers 23:13)

This word, MaKOM, place, whenever used in Tanach, always refers to a space with some Godly connection.  So powerful is this relationship between a special space—MaKOM—and God, that there is a compelling numerical clue.

The holy four letter name of God in Hebrew, known as the Tetragrammaton, comprises the following four letters, Yud, Heh, Vav, and Heh.

yud,hay, vav, hay

The numeric values of those letters are 10, 5, 6, and 5 respectively.  If those four letters define God’s name linearly as it were, then it follows that squaring them brings us to an awareness of God that is more spatial.

This process is similar to how we’d discover the area of a square field if we know the length of the side to be 10 yards.  We square the line of 10 yards and obtain an area of 100 square yards.

What happens when we square these four letters?

ten,five, six, five squared

Now, add together the four letters making up the Hebrew word MaKOM (place).

makom186equals186
So, in a sense, the “area” of God’s name gives us the Hebrew word for place, MaKOM.  Thus, when a special place is chosen, it possesses spiritual significance.  Yes, it is true that I can do my AVoDaH, meaning both my worship and my work serving others, almost anywhere.  I can pray on the bow of my small boat anchored off an island in British Columbia and thereafter, I can open my laptop and write a Thought Tool intended to bring useful data into your life.

Tod Inlet

However, both my prayer and my work get an additional boost if I do them in a fixed place.  Prayer is best when uttered in a space dedicated for that purpose and work flourishes when done in a place reserved for that purpose.

This is why one of the best ways of coping with the challenge of forcing yourself to focus on your work is to take yourself to the right MaKOM; the correct place for doing that work. Even if you must travel, it is beneficial to recreate the feel of your work or prayer place as much as possible.  Sometimes, even just the action of picking yourself up and moving to the right MaKOM brings God’s blessing to your efforts.

When different names for God are used throughout Tanach, it reveals more than literary variation. Like MaKOM, each name has unique implications. If you enjoyed this Thought Tool you will love the deeper meanings of God’s names that I reveal in our 2 audio CD set, The Gathering Storm: Decoding the Secrets of Noah. Suddenly, the dimensions given for the ark make sense in an astounding way. This resource will help you protect your family from troublesome times just as Noah was able to provide safety for his wife and children. Take advantage of special pricing right now.

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