For Goodness Sakes

Pssst!  Hey guys, want to know a secret?  Ever wondered why so many women love being pregnant?  Though you might consider it presumptuous that I, a man, answer this very female question, I’m actually well able to do so.  You see, it is for the same reason that many people find a journey on an airplane to be quite relaxing.  Once a TSA agent with the charm of Torquemada has inflicted his attention upon us and once we’ve endured the cattle-slaughter-house-atmosphere of the boarding process, yes, we do find the rest of the trip strangely relaxing.

Even if you do nothing else but read and snooze while on an airplane, you are still advancing towards your objective. Every minute carries you ten miles closer to your destination. To a far greater extent, even if she does nothing but eat and sleep, every minute of pregnancy brings the future mother closer to a transcendent moment.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to simulate this aspect of pregnancy?  How gratifying to know that every minute of the day is carrying you closer to your destination.  How do we ensure that each moment of our lives is an investment that lasts forever?

Since good endures forever, we need only ask ourselves constantly whether the manner in which we intend spending the next hour is good.  Naturally, the term good needs definition.  What good means to an ardent Islamic fanatic in Iraq is quite different from what good means to, say, a faithful Christian farmer and family man in Fresno.

From a Biblical perspective, good comprises four categories of action. (i)  Improving our relationship with God.  (ii)  Advancing the interests of our families.   (iii)  Advancing our financial interests.  (iv) Serving the interests of our friends and fellow citizens.

Time and energy invested in these four activities is good, carrying lasting impact, and is thus never wasted.

Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that the first time in the Torah that a specific letter is used to start a word, that word provides a key to the inner meaning of that initial letter.

Consider the first usage of the word good in Scripture.

And God saw the light, that it was good…
(Genesis 1:4)

 The Hebrew word for good is TOV.  Its initial letter Tet is the ninth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with a numerical value of nine. In ancient Jewish wisdom, the number nine is linked to pregnancy. Since TOV is the first word in the Bible to start with a Tet, it is linked to good.

 Tet = 9 = TOV = good = pregnancy

 Pregnancy fits all four categories of good actions: (i) becoming a partner in creation with God (ii) family (iii) Having children provides a worthwhile reason for gaining wealth. (iv) A well-raised and productive human being blesses the society into which it is born.

The thirteen verses containing the second appearance of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-18) contain at least one instance of every single letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Amazingly, the thirteen verses containing the first appearance of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-14) reveal one stunningly conspicuous exception.

The letter Tet is completely absent from the first commandments!

Anything good endures forever, and Moses was destined to cast down and shatter the first two tablets of the Ten Commandments.  Had they contained the letter Tet, representing the concept of good, they could not have been destroyed.  However, the thirteen verses comprising the second appearance of the Ten Commandments do contain the letter Tet, because these tablets last forever.  It is found in the Hebrew word NeTuYaH meaning ‘outstretched’. (Deuteronomy 5:15)

Therefore, in order to avoid a single wasted hour or a single wasted joule of our energy we need to strive to ensure that each waking hour is devoted to serving God, our families, our financial interests and God’s other children.

Failure to do so means looking back at wasted time and effort which can evoke the sensation of sickness of soul similar to the debilitating nausea of the first trimester of pregnancy or of a particularly bumpy plane ride.

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Food and Faith

A four-week window of Jewish holy days is approaching. I understand why we will spend more time in synagogue than usual. However, we will also spend more time at the dining room table. This isn’t a concession to human frailty; it is recognition of human greatness.

Ever since the start of our lives as babes suckling at our mothers’ breasts, eating provides us with not one, but two benefits.  They are (i) physical nourishment and sustenance, and (ii) spiritual and emotional sustenance.  The link between eating and emotion is well studied.  Many of us have ‘comfort foods.’  Gloom and uncertainty are often banished by a meal that fills our heart as well as our stomach.

Have you ever wondered why so many young people nowadays suffer from eating disorders that were virtually unknown a generation or two ago?  Surely the answer is the spiritual desert in which so many young people live.  Eating disorders are more often treated by a psychologist than by a nutritionist because there is a powerful spiritual component to eating. In other words, food and faith go together.

Here is the first occurrence in Scripture of God issuing a commandment to man:

And the Lord God commanded the Adam saying, “Of every tree of the garden eat you must eat.”
(Genesis 2:16)

Many English translations get it wrong by translating, “…of every tree of the garden you shall surely eat”

The original Hebrew does not say “surely”.  Instead it repeats the commandment to eat.  Here is what the Hebrew looks like:

from all the trees of the gardenB

Reading from right to left, you will see five words.  [From all]    [the trees]   [of the garden]   [eat!]    [you must eat].

You can see that the fourth and fifth words look very similar, distinguished only by the one letter prefix ‘you must’.

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that God’s first explicit directive repeats the verb ‘to eat’ to tell us to perform two separate and distinct acts with every mouthful. We are to eat for both physical and spiritual reasons.  That way we extract the full benefit from every morsel of food.

Our Creator surely knew that in the future scientists could find ways to fulfill our bodies’ needs through tablets or infusions, bypassing the fruits, vegetables and grains He provided for us. No! Machines need fuel. Humans need more than that; they must eat!

How weird is it that we absorb nutrition through the same facial orifice from which our voices emerge?  Dedicated functionality seems to be God’s design. After all, we don’t smell and hear through our ears. Mouths are different.

Speech is a uniquely human function while eating is not. Sharing the same orifice reminds us to take care to eat in a uniquely human way—one that provides spiritual as well as physical nourishment. In this vein, we prefer not to eat alone and to show gratitude to God for our food by blessings before and after eating, as we’ve written on in previous Thought Tools. Festival days are the perfect opportunity to create one cohesive totality in our lives. Yes, we pray a little more. We also eat a little more, sharing that experience with God’s other children.

Some of us face the danger of thinking ourselves to be sophisticated animals, forgetting that we have been touched by God. Others of us face the danger of thinking of ourselves as angels—spiritual beings at war with our physical selves. The dining room table reveals the truth, providing a place where our true selves can shine.

We place emphasis during this month on starting our year off in the way we wish it to continue. We can’t realistically reach straight for the stars, but we can commit to reaching for growth – maybe that way we will reach the stars! Our gift to you is 25% off all individual resources in our store (use promo code GROW at checkout) and 10% off all our always low-priced sets and packages (use promo code SPEAK at checkout). Order now, before we close for Rosh HaShanah on Wednesday evening.

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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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