Do The Math


“If we can see past preconceived limitations then the possibilities are endless.”               

Amy Purdy

Math (if they even call it that anymore in school) was always my worst subject. Yet, when I am trying to make sense of a situation, understand someone’s behavior, or best predict an outcome, I will use that expression – do the math. Whether this is true or not, to me, mathematics represents reality as it is – without distorted perception, wishful thinking, or resistance to what merely is. Sometimes we get confused when other people give us mixed messages. In that case, I suggest turning off the volume (the voice in our head) or the words coming out of their mouths and look at the behavior only, to get the much-needed clarity. Just do the math.

The very week that my book, A Year of Sacred Moments came out, my husband met with the owner of a small publishing house to discuss a Jewish journey book he had written – and he told this man about my book. My husband and I have been practicing law together for 25 years so I was excited to think of us both becoming writers in the Jewish world together as well. Not only did this publisher give my husband a reality check about the viability of his book concept, but he also conjectured about mine. In his opinion, there is no appreciable market for my kind of book, where people prefer books that are theme oriented – not structured according to the weekly Bible chapter, and he predicted sales well under 500 copies. He wasn’t trying to be mean – not at all! Being thirty years in the book business, he was just “doing the math,” and he didn’t want me to have unrealistic expectations and feel like a failure if I didn’t hit some fantasy number in my head.  

And who was I to argue or have an opinion to the contrary? I can’t even count how many intakes I have had with prospective divorce clients who would say something like – “My buddy said that since my wife cheated on me, I don’t have to give her anything” to which I would reply, “which law school did you say your friend attended?” I’m sorry, but not everyone has a right to an opinion.   And so I couldn’t just shake off what this publisher had to say and with impudent bravado, substitute my version of market reality for his.

Nevertheless, there is another way of looking at this whole thing. I have had clients willing to spend hundreds of dollars, thousands, even, fighting over worthless items. And I’m not talking sentimental value; I’m talking used dishtowels. My struggle as an attorney was to move my clients from the “story of divorce” into the “business of divorce” as many of them get stuck in what I termed, “emotional math.”

Maybe one of the lessons of Lech Lecha is to learn a new type of math, “spiritual math.” I have to wonder, then, is the measure of the success of a Torah-based book the number of copies sold, or is it the contribution and impact it may make? And how about my experience and growth as the writer? And what effect does that have on my family and friends? We think of capital in terms of money only, but what if we expanded it to encompass social capital, relationship capital, and spiritual capital? Isn’t that what counting our blessings is all about?

A New Math

Lech Lecha is the command by God to Abraham to go from his “country,” his “place of birth” and “his father’s house.” These places are not just geographical, but also psychological: they represent the influences and biases of our society, cultures and the times our nature, our inherited genes, our dispositions, and our family of origin. While the debate has raged for decades over which primarily controls – nurture or nature – either side of this argument buys into control being exerted by an external force or circumstance outside of your control – thus a limitation.

In the city of Ur Kasdim, Abraham and Sarah were extremely wealthy and influential, successful by anyone’s math. In one of my favorite movies, The Family Man, as the angel was about to take away all of the material trappings from the billionaire Wall Street trader to teach him the meaning of life, the angel said, “You’re workin’ on a new deal now, baby.” Abraham and Sarah left their material comforts to go to a land that God showed them – and it didn’t flow with milk and honey. It was desolate. There was severe famine, and they had to set out for Egypt. Lech Lecha, however, set into motion the chain of events that changed not just the lives of Abraham and Sarah, but the entire course of human history.

The journey of actualization is to break free of limitations. But we are not alone. What Abraham and Sarah taught us that each of us has a direct and intimate relationship with our Creator. Alone, we are limited. Connected to God, and to each other, we are transcendent. To follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah doesn’t mean that have to leave behind the places and people that we love, or give up our comforts or way of life. It does expect, however, that we should be willing to re-evaluate our assumptions, our priorities. When it comes to our society, culture and times, can we break free of the blame and finger-pointing and be ethical, kind and responsible citizens and members of our communities?

Are we willing to re-narrate our childhood or other victim stories with compassion for family members or others who have hurt us? As we look to our inner circle, what do we consider to be our precious commodities and what do we devalue? What do we give freely and what do we hoard? Are we squandering thousands of life hours for no return? Are we wisely investing our social, relationship and spiritual capital?  

Lech Lecha is about charting the spiritual trajectory of our lives. For God’s sake, do the math.