A Thought About Thinking

For decades the IBM slogan seemed to be everywhere. THINK, it read, simply and starkly. It is apparently long phased out, but the advice remains as good as ever.

I was reminded of that on a recent trip to another city, where I witnessed an interaction between two young men, one about four and a half years old, the other a year younger. They might be related to me, or they might not. I’m not saying.

The older boy was playing in the bathtub; his mother had left him for a moment and I, sitting within feet of the bathroom, could hear him talking to his bath toys. Suddenly, his younger brother appeared. With a quick look around to make sure his mother wasn’t watching (I didn’t count, apparently), he darted to the bathroom light switch, flicked it off and swiftly slammed the door shut.

The older boy, suddenly plunged into darkness, howled in terror, which brought his mother in an instant. She opened the door, turned the light back on, comforted the victim and apprehended the culprit, who was unceremoniously sent to his room.

It was then the perp’s turn to howl. No! Not his room! Anything but that! Like Cain’s, his punishment was too much to bear.

But off he went as ordered, whimpering all the way.

“I guess he didn’t see that coming,” I remarked to the mother with a laugh.

“He sure should have.” she responded. “He’s done it before, and always gets sent to his room.”

I guess he could have used a flashing “THINK” sign at the crucial moment. But it’s only at a certain point of development that thinking – at least about consequences – really kicks in, that the relentless logic of “if… then” becomes clear.

Last month, the Jewish world lost a human treasure. Rabbi Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory, worked tirelessly to bring Jews closer to their spiritual heritage, and the fruits of his labors – his countless students – continue to invigorate the Jewish people, through their own lives and, for many of them, by carrying on their rebbe’s outreach mission, connecting Jews with Jewish verities.

I met Rabbi Weinberg briefly only two or three times but once was I privileged to hear him speak. It was a memorable experience. In the course of his edifying talk, he recounted a personal story that still remains with me. In 1939, when he was eight years old, his class had decided that on a certain day they would all skip yeshiva and go to the World’s Fair in Queens. Everyone had to bring a dollar, though, and, well, he didn’t have one.

Walking dejectedly to school, Rabbi Weinberg recounted, it occurred to him that he might find a dollar on the pavement. So he prayed for that to happen. But as he continued on his way, no dollars appeared. He prayed again, promising G-d to do all manner of good deeds, but still no response. Finally, he implored the Creator “Master of the universe, please give me one dollar, and I’ll never, ever do anything wrong again for the rest of my life!”

Then, turning to us, his audience, Rabbi Weinberg – his lantern of a smile lighting up his face –said: “Now who was I kidding? I wanted the dollar so I could play hooky from yeshiva!”

Rabbi Weinberg’s subject that night, if I remember accurately, was prayer; he intended the story to illustrate the need for honesty when speaking to G-d. But it serves no less to illustrate the importance of… thinking.

And, if we’re truthful, of course, stopping to think isn’t something that only children overlook. Many of us long-time ex-children haven’t exactly internalized the lesson either.

If we had, we would never say anything that we regretted a second later having said. We would never get angry when the reason for the anger, as we soon enough realize, was really no reason at all. We would never become jealous, knowing how blessed we are (different though our blessings might be from others’). And we would never do anything for which we, soon enough and rightly, feel guilty for having done.

It’s worth a moment’s pondering: We humans differ from other living things largely because of the quality of our ability to think.

And yet, how often we simply don’t.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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4 Responses

  1. YNot says:

    Too true. v’tehi ha’adam l’nefesh chaya = Ruach m’lalela (see Onkelos) and yet we don’t use this capacity.
    Any advice on breaking the pattern?

  2. tova younger says:

    minor point – i think u meant 1969.
    good story – i have been telling my children & anyone else, there needs to be a book called how to overcome fear of thinking. maybe u would like to tackle it. how to work on it – i think we need to dedicate more of our day to the topic of shimras haloshon on a broad base. maybe 5 minutes, a few times a day. that, and davening for siyata d’shmaya! b’hatzlacha

  3. mb says:

    I think, therefore IBM.

  4. ClooJew says:


    Minor point, but Rabbi Shafran is right. The 1939 World’s Fair took place at, among other locations, Flushing Park, Queens, New York – the same location as the 1964 (not ’69) World’s Fair.

    Ninety seconds is all you would have needed to confirm the fact on Wikipedia.

    Also the fact that Rav Noach would have been in his late 30’s at that point should have tipped you off.

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