“Why you should start your day with the words Modeh Ani, I am Grateful” with E. David Smith, Esq.
There is an ancient Jewish practice to start the day with the words, “Modeh Ani,” an expression of gratitude to our Creator and the forging of a deep personal connection. Interestingly, this recitation ends with an expression of our Creator’s faith in us — in other words, it is a reminder of who we really are.
E. David Smith, Esq., is principal of Smith & Associates, and serves as outside general counsel for US and foreign companies, family enterprises, and family offices. Guiding his clients in the creation and growth of their wealth, he positions business entities for growth opportunities and for mitigating risk, including asset preservation. Combining his experience in corporate transactions, capital raising and financing, corporate governance, corporate litigation, and intellectual property, he provides strategic guidance, identifies and addresses core issues, and quarterbacks companies’ and family offices’ legal needs.
As a rabbi, he incorporates not only Jewish spirituality but mindfulness and other practices such as the Three Principles in his law firm. David brings a spiritual approach to everything he does, from dealing with clients to taking care of his growing team.
Unlike many other law firms, who put billable work hours above everything else, David believes that growth comes from within and that it can be achieved by trusting G-d, while doing the work.
As a father of nine, he promotes work-life balance both for himself and for his employees. His spiritual approach, along with his over 20 years of experience in corporate law and complex litigation, have taught him that a supportive work environment and happy employees are the keys to growth and success.
Some of the spiritual practices he’s introduced include prioritizing team lunches where the Three Principles are discussed, along with meditation, and slowing down to reflect on both successes and failures. While failures are inevitable, looking at them from a spiritual perspective can provide a unique point of view, since every experience teaches us a valuable lesson.
With spirituality in mind, Smith and Associates was able to grow more than 30 percent last year.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you please share your “backstory” with us?
I started my academic career at the University of California Berkeley wanting to find a cure for cancer and worked in the lab of Professor Harry Rubin. He taught me to question everything, but I also saw that questioning was not well received in institutionalized career research, where results that challenge the accepted hypothesis are disregarded as anomalous. I saw how professors who dared to go against convention were treated and realized that there was little future for me as an independent-thinking graduate student. Law is one of the few fields left where you can say what you really believe. While I was preparing for the MCAT exam, I took a break to read a book by Menachem Begin in which he decides how, after the Nazis invaded Poland, he was notified that a Jew had been abducted and was being held at the Gestapo headquarters. Begin marched in and argued successfully for the release of the imprisoned man. Reading that, I thought to myself, That’s a life worth living and an honorable profession — speaking up for the voiceless. And so I decided to study for the LSAT instead.
What role did mindfulness or spiritual practice play in your life growing up?
Growing up, there wasn’t much spirituality in our family on a day-to-day basis. I was taught that getting through life was more about logic and there was a ‘way’ to do things right so as to get ‘there’ — and that was it. Life had no deeper meaning; the “right” way to do things was simply about figuring out where you wanted to go and mapping the most direct way to get there, rather than looking deeper and trying to figure out what was right in the moment.
Do you have a funny or touching story about that?
I wish I had, but looking at it from where I am today, it’s more like grinding metal on metal. Although I didn’t know what I was missing when I was younger, there’s no wonder I was attracted to spiritual practices when I grew up and became a rabbi.
My late father was very well-intentioned, and he knew that one word could make a big difference in outcome. If I had an interview for a school or a job when I was younger, he would want to make sure I knew exactly how to answer every question.
Now I understand that what is truly important is not how I answer this or that, but being present in the moment, and the people who are present with me, and allowing the answers to flow.
While my father is right, for instance, that I might need to say A, B, and C precisely to get this particular job, that presupposes that the job is the right one for me. Of course, I still make that calculation ahead of time about what is best for me, and I will absolutely try to make sure it happens, but I now see that life is really so fluid and the Divine Plan is much beyond my ability to understand, looking backwards, let alone discern going forward.
How do your mindfulness or spiritual practices affect your business and personal life today?
Spirituality is a way of living, and therefore it is ‘there’ constantly. I start the day with gratitude, which is really key. There is an ancient Jewish practice to start the day with the words, “Modeh Ani,” an expression of gratitude to our Creator and the forging of a deep personal connection. Interestingly, this recitation ends with an expression of our Creator’s faith in us — in other words, it is a reminder of who we really are. Similarly, the recitation of the Shema prayer is really a reminder to us of who we are.
Starting the day on that note makes a difference. Waiting to check email or the news until after prayer and breakfast is also a great way to allow soul, heart, and mind to regroup and check in as to what is truly important, before getting swept away in what some business colleague or client or politician or entertainer or news outlet only thinks is important.
Mindfulness and spirituality mean recognizing that abundance comes from the Divine and not from what I imagine it “should” be. Abundance is not always about fame and fortune. I remember once, during a difficult financial period in my life, a friend told me how G-d was sending me such abundance. At that moment, he said, the abundance was not in the form of money, but in the form of children — I had eight at the time. Now we have even more abundance, nine children, thank G-d.
When it comes to my practice and my clients, I know that the right answer always comes from the inner wisdom we all have. As an attorney, I can best serve my clients when I am quiet. This allows me to access that inner wisdom. That is really a spiritual practice, because the answer is not based on application of technical knowledge. There is a knowing that provides the answers. Sometimes that knowing can come in 20 seconds, sometimes it could take three weeks. But the quieter I can become, the clearer the answer will be.
Do you find that you are more successful or less successful because of your integration of spiritual and mindful practices? Can you share an example or story about that with us?
My success is built upon my spiritual practices. It is inseparable. I would not have my success without the connection to my inner wisdom and to G-d. Let me give you an example: whenever I confront with a problem, I have two options: I can think that I’m alone in this world and that things are not going the way I want, or I can believe that G-d is running this world and everything is just fine, thank you very much.
When I feel tension, fear or anxiety, I realize I naturally tend to operate from the first option. But I also know that operating from this place means not much good can come from that moment, for me or for others. And once I realize that, I can lovingly bring myself back to the second option.
The Divine intelligence of all existence is constantly bringing the formless into form. And our job is to see that. On one level we might not like the form that we see, but that does not change what it really is.
On another note, my wife always says my best public addresses, including in court, are the ones where I don’t prepare the words I’m going to say ahead of time. Those are the times when I’m most connected to that inner wisdom. The thing is, I always felt like I was missing something, because every book I had read on the subject of public speaking talks about preparation and practice. It took me years to realize that there might be another way of doing things from what I’d read. I’ve now come to see that sometimes, the best communication I can offer on behalf of myself and my clients is unstructured, relying not on wordsmithery but on inspiration derived from the wisdom that resides in each one of us.
What would you say is the foundational principle for one to “lead a good life”? Can you share a story that illustrates that?
In order to lead a good life, we must be connected to our essence and purpose. For me, this essence and purpose is all about serving people and helping them with their legal issues.
When I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in philosophy and molecular biology, as I said, I wanted to find a cure for cancer. It took me some time to realize that, although this was a noble cause, working in research couldn’t help me lead a good life for myself. That’s because I would have had to compromise my own principles to make it within the research establishment. Realizing that made the choice simple: I applied to law school, and the rest is history. My purpose is serving others by helping them solve complex legal issues and create a better future for their business and their family.
Can you share a story about one of the most impactful moments in your spiritual/mindful life?
I was in court during a very contentious hearing, packed into a room with some very unpleasant people and an atmosphere heavy with rancor and contention. I was about to just leave, feeling like the entire hearing, and maybe the entire case, was futile. But I forced myself to look out the window, reminded myself that we were all Divine energy… and immediately, I felt the energy in the room shift. When I stood up to speak, my words came directly from my heart to the opposing party, right over the rest of the din in the room. Amazingly, the person who had been the biggest trouble maker up to that point jumped up and announced he was leaving. After he left, the meeting continued very fruitfully.
Another story is from when I was studying at UC Berkeley. My parents wanted me to live in the Chabad House, figuring I would probably have a better chance keeping Shabbos and kosher there than in a dormitory. But they also disapproved of Chabad’s level of observance, so they set as a second condition that I not become Chabad. As you can see, I didn’t keep the second condition.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It takes a village to raise a child and there are many people I am grateful to.
I am particularly grateful to Sydney Banks for articulating the Three Principles. As he himself freely admitted, there’s nothing new in what he said, it’s already in all the ancient teachings, but he communicated the concepts of Divine Mind, Divine Consciousness and Divine Thought with such simplicity and clarity, making it accessible to every human being. All of our experience can only come about through thought, so the source of my pleasure or pain is only through my thought. There is no external or internal event that can affect me, since my only true experience is my thought. And since you have different thoughts than I do, you will always experience a different reality than I am experiencing. We all do the best we can with the thoughts that we are taking seriously. It’s such an amazing starting place to build true happiness and good relationships.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught me many things, including the idea that there is no need to compromise on what we believe and how we live. On the contrary, proceeding without compromise will affect others: people will respect a Jew and a human being who conducts himself with dignity more deeply than one who compromises on his or her deeply-held beliefs. I recall when I was a law clerk in New Orleans and the attorney I worked for asked, “How do you ever expect to appear before a Southern jury with a beard and yarmulke?” My answer to him was, “I believe that they will respect the wisdom and commitment that is reflected in my appearance.” This is how I’ve always tried to live my life — with consistency and commitment.
In the early years of my practice, I was representing a defendant in New York Supreme Court. My client was getting more and more evasive as the discovery process went on. It didn’t feel right to me, but it was a good paying client. At one point, the judge interrupted the court proceedings and, after obtaining permission from the attorney for the plaintiff, took me to his chambers, even though the courtroom was packed with at least fifty attorneys waiting for their case. He sat me down and told me he knew exactly what it was like to be young with a family to feed, and therefore feeling “forced” to take on clients who were not virtuous. But, he explained, this client was not for me; going forward, he said I should only take clients who conducted themselves in a way that befitted who I was and what I represented. He told me that if I moved to withdraw as counsel for this client, he would grant my motion. I thanked him and I later did withdraw; that was a very expensive lesson because I lost $17,000 in fees that my erstwhile client refused to pay. But it was a priceless lesson, because that judge stopped the entire world to guide me in such an understanding way, reaching out, far above and beyond regular order of things. His words have guided me to this day. As a firm, we really try to screen out people who are trying to game the system or cheat others. We are happy to help someone who has made mistakes and now wants to move forward on a better basis, but we won’t help someone who just wants to use a lawyer for trickery.
I remember one time a potential client came to my office. He wanted to buy a property, but he wanted to do so in a way that he could cut out the broker. I told him that I can’t help him cut out a broker. His jaw literally dropped and with a look of horror, he backed out of my conference room and out of my office. That’s one reason I now always charge for consultations; I find that it screens out people who are looking for something for nothing. When they want something for nothing from a lawyer, they are often looking for that from others, too. It’s amazing what great cases and righteous causes people have… until they have to pay $550 and then it’s too expensive. Wanting something for nothing is itself a spiritual malady.
I am also grateful for having studied the principles of Imago. Many of my clients are not aware that I am a certified Imago Professional Facilitator. You probably haven’t heard much about Imago, even though it’s been around since the 1980s and is based on even older psychological theories. Imago was originally developed within the context of marriage and family counseling, but has far-reaching applications that can have a positive impact on any relationships, including in business. I have found that Imago can be useful with almost any type of employer/employee relations, business partners, family members, and others. Imago Professional Facilitators take Imago theories and techniques and apply them to their own profession — in my case, to the practice of law. This training has helped provide me with a greater degree of neutrality and objectivity when dealing with clients. It has also helped give me greater sensitivity to clients’ needs and goals, letting me help them deal more constructively with counteractions and opposing parties.
Can you share 3 or 4 pieces of advice about how leaders can create a very “healthy and uplifting” work culture?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m a firm believer that our state of mind is the key to success. Based on that, I make sure to take care not only of myself, but my employees. As part of our spiritual practices we:
- Practice daily appreciation
- Have team lunches where we discuss spiritual practices in business
I also put family-work balance on top of the list, to maintain happy employees. If you’re looking for practical advice, I’d have to say that spirituality is not an option, it’s a must — make spirituality part of your business, and you will thrive.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest good to the most people, what would that be? You never know what your idea might trigger. :-)
I would like to see more people following the Sheva Mitzvos (Seven Laws of Noah). You can read more about these simple, accessible universal laws here (https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380332/jewish/The-Mitzvot-of-Non-Jews.htm).
The grave mental stress that so many people walk around with these days is the greatest threat to humanity. The same problem plagues people of all walks of life; no one is immune. Some people are walking around feeling the planet is in grave danger from global warming and the deteriorating environment; others out there feel like we’re in danger from an influx of immigrants, overprinting money, too many guns, too few guns — at the end of the day it’s all self-generated mental stress that causes more grief than the underlying issues ever could.
Somehow, we’re taught to believe that the more we fret, the more mature and responsible we become. It’s not true. I believe that by following the Sheva Mitzvos, people can create a better world.
How can people follow you and find out more about you?
About the author: Jacob Rupp is a coach, author, speaker, podcaster, and rabbi. He is the founder of Lift Your Legacy, a community that helps people live a more authentic life. He has a regular, syndicated column that appears in ThriveGlobal and Authority magazine. To learn more about him or to listen to the Lift Your Legacy podcast, search iTunes or visit his site: liftyourlegacy.live