Last night in a mini-Torah study, we discussed the story of the binding of Isaac. As you may recall, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. At the very last minute, when the knife is in the air, God sends an Angel to tell Abraham that he passed the test, and he doesn’t need to actually harm the boy. We argued whether despite appearances, Abraham was being a good parent by following God’s commands.
Chapter 10: The People First Life Part 10
Which is more important to you, getting promoted or living a good life? In the last post, I wrote that Marissa Mayer’s top three priorities are God, family, and Yahoo. My top priorities are health, family, and my book.
I won’t pretend that it isn’t hard for me to keep the book from creeping ahead of the other two. One thing that helps me remember my priorities is the story of Jacob’s Ladder from the Bible, which ultimately is about values and priorities.
Jacob, (grandson of Abraham,) dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. He sees angels going up and down the ladder, hears the voice of God, and awakens to say “surely the Lord is in this place.”[i] I interpret this story to mean that God is not just up in heaven but resides down on earth as well. As I argued in Chapter 2, in Judaism God’s teachings can be summarized by the Golden Rule, which itself is a universal value that transcends religion or the belief in God. The Jewish version of the GR reads “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another.”
Jacob’s Ladder is the story of a man who changes his priorities to put other people ahead of his own needs. When he went to sleep, Jacob was a selfish young man, fleeing after stealing his older brother’s birthright. After the dream, he quite literally fathers the Hebrew nation.
So for me, life on Jacob’s Ladder means a life where people are the highest priority – in this world and at this time. Why wait for heaven to be happy? Life on Jacob’s Ladder will bring greater happiness today. For example, in Paula Davis-Laack’s article “10 Things Happy People Do Differently“, three of those things prioritize people and NONE suggest material gain as a strategy.
This doesn’t mean that that climbing the corporate ladder is a bad thing, only that people should be a higher priority if you want to be happy. And putting people first doesn’t mean that you won’t be successful. In fact, Jacob becomes very prosperous, with “large flocks, [servants,] and camels and donkeys.”
Father of a people, and a large flock? It didn’t get much better than that in the ancient world. And it started when Jacob put his priorities in order.
Have you ever had a dream that influenced your life?
Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 16, conclusion
Any way you slice it, Abraham was an extraordinary man. He insulted the god/king to his face and wasn’t executed on the spot. Whether it was by divine intervention as the stories tell, or because he was too powerful to kill, Abraham had it going on.
How did Abraham overcome a culture that was thousands of years old to form a new way of thinking that today has over 4 billion followers? In the words of Popvox CEO Marci Harris “A dedicated team with shared vision can make amazing things happen, and still be standing long after others go home.” Abraham’s vision had a strong element of putting people first, and the laws of God that he taught applied equally to all men, whether a king or a begger. Abraham’s tent was open on four sides so anyone could come and talk with him, and he personally washed the feet of guests from the desert on the day he was circumcised at the age of 99.
While Abraham’s wealth, influence and followers increased over his lifetime, his story illustrates the weakness of the movement: it was hard. God was now an abstraction, unknowable and un-seeable. It was harder for people to believe in the abstract God than it was to follow the multiple gods of the surrounding cultures, gods that everyone could touch and feel.
Early Judaism depended on single leaders to foster a group identity. This did a great job of creating the religion, but it was hard to maintain in the long term. Within a few generations of his death, the Abraham’s people, the Israelites fell back into idolatry. This reminds me of descriptions in the book Good To Great of companies that achieved great results under a charismatic leader, but fell apart after the leader left.
What it took for the Israelites to get to the next level was a new leader, Moses the lawgiver, who brought written laws and “process,” to help create a way of life to support the values taught by Abraham.
And the same process holds for those of us trying to overcome corporate idolatry. Each of us on our own can shift our identity to prioritize people over the company. But for those changes to last, we need a community of like-minded people.
Who is your community?
Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 15
Abraham was raised in ancient Sumeria, a world where the dominant culture was pagan. Gods were everywhere, from Anu the sky god, to regional gods, to small amulets and magic charms that were a big part of everyday life. Abraham’s cause was not simply a matter of a single divinity- it was a completely different way of life. And if we look at the number of followers as a scorecard, I think he was onto something. According to the Big Religion Comparison Chart, there are 14 Million Jews, 2 Billion Christians and 1.3 billion Muslims on the planet, all of whom look at Abraham as the father of monotheism. For those of us looking to bust our modern idols, there is a lot we can learn from Abraham.
For Abraham, monotheism was not an abstract, metaphysical question about the number of deities. Abraham was the CEO of a start up religion, and he was looking to change the world. He had an unshakable identity and powerful personality that attracted followers. And like any good startup CEO, he could lay out a vision and make others believe. By intellectual reasoning, Abraham showed that something created by man should not become the object of worship. For Abraham, there was one creator who put forth rules of right and wrong that did not change. This was very different than the pagan world, where right and wrong changed depending on the deity, and is also different than the corporate world, where right and wrong behavior is defined by corporate culture.
As I argued in Chapter 2, the universal values are The Golden Rule tempered by The Rule of Self Preservation. In the next post, we’ll look at the limitations of Abraham’s identity-based approach to change.
Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity
In the last post, Janet solidified her identity as a people-first person (as opposed to a company-first person) only after she was laid off from her job. The company culture was difficult, and put a high premium on putting the company first. The story of Abraham in the Bible also starts with a journey. Abraham leaves a society of idol worshippers, starting a journey into the wilderness. Abraham leaves at God’s command, which on the surface seems like very different circumstances than a layoff. Hold that thought while we return to Abraham’s backstory, which is captured in the Talmud, a collection of stories and commentary that fills in the gaps in the Torah (aka the Five Books of Moses in the Old Testament.)
I shared the Talmud story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop at the start of Chapter 2. These clay statues played a central role in Sumarian life. To challenge idolatry was to challenge a foundational element of the culture, and by extension the power of King Nimrod. When Abraham was brought to court to explain, he did not back away from his central message. “If you are so wise, King Nimrod, why do you worship gods made by human hands, and why do you call yourself a god when one day you will die like all men made of flesh and blood?”[i] (You can read the whole story here.)
Nimrod proceeds to jail Abraham for a year without food and water, and then to throw him into a fiery furnace, both of which Abraham survived through divine intervention. Let’s for the sake of argument, say that this is an allegory and not literally true. How then, did Abraham survive, in an era thousands of years ago when the rule of the king was absolute, and “dead bodies floated along the Euphrates.?”[ii] In my opinion, it is because Abraham was teaching a set of values that gained a following. Rather than create a martyr, maybe Nimrod sent Abraham and his followers into exile. It was only later reported that Abraham left of his own accord, to “spend more time with his family.”
What does this say about Abraham’s identity?