Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

What Can We Learn About Layoffs From the Story Of Abraham In The Bible?

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?

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[i] The Classic Tales: 4000 Years of Jewish Lore by Ellen Frankel. Jason Aronson Inc (1993) P 54-56.

[ii] The Gifts Of The Jews by Thomas Cahill Anchor Books (1998) p. 93

Is a Good Project As Tempting As Sex?

Chapter 5 : The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 4

If a father dresses his son in the finest clothing, places a purse of gold around his neck and then tells him to stay all day on the the steps of a brothel, is it possible in that context for the son not to enter and sample the wares? -Inspired by The Talmud. [i]

Take a smart person who wants to make a difference, and put him on the most exciting project at a small company.  Is it possible for him not to work all the time?  Here is how “Alan” describes his experience at a biotech startup.

“I loved my work.  There were stages in my job both at the plant company and at the genomics company where I loved my work.  I would get in early, I would stay late.  I thought I was making a contribution and it all felt right to me.  What made it good?  It had to do with the corporate leadership, when I was really clear in my scientific heart that we had strengths to address what we were going after.  What I knew from my training as a scientist, the company had resources and it really felt like we were aligned with the goals of the company.”

Being aligned with the goals of the company and making a difference are two of the most common answers that people gave me when describing a positive work environment.  I can relate, and Alan’s story brings back memories of the best times from my career.

Then, Alan talked about his family life.

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[i]  The Talmud is a collection of stories and commentary to supplement the Torah, the Jewish books of law (aka the Five Books of Moses in the Old Testament.)  This story is based on a passage in Tractate Berachos.


Why Idolatry? For the Sex Of Course

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 11 

 In the previous post, I discussed idolatry by error.  Here is one of my favorite stories that illustrates idolatry by error.

“During the 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt, a young Israelite solder went to the marketplace of a newly conquered tribe of idol worshipers. He regularly went to see a beautiful girl with dark eyes who sold cloth from a tent in the market center.  At first he went for the low price, but after a few days he was invited in to sit and drink wine.  Flush with wine and conquest, the soldier pulled her close and murmured in her ear.  She pulled out an image of the idol Pe’or from her bodice and said to him “If you want me to do your bidding, bow down to this.”

He flung her back, eyes burning. ‘I will never bow to your trinket!’

She answered ‘What do you care if you only expose yourself to it?’ Since he had to disrobe anyway, what harm? As it turns out, exposing oneself was a way to worship Pe’or.  His face burned with shame, but the sex was beyond fantastic.”  – adopted from Babylonian Talmud[i]  I like this story because it illustrates the allure of idolatry, the gradual way it can creep up on you, and the not uncommon discovery that one has already committed idolatry without even knowing it.  And while giving reverence to a statue may not seem like a big deal today, in biblical times it was punishable by death.  Seem harsh?  Yes, but those were harsh times.  But even then, the death penalty was reserved for the most serious crimes.  And I think idolatry carried such a harsh penalty because it is so alluring.

And what is the problem with idolatry today?  For the religious of course, idolatry remains a mortal sin.  For the non-religious, I think of it this way.  Modern psychology is clear that lasting happiness comes from connections to other people and not from possessions.  A lifestyle of idolatry puts people second, and elevates the importance of something else which results in weaker interpersonal relationships, which in turn means less happiness.  So, for a happier life, put people first.

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[i] adopted from the Babylonian Talmud Sifrei on Numbers, sec 131;  Idolatry by Moshe Habertal and Avishai Margali.  Translated by Naomi Goldblum.  Harvard University Press p 24-25.

Idolatry, Duality, and Free Will

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 8

Judaism teaches that God created man with two competing impulses, the good impulse and the evil impulse.  But this translation from the Hebrew is imperfect, as explained by Jeffrey Spitzer, Chairman of the Department of Rabbinic Literature at the Gann Academy.  “[The evil impulse] is not a demonic force that pushes a person to do evil, but rather a drive toward pleasure or property or security, which if left unlimited, can lead to evil (cf. Genesis Rabbah 9:7). When properly controlled by the [good impulse, the evil impulse] leads to many socially desirable results, including marriage, business, and community.[i]

This description of the struggle between the good and evil impulses are very consistent with current theories about the brain and human psychology today.  Our base drives and instincts derive from the more primitive parts of the brain (the so-called Reptilian Brain) whereas our social, cooperative, and compassionate traits come from the more evolved regions of the brain like the frontal cortex.  And often the different regions of the brain are in conflict.  (For a detailed discussion, check out Paul Gilbert’s Compassionate Mind Foundation here).

Here are two additional descriptions of the evil impulse from the Talmud that I find illuminating, especially with respect to idolatry.

“The first impulse to evil is as thin as a spider’s gossamer, but in the end it is as think as a cart rope.[ii]

“Such is the nature of the impulse to evil: One day it bids a man ‘Do this’; the next day “do that”; until finally it says to him Go worship idols.  And he goes and worships them.[iii]

What do these teach us?  The first teaches that once we begin to compromise our values, we begin to compromise them more frequently, and to a larger degree.  The new values become ingrained, and a habit.  (Which by the way, is entirely consistent with contemporary neurobiology research showing that repeated actions reinforce certain neural pathways.)

The second teaches that idolatry is not a single act.  It is a pattern that develops over time.  And both point to a view of idolatry as something that arises from basic human nature.  If we give in to the base drives, and lose sight of people-first values, we begin to practice idolatry. If this is true, we would expect the battle against idolatry to be an ongoing one, and we would see idolatry recurring again and again throughout history.  Which in fact we do.

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[i] The Birth of the Good Inclination by Jeffrey Spitzer. From   Retrieved July 11, 2012.

[ii] Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah Legends from the Talmud and Midrash. Edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravinitzky.  Translated by William Braude.  Schoken books 1992. p. 537:7

[iii] Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah Legends from the Talmud and Midrash. Edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravinitzky.  Translated by William Braude.  Schoken books 1992. p. 537:8


Three Stories About Abraham Leading Change

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Post 2

The story of idolatry begins with Abraham, who is revered in the Judeo/Christian/Islamic faiths as the person who first believed in God.  But the biblical account of Abraham starts with his life as an adult, following God’s direction.  In Judaism, there is a wide collection of additional stories and commentary about Abrhams life.  In this story that I first learned as a child, Abraham elegantly shows that the statues people worshiped were false gods.

Abraham’s father Terah made and sold clay idols that the people of ancient Sumeria worshipped as gods.  One day when Abraham was left to watch the shop, he put a plate of food in the middle of room and smashed all the idols except the largest one.  “There was a fight over the food,” he explained,” and the largest one smashed the others.”[i]  This claim was absurd, and Terah called Abraham on his bold-faced lie.  “Statues cannot move.  I made them with my own hands.”  To which Abraham replied “Then why do you worship them?”

Abraham’s father was in an untenable position.  To tolerate the challenge to idolatry was to risk the wrath of the king, for the king was a godlike figure himself and thus a challenge to idolatry was indirectly a challenge to the king’s authority.

The Talmud tells another story of Abraham in his father’s shop[ii], in which people asked for idols that reflected their self-image.  For example, a man asked for an idol that reflected his high station, and was happy to be given an idol from the top shelf.  “The one who sits above all the others is the mightiest of all.”  Conversely, a poor woman was satisfied to be given an idol from the lowest shelf.  This story in exaggerated form shows the pervasive role idols played in everyday life. (For the record, both people demanded their money back after Abraham started mocking them for giving devotion to a piece of clay.)

On another occasion, The Talmud says that Abraham put a noose around the neck of two idols, and dragged them face down through the street calling “Who wishes to buy an idol good for nothing?  It has a mouth but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see, and ears but cannot hear? Who wishes to waste his money on dumb things made of wood and stone?” [iii]  

Now that is what I call Social Media Sumarian Style.  I guess it worked, because Abraham certainly built a following!  Of course like all advertising, the message was only as good as the underlying product. I think Abraham reached people who were already conflicted or unhappy about the social order, and were ready for a change.

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[i] The Classic Tales 4,000 years of Jewish Lore by Ellen Frankel.  Jason Aronson Inc 1993. p. 50

[ii] Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah Legends from the Talmud and Midrash. Edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravinitzky.  Translated by William Braude.  Schoken books 1992. p. 32:8

[iii] The Classic Tales 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore by Ellen Frankel  Jason Aronson Inc p. 51