In 2004, a beautiful blonde dropped out of Stanford University to start a biotech company she called Theranos. Before she was 21-years-old, she had raised hundreds of millions of dollars from some of America’s smartest and most sophisticated investors. These included ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; the owner of the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, Rupert Murdoch; and the Walton family, founders and owners of Walmart. Even then-vice-president, Joe Biden, toured Theranos and announced, “Talk about inspirational, this is inspirational.”
These investors weren’t deterred by articles questioning the technology of the company and the secretiveness of its founder. For example, the Journal of the American Medical Association was hardly reticent in expressing concern that Theranos was operating in “stealth mode” and never published research in peer-reviewed medical journals. Their concerns were valid. Within a short space of time, Theranos was revealed as a scam and stupendous sums of money were lost.
How do smart people make such big mistakes? This same question could be asked about all of us who have ever made bad mistakes with money, relationships or politics. It could be asked about every bright and intelligent person who carries regret for dreadful decisions. Now, imagine if we possessed a foolproof ‘mistake monitor’ that could prevent us from making those egregious errors in life that end up being so costly. Well, we do, but like all effective solutions, it is not a magic wand. It takes hard work to deploy it in your life. Let’s begin.
Exodus 23:5, as usually translated, seems to be a straightforward verse:
If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under his burden,
you would refrain from helping him?— you shall surely help with him.
A deeper look shows a rather large problem with this translation. The word translated here as ‘help’ is repeated three times in the Hebrew. However, the Hebrew root, A-Z-V doesn’t mean help. It means ‘leave’ as in this verse:
…therefore shall a man leave his father and mother…
The Hebrew word for help is A-Z-R, not A-Z-V and leave is surely the very opposite of help.
In II Samuel 11, King David displeased the Lord by taking Batsheva, wife of Uriah. The Lord sent the prophet Nathan to denounce King David, which Nathan did by way of a parable. He described Uriah as a poor man who had only one sheep and King David as a rich man who owned many sheep (wives). One day a traveller visited the rich man and instead of preparing one of his own sheep for the traveller, the rich man (King David) took the poor man’s sheep (Batsheva) for the traveller. (II Samuel 12:4)
I am sure you see the colossal question: Why in the parable did Nathan introduce a “traveller”? In the real-life scenario there were only three parties, King David, Uriah, and Batsheva. Nathan tells the story as if there were four: King David, Uriah, Batsheva, and the traveller for whom, said the prophet, the king really took the sheep.
Who is this mysterious traveller?
Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that the traveller is the spirit of fantasy/imagination/romance that so often enters our souls. It is the intense emotional fixation we develop for something we want. Without it, our better selves would simply and unequivocally banish the temptation. But once that particular traveller has taken up residence in our souls, the temptation is no longer a moral temptation to be resisted. We now rationalize and view it as the right thing to do.
David inadvertently saw Uriah’s wife bathing. He didn’t just desire her, he ‘fell in love’ with her and even recognized with Divine insight that she was intended to be his wife. The traveller had entered his soul and fantasy/romance/imagination flourished. He not only wanted her, he actually decided to bring about that result.
Now that we know that the key word in Exodus 23:5 is not ‘help’ but ‘leave’ and that donkey is always a Biblical hint for our physical, material (versus spiritual) selves the verse more properly reads like this:
If you see the tangible reality of the tempting source of fantasy and imagination
(which is the enemy of your highest self) lying under his burden (of harming you),
do not refrain from leaving him, you shall surely leave him.
In other words, do not allow the powerfully persuasive force of emotional appeal to enter your decision-making apparatus. It is always trying to harm you and hinder your progress. You feel tempted to make it a welcome visitor in your soul, but don’t do that. Get rid of it!
Those smart and successful investors in Theranos would never have foregone their due diligence had the company’s founder been a middle-aged man in a rumpled suit rather than a beautiful blonde in an immaculate black turtleneck. They desperately wanted to be part of history’s first major hi-tech enterprise started by a young woman rather than by men. They fell in love. The emotional appeal of that proposition, along with her attractiveness, was easily strong enough to overcome natural caution and prudence.
Even the great King David fell victim to this dangerous tendency to welcome the ‘traveller’ into his soul. Our challenge is to put ourselves on perpetual high alert to the peril of making important decisions once fantasy/emotional appeal/imagination has taken up residence in our souls. That is no way to pick candidates, investments or spouses.