Sacrifice of Isaac, Painting by Rembrandt, 1635
The mad genius myth has accompanied ambitious entrepreneurs from the dawn of civilization, expressing the idea that great success hinges on great sacrifice of one’s family, kids and even sanity. Here’s what parashat Vayera has to say about it
Three basic principles guide me in choosing a new venture: market size, product viability and the entrepreneur’s qualities. Out of these, most important to me is the entrepreneur and his character. I look at the extent to which they are willing to step out of their comfort zone and stand firm in the face of adversity. In the words of Rocky Balboa to his son: It’s not about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
The challenges will be many; from breaking into a new field to laying off employees or taking various strategic and financial risks. Each of these affects the entrepreneur’s family, whether directly as in cases where founders choose to forfeit their salary or pass on a family vacation, or indirectly like when the founder is painfully absent from their kid’s piano recital or worse, when they are absently present.
If, as an investor, I’m looking for entrepreneurs who would be willing to sacrifice every personal comfort when the time calls for it, it follows that I’m looking for entrepreneurs who would be willing to sacrifice the needs of their family and children - sacrifice their love - for the sake of the venture. Right?
There are many great individuals we could mention, past and present, who reached unimaginable heights in their respective fields at the expense of their family. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, wrote a seminal text on education while abandoning all five of his children at an orphanage. All three of Theodor Herzl’s children, the most important Zionist entrepreneur in modern history, all suffered from mental illness, were routinely hospitalized and one of them ended up killing himself. Bertrand Russell wrote about marriage and morality, while at the same time was (allegedly) having an affair with his daughter-in-law. These and other examples can easily lead us to the conclusion that success, sacrifice and insanity necessarily go hand in hand.
Where does Abraham fit into all this? Pirkei Avot tells us that Abraham met with 10 arduous trials and came out the other end triumphant. He was circumcised at the age of 99, faced famine, the loss of his mistress, Hagar, and many more, until reaching the final and most painful trial of all: the Binding of Isaac:
(1) And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: 'Abraham'; and he said: 'Here am I.' (2) 'Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.'
Going by the words of the biblical narrator, Abraham passed the test and is therefore worthy of the title, God-fearing. There’s no denying it. He did take his only son whom he loved to the land of Moriah, made all the necessary arrangements, and then he “(10) stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.” Then at the very last minute, an angel emerges and calls to him: (12) 'Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me’:
To all appearances, Abraham, like so many who came after him, was willing to sacrifice everything, including his own son, in the name of God and for the sake of seeing his startup succeed. In our terms, Abraham is one entrepreneur any investor would be wise to bet their money on.
But here’s the thing. I’ve long contemplated the issue, thought about it through and through, about myself and my three children, my moral obligation as a father and my great passion for professional success. And the conclusion I’ve reached is that the interpretation provided to us by the biblical narrator is utterly wrong. And while there are seventy faces to the Torah, I would even go as far as to say that in this day and age the given interpretation is inappropriate.
It wasn’t Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac that gained him his God-fearing epithet, but rather his failure to do so. His last-moment refusal to offer his son to God is the moral of the story. In doing so, Abraham was challenging sacrificial traditions which were customary in ancient times, especially in dire times or in the face of great danger. The biblical text is nerve-wracking because we expect Abraham to jab the knife into his son’s abdomen any minute now, and then he doesn’t do it. Isaac may well need countless sessions with his therapist and other mental specialists to work through the trauma, but the fact remains - he is alive. Much like Maximus from Gladiator, who in the moment of truth chooses not to kill Titus in defiance of the emperor’s order, so can Abraham tell right from wrong and in the moment of truth decides not to put his son to the sword.
So there you have it, the most successful entrepreneur in human history doing the exact opposite of what is expected of him, breaking free from the norm. This is an entrepreneur who has a noble heart and is a gracious host. He has shown generosity towards his brother Lot, refused to loot his defeated enemy, Melchizedek, and pleaded for the lives of the righteous people of Sodom. Abraham is an entrepreneur who proved he can withstand any trial, a real Mensch. Finally, at his darkest hour, he proves himself as a moral legislator in matters of parenting.
If Abraham could build the most complex and impressive venture in human history (check out my reading of Parashat Lech Lecha from last week), and do so without sacrificing his family and child, then so can we in building the great ventures of our time.
More than that, it’s not just that we can do it, it’s that we have no other alternative. If Abraham had offered his son Isaac, the entire venture of monotheism would have failed. The two are interlinked: God promised to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and for that to come true Isaac must live. The boy is the key to fulfilling the father’s purpose. I challenge you to come up with a test more extreme than asking someone to sacrifice the very thing upon which their life’s work depends.
Sacrificing everything we hold dear for the sake of success is therefore an oxymoron. That’s why when I consider working with an entrepreneur the first thing I look for is balance and sanity. I look for entrepreneurs who can tell right from wrong, who are complete, and above all can conquer themselves by setting boundaries and not letting themselves or others fall victim to their insanely ambitious work addiction. In our fund, we do not invest in mad geniuses. We invest in centered people who believe in themselves and in their own power and who practice what they preach.