An ancient inspiration for sustainability thinking

It’s the time of year when the Jewish High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, literally “Head of the Year” and “Day of Attonement”) take place.

And this year, it yielded a connection between an Old Testament story, and our job of project managers.


It’s possible, just give it a chance.   C’mon!

Let’s start with a story, which comes from a book called Rosh Hashanah Readings, Inspiration, Information, and Contemplation.

The story goes like this:


Rabbi Menahem Mendle of Kotzk once put this question to his students:  What was the hardest part of the Akedah (the episode where he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac) for Abraham?  Was it the initial call (where he was first told he had to do this task)?  Was it the long walk to and up Mt. Moriah (the location where he was told to sacrifice Isaac)?  Or was it the binding of his son?

The answer from the Rabbi – of course – was “none of the above”.  The hardest part instead was coming down the mountain.  As Rabbi Wolpe, the author of the referenced book, says:

In peak moments of our lives, the immediacy, the rush of adrenaline often carries us through (sound like some of your projects?).  What happens afterward is the true test of sincerity, for afterward we must live with the consequences of our actions.  Are we faithful to those peak moments?  Dow we forget them, or disregard them?

He goes on to say:

“There is great drama in falling in love.  But the test of a love is not in the falling; it is in the staying.  The test of life is not in the moments of passion that can stir the blood and push even the sluggard to new swiftness and resolve.  The test of life is after the crisis has passed.  Our worthiness is not measured at the pinnacle, but in the persistence.

“In teaching (we substitute project management here), there are times when we are kindled by the task (project) at hand.  Such experiences are wonderful, but ultimately it is in the daily work, when we come down the mountain, that our achievement (project) will be measured.  In our [projects] we should recall that [projects] are not a parade of peaks but a long, loving walk together through valleys and level plains.  We should treasure the summit of inspiration, but not live by it.  Here below, once we have come down the mountain, our task awaits.”

The connection, if you haven’t got it yet, is that projects are often like the story of the binding of Isaac.

Think about Abraham’s Project – the binding of Isaac.  As project manager, Abraham faced these project elements:

  • A project packed with high stakes and high emotion
  • He was personally involved as a key stakeholder
  • The project required both physical and mental devotion
  • The project involved consuming important resources (in this case, potentially, Isaac!)
  • Subject to radical change in scope by a Really Big Boss
  • Subject to cancellation at any moment by a Really Big Boss
  • The project manager did not agree with the end objective but “soldiered on” because it was the directive from the Really Big Boss
  • The project manager needed to think of the long-term consequences of the project even after it was closed

Sound familiar?  Although human sacrifice is unlikely the product of your project, your project does have a product.  Its product – the bridge, software package, coffeemaker, new pharmaceutical or biomedical device, is a quest.  But don’t make the project the quest.  Make the steady-state success of the product your quest.  You indeed put your effort into bringing that end deliverable from idea to reality.  But have you thought about its life?  Have you considered the ‘long walk down the mountain’ and beyond?  How does the steady-state use of the project’s product meet your organization’s stated strategies and mission statement?  Because even if the project is successful and the product works, there may be some steady-state issues that, if taken into consideration now, could enhance your organization’s longer-term success.  Yes, it means thinking beyond the project.  But that’s what Rabbi Mendle was saying.  Think sustainably.