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Making bricks without straw: Moses, Covey, and Franklin on character development

Mud and straw for bricks
Mud and straw for bricks
thesecretsacredgarden.blogspot.com

In Exodus 5 Moses and Aaron demand that pharaoh let the people go. He not only refused but, out of spite, ordered his overseers to not give the Hebrews any straw to mix with mud to make bricks. But they still had to meet their quotas.

Straw was an essential ingredient for making bricks; the straw held the mud together, kept the bricks from cracking and losing their shape, and facilitated drying. Straw was also a reinforcement, like steel rebar is for concrete, and the acid from the straw's decomposition made the brick stronger. Bricks with straw were 3 times stronger than those without it.

Bible stories have deeper levels of meaning. So if we think of pharaoh, and the bricks, mud and straw as symbols, what is their deeper meaning?

Pharaoh represents the forces of darkness that keep the Hebrews in bondage to a materialistic life. He increases their work load so they don't have time to worship God. A brick is a building unit. You put them together with mortar, which is also mud and straw, to erect a building. You could think of the Hebrews as a collection of individual bricks, and Moses' job was to unite them into one nation of 12 tribes, bonded together by their faith in the Lord.

If the brick is the individual Hebrew, what are the mud and straw? When we think of mud in terms of a person, we think of their passions. Now, there's nothing inherently bad about passions and mud. Certain kinds of mud like bentonite are very healing. And if we didn't have passions, we wouldn't get anything done. Passions make up our personality. But sometimes passions get people in trouble and muddy their reputations. If a political candidate wants to tear down their opponent instead of presenting solutions, they look for some mud to sling. If a person's character is mostly mud; that is, just a collection of passions, that person will likely collapse under pressure, just as a brick without straw crumbles easily.

So what is the straw? The straw symbolizes the positive qualities that keep our passions in check and reinforce our character so that it can withstand stress. These include patience, a sense of humor, compassion, humility, and faith. Just as the straw is like a glue for the mud, our positive qualities are the glue to keep our composure. When someone loses their composure ,we say they become unglued. Probably the most important quality is faith. Moses almost lost his faith over the bricks without straw fiasco. The people were against him because he made pharaoh make their work harder. But he prayed to the Lord. He said in so many words, "I did what you told me to do Lord, and now look what happened. Pharaoh didn't let your people go, and he made their lives more miserable."

Moses didn't realize it, but everything was going according to God's plan. If conditions had not gotten worse for the Hebrews, they would have been reluctant to leave Egypt in search of the promised land. Life was hard in Egypt, but not unbearable; they each had a hut with a little plot of land for a garden and livestock. God made things more difficult for the Hebrews because he wanted to make them stronger, just as ceramic bricks become stronger in a kiln, to use another brick analogy.

Going back to the sun-baked brick analogy, when pharaoh decreed that the Hebrews could not be given straw, they had to work at night and walk long distances to forage for their own straw. So pharaoh was forcing them to get their own straw, in other words to develop the qualities they would need during their 40 years of wandering in the desert. They would use these same qualities to defeat the tribes that occupied the Promised Land.

So the last question is where do we go to find the straw? How do we develop the qualities we need to keep our passions in check? Steven Covey, who passed away recently, had the answer. Covey's philosophy started when he was working on his doctorate. He did an in-depth study of many authors of success literature over the past 200 years. He analyzed thousands of articles and books on popular psychology, personal development and self-help. It wasn't long before he noticed a pattern in the content.

Almost all of the literature in the first 150 years focused on what Covey called "character ethic" attributes such as integrity, humility, courage, patience and the Golden Rule. He said "These basic principles of effective living and true success depended on integrating these principles into one's character." In other words, mix the straw with the mud.

One of his favorite authors was Ben Franklin, whose autobiography was representative of this kind of literature. In it, he relates how he decided to develop 13 virtues, focusing on one per week in a logical sequence such that developing the first virtue would help in developing the second and so on. Every morning he would spend a few minutes asking himself, "What good shall I do this day?" In the evening, he would examine his thoughts, words, and deeds, and would mark down in a little book, the first daily planner, how many times he failed to exhibit the virtue. Then he would resolve to do better the next day.

He kept at it till the pages of his book were almost free of marks. I leave you with this quote from Ben Franklin, which is apropos to this article: "Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man."

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