Saturday, September 24, 2011

Carrots and Sticks? Motives for worship and repentance Nitzavim- Vayeilech

Carrots, Sticks or Love?
Image reproduced with permission from
My 6 year old son told me about a story he learned at school. Rabbi Akiva was asked why he studied Torah when the Roman forbade it? He replied with a story about a sly fox that told fish “why do you swim back and forth to escape the fishermen, come up here on shore where you will be safe with me”.  He then explained that just as the fish would die without water, God would kills us if don’t obey the Torah so we better obey. While the original intent of the story is about Torah being as essential to the Jew as water is to a fish, to a six year old it took on a more literal meaning.

I wonder to what extent my son’s understanding is reflective of Torah’s own broader message. The punitive approach challenges me in two ways. It is jarring when viewed from a modern perspective that frowns on fear as a factor in personal decision making and bristles at the idea of an authority figure issuing threats. It is also out of step with my Chabad upbringing in which talk about hell or divine punishment was rare. Being the last week of the month of Elul during which I am supposed to reflect on worship and “return” to God is a good time to grapple with the motivations my tradition presents for doing so.

The Reward & Punishment Approach
Perhaps there is among you a man, woman, family, or tribe, whose heart strays this day from the Lord, our God …. The Lord will not be willing to forgive him; rather, then, the Lord's fury and His zeal will fume against that man, and the entire curse written in this book will rest upon him, and the Lord will obliterate his name from beneath the heavens... plagues of that land and the diseases with which the Lord struck it. Sulfur and salt have burned up its entire land! It cannot be sown, nor can it grow [anything], not [even] any grass will sprout upon it. It is like the overturning of Sodom, Gemorrah… which the Lord overturned in His fury and in His rage[i].  

This approach of warnings about punishment appears repeatedly in the Torah, often, alongside promises of reward. And you will return and listen to the voice of the Lord, and fulfil all His commandments, which I command you this day.   And the Lord, your God, will make you abundant for good in all the work of your hands … the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil.[ii]

I acknowledge the prominence of reward and punishment in my tradition. One of the main principles of Jewish faith is “I believe with perfect faith that G-d rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress Him[iii]”. The fact that this makes me uncomfortable is partially an expression of the conflict of being true to tradition while being part of the world and this time.

A Difference between Threats and Warnings?
My six year old said something mildly threatening to his older brother recently. After I reprimanded him, I reflected on the fact that my warnings to him when I was not happy with his behaviour were not that different from what he just said to his brother. I guess I can be more careful with the wording of my warnings. At the same time, I think one difference between legitimate warnings and offensive threats is that I have the authority to warn him and punish him for his own good, while he does not. While we are right in condemning tyrants for using harsh methods to control people, God surely has the authority to punish as he sees fit.   

Hurts me more than it hurts you
One teaching that softens this somewhat relates to the verse. “And I will hide my face from them[iv]”.  “This is said in way of affection like a person whose son sinned against him and (the father) tells the teacher to hit him but he cannot bear to see the beating of his son because has mercy toward him so he hides his face[v]”.

The Right Thing for the Right Reason
Being motivated in worship by fear of punishment or expectation of reward is not the ideal. Antigonus states in the Mishna “Do not be like the servants who serve the master on condition of reward, but rather be like the servants who serve the master not on condition of reward[vi]. One interpretation of this is that a person should think of the performance of the commandments as if he had an explicit condition that he would not get any reward, seeing his service as being for free,  so that he is not confused with the issue of a righteous who suffer and wicked who prosper[vii].  

Maimonides states that the ultimate motive should be “doing the truth because it is true[viii]”. A person should not say: "I will fulfil the commandments Mitzvot of the Torah …in order to receive all the blessings which are contained within it” He continues with this theme and even rejects the motive of trying to get to heaven. “Or (obeying the commandments) in order to merit the life of the world to come.  [Similarly,] I will avoid all the sins… so that I will be saved from all the curses… It is not fitting to serve God in this manner[ix]”.

Philosopher’s undue influence?
Another great scholar, Abrabanel[x] challenges Maimonides’ view on motives as being not in line with Torah and that it originates in the thoughts of non-Jewish philosophers such as Aristotle. They taught that one must do good for the sake of good. Abrabanel argues that their premise was a rejection of divine reward and punishment. As Jews who believe in reward and punishment we find rewards that are not directly related to the act that is being rewarded. It is also not the case that everything Torah forbids is inherently disgusting as can be seen from the teaching that one should not say ‘I will not eat pork because I detest it’ but rather say ‘I cannot eat it because God has forbidden it’[xi]. In other words, avoiding pork is not an essential truth, it is a subjective virtue based on God’s command[xii]. He also cites a proof from the Talmud that a person who vows to give a sum to charity on condition that his sick son will recover is considered righteous[xiii].

In spite of Abrabanel’s objections, the ideal of serving God for its own sake is accepted as an important standard of Jewish worship. This is particularly so in Chasidic teachings which emphasise love of God and awe or fear of disappointing God as key motivations for worship.  Still, even as we aspire toward the ideal, reward and punishment might be a useful fall-back position. Regardless of the motive, my challenge at this holy time of year is to fulfil the prediction that “you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day[xiv]. May next year be one of reward, truth, peace, justice, dignity and blessings for all humanity.

[i] Deuteronomy 29:17-27
[ii] Deuteronomy 30:8-9
[iii] Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishna Sanhedrin,
[iv] Deuteronomy 31:17
[v] Bchor Shor and others
[vi] Pirkey Avot, the Ethic of the Fathers 1:3
[vii] Meiri, Beis Habechira commentary to Pirkey Avot
[viii] Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, chapter 10 law 2
[ix] Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, chapter 10 law 1
[x] 1437- 1508 lived in Lisbon, Naples, Venice
[xi] Sifre 20, cited in Abrabanel on Pirkey Avot, as compiled and translated by Chill (1991)
[xii] Abrabanel on Pirkey Avot, as compiled and translated by Abraham Chill, A. (1991) Sepher Hermon Press NY p30-35
[xiii] Talmud Pesachim 8a
[xiv] Deuteronomy 30:2