If you finish your broccoli, then you can have your dessert. That’s the incentive we use with kids, but trust me, it works on me too. I often need the promise of a reward to finish a task I’m either not particularly excited about or one that requires major decision making. For instance, when I was studying for the big Talmud exam at the end of rabbinical school, I would make a deal with myself. If I finished reviewing a certain number of pages, then I could play one game of FreeCell. Even writing these weekly divrei Torah, I sometimes incentivize myself by allowing a quick check of Facebook once I hit the halfway point. An incentive can go a long way to helping a task, no matter how big or small get accomplished.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we all acted responsibly or out of the goodness of our hearts without the dangling carrot of chocolate ice cream or five minutes of free time? The reality is that we work with a reward or a return on our investment in mind all the time. In our Torah portions this week, Behar-Behukotai,we see laid out for us the ultimate reward system for living a life of mitzvot. These two portions detail laws of the land. This includes when it is appropriate to use the land and when it must rest, how we treat workers, prohibitions of idolatry,and the value of our words and promises to others.
At the heart of the text is a follow up to the blessings that come to those who follow God’s ways and the curses to those who don’t. Interestingly, the text spends more time explaining the consequences of veering off the path than on the blessings for following the mitzvot. Then again, instilling a little bit of fear is often incentive enough. We always want to know what might happen when the rules aren’t followed.
What’s striking about the narrative is how literally we’re introduced to the concept of “staying on the path.” Chapter 26, verse 3 of sefer Vayikra, reads, “If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them . . .” In other words, if you model yourself according to God’s instruction, then goodness and blessings will follow. Who wouldn’t want a reward like that?
The notion of walking holds a sacred and historical place in our tradition. Think of God’s promise to Abraham when he is commanded lech lecha (go for yourself). Then of course there’s 40 years of the Israelites walking in the wilderness. In fact, Jewish law is calledhalachah in Hebrew, but the literal translation is “the path that one walks.” As human beings we have the ability to grow, to change, to repent, and to apologize after we make missteps. By walking in God’s way, we’re conditioning ourselves to change for the better with each step we take. And maybe that’s all the incentive we should need.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously paraphrased abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who wrote, “Praying for freedom never did me any good till I started praying with my feet.” How do you pray with your feet? How do you decide when it’s important to take action?