I recently had a conversation with a fellow educator regarding a complex situation she faced with one of the programs she’s running. She didn’t know what to do – she felt like she no longer knew how to motivate the group and wondered if she had not succeeded to do so so far, was it even possible? She tried everything – imposing 'sanctions', giving consequences that detracted from the 'fun', reminding them of the rules, creating new guidelines, and more. When I asked if she just talked to them, explained the situation, and allowed them to have a safe emotional space, she fell silent. She said she feels it things don’t exactly work that way, and that one should align with what's allowed or forbidden. She felt that trying something new would not help and said, "what good will it do if everything else did not help?" This conversation stayed with me for quite some time afterwards, and today, as I read our weekly Torah portion, I find myself thinking about it even more. I wonder whether demanding compliance to guidelines and rules is an effective way to produce and/or increase motivation?
'B'chukotai', is the last one of the Book of Vayikra
This week’s Parashat HaShavua, 'B'chukotai', is the last one of the Book of Vayikra , and is perhaps the most daunting Torah portion. It is not a coincidence that it is called 'the blessings and curses’ portion, since it begins with a conditional sentence – “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments,” (Vayikra 26:3) – and continues with explicit description of rewards or punishments. In B’chukotai, we see three times more text about curses than we see about blessings, and in fact, it is clear to us by the details of the terrible penalties that may come.
“I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues.” (Vayikra 26: 31)
The penalties are worse than the blessings we will receive if we will:
“I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.”
I believe that the uniqueness of Parshat B'chukotai lies within the details of both the blessings or curses that will come, but mainly in the curses. Imagine a world where you know the consequence for each action you take? Would it change your next step? Probably. Will the change be a change for the better? I'm not sure.
rewards and punishments have a direct influence
On one hand, there is a sense of security and stability that can be found in the details of the consequences given. But on the other hand, the magic of living is lost. The thrill of the "what if ..?" that each of us have asked ourselves more than once is gone, along with inspiration and self-will.
If this is the case, how can one think about their own actions when reading Parashat B’chukotai? The intimidation policy at the heart of this portion is undoubtedly leading the discourse of the text. It seems that God decided that the best way to create the commitment to do good within B'nai Israel (the Israelites) is with a reward and punishment policy. The Book of Leviticus ends with this Rule Book. This ‘reward and punishment policy’ is put forth by trying to produce a transparent discourse in which the rewards and punishments are visible to all. The desire for personal, social, and community responsibility is also made known to all so we understand that it all depends on us, the people.
As befits to the period in which it was written, rewards and punishments have a direct influence on socio-economic reality, and the whole portion describes exactly the consequences that will affect the economy for good or bad. But is this policy the best and most effective policy for doing good and creating commitment, belonging, desire and even more so, to stimulate taking responsibility? Not in my opinion, or at least not in our reality today.
naive point of view
Moreover, it can be argued that this is a slightly naive point of view, as anyone whose work revolves around people will agree – whether they work as educators in the education system, community leaders, or as high-tech employers. The ‘stick and carrot’ method no longer works with today’s B’nai Israel; people think differently and have different opinions and desires. The equation of “if you do x .. then you will get y (good or bad)” may be simple and even provide a convenient solution for the leader, but is that it? If you follow the rules and keep the commandments, then everything will be to your satisfaction? Is it really as simple as being a person who obeys all the rules, without any independent thought, desires or aspirations? This is most likely not the case.
Attempting to produce ‘flat’ obedience rather than ‘deep’ commitment is the root of the problem. This is similar to a teacher asking a student to memorize the material being taught, rather than understanding it – to what extent will the student really learn? Probably not very much. Similarly, how should an employer improve the efficiency of a particular employee? Is it through material compensation, or through personal growth and development, a pleasant work environment and a sense of importance? The first option is good, but it will only last as long as the economic compensation is satisfactory. If it ultimately fails to penetrate deeper within the employee and produce an internal motivation beyond the reward and punishment, it will not hold water.
rewards and reduce punishments
Anyone who has been involved in any kind of leadership or management has probably experienced the inner struggle over the right move for positive motivation and creating a sense of responsibility among their audience. Should we produce deterrence psychology or should we inspire? Is it to punish for evil, or to strengthen for good? Should we believe in immediate repercussions or invest by being patient in future rewards? Apparently there is no right answer, and it is up to the leader to decide what is the best course of action for the specific situation.
So how can we gain rewards and reduce punishments if not only by obeying the clear regulations? Let me suggest a slightly different way than the one proposed in this week’s Torah portion, perhaps even the opposite – go out, break the boundaries and be you. Ask questions, challenge reality, invent new guidelines and adjust the ones existing. Pursue justice and demand peace. Work to create unity and togetherness, not to widen the gaps. Keep the commandment "V’Ahavta", be kind and welcoming to the other and the stranger. Be careful, create systems that see the person and that benefit the person. Come ready to listen and be open to any situation or conversation. Think and do not just obey for the sake of the 'blessing' or out of fear of the 'curse'.
Go out and be you.
And if by any chance you are in some sort of a leadership position – in the education system, in a community, or even in your circle of family and friends – act as such out of responsibility. Create authentic motivation for Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and by that you’ll create the place in which we all want to live; a world in which we don’t only encourage obedience, but rather where one takes ownership. A world of motivational creators that inspire for good.
Pnina Ezra is the Director of BINA’s International Department.