Reward and Punishment

Rabbi Melanie Aron

July 20, 2002

If you talk with teachers you will find a variety of views on what motivates people. Some teachers believe that their students are motivated by pain and pleasure. They believe strongly in setting up the right system of rewards and punishments in order to motivate appropriate student behavior. Other teachers believe that that learning is what students will want to do naturally, unless they are impeded in some way. Their attempts to motivate their students will be more related to the material they are teaching, and to helping their students recognize its meaningfulness.

Moses was the teacher par excellance of the Jewish people, but he seems divided within himself on the question of what motivates people to do the right thing. We often find him cajoling and threatening but sometimes also trying to inspire and motivate by urging the Israelites to fulfill their special destiny as a people.

It was interesting to me that in the Torah portion this week, with its famous passages including the Ten Commandments, and the Shema, we find both approaches toward motivation.

The Ten Commandments seem more like the teacher with the points chart and cookie jar. Some of the ten commandments carry an explicit reward or punishment, as for example the fifth commandment about honoring one's parents which concludes, "so that you may long endure and that you may fare well in the land that the Lord your God is giving you", or the third commandment, which threatens," for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by his name." The medieval commentator Nachmanides actually makes the claim that all the negative commandments are motivated by this idea of reward and punishment, since according to him, the reason most people keep prohibitions, "Thou Shalt Not", is their fear of punishment.

That is very different from the kind of motivation offered by the other very important text in this week's Torah portion, the Shema. Here all the teaching is entirely couched in the positive and there is no mention either of reward or punishment. Why would we do all of these things- teach our children, speak of God's teaching day and night? Why would we hold these teaching so precious as to bind them on our hand and between our eyes, or write them on the doorposts of our houses? Only out of love, V'ahavtah, and Thou Shalt Love. This is not the ordinary love we have of everyday things, or even of the people in our lives, but is a very special kind of love. Nachmanides says, it is a positive love that goes beyond ourselves and our families and neighbors, beyond even our people or our nation, beyond our species or even our planet, a love which extends to the source of life itself and thus calls us to act lovingly towards everyone and everything. To someone who loves in this way there is no need for reward and punishment, as that love motivates an aspiration to reach out towards the positive.

Behavior Modification or The Self Rising to Its Highest. We aspire toward the one but our text is heavily weighted towards the other. Though Judaism does not dwell on heaven and hell, on the question of reward and punishment after our death, still the Bible and other texts talk frequently about the good that follows the performance of God's commandments, and the disaster we bring upon ourselves through our disobedience. Yet we have a sense that this is not the ideal. We are told that we are meant not to be like those who serve their master with the intention of receiving a reward, but rather to be like those who serve leshaym shamayim, solely for the sake of heaven, for the sake of the good act itself.

This Shabbat, Shabbat Nachamu, is full of messianic promise. That vision of messianic redemption includes peace in Israel and through the world, the lion lying down with the lamb, but it also includes changes in ourselves, as we leave behind motivation through fear, and come to be propelled by our love instead.