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May 26, 2022 10:42 am
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Threats Don’t Work; Values Make People Do the Right Thing

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

I have always resisted threats, and felt it counterproductive to employ them to enforce or encourage people to become religious.

We know that warning troubled children and threatening them if they misbehave rarely works. Sometimes carrots work, but at other times we need to use the stick (metaphorically, of course). But it is only when children decide for themselves to behave differently that their behavior will change. Threats, even beatings, just do not work.

And yet this is precisely how the Torah addresses us.

This week, we read the first of two sets of blessings and curses presented to the Israelites to encourage them to be loyal to God.

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If we are good, we are told, then God will protect us, deliver us from our enemies, make sure that the rains fall and the crops grow, and give us peace to enjoy the land and live together in harmony with our families.

But if we do not obey God, then we will be smitten with diseases, attacked, and destroyed by our enemies. Whereas the blessings are brief and simple and cover a few sentences, the bad stuff fills a whole chapter.

It was only after reading Mesopotamian declarations of ancient kings that I realized that for thousands of years, this was just a formulaic way of impressing the masses. All monarchs used to issue such declarations after ascending their thrones, promising rewards for loyalty and penalties for treason or desertion. This was what all people expected to hear all the time. It was “the Carrot and the Stick.” But why assume the stick would be more effective than the carrot? Is this human nature?

In fact, sometimes threats do work. “The Fear of God” can get people to behave, just as the presence of a policeman might deter a thief.

After the curses, this week, come a series of laws about how to donate to the Temple by assessing your own value — as if to say that this donation is a way of atoning for your poor behavior. But why insert it here after the threats for bad behavior, and just before we complete the Book of Leviticus?

The Torah sets fixed values that rise and fall according to one’s age and sex. They obviously cannot be taken as literal values, because some people are stronger, more intelligent, healthier, and better workers or fighters than others. We are not all the same. It is, I believe, another subliminal way of saying that all human life is precious. An offering is based on our age instead of our real value, and the same standard applies to everyone regardless of their qualities or defects.

We are all, so to speak, God’s children and precious. It is up to us to make the most of our lives by making the right decisions. Forget the rewards or benefits. Act because it is the right thing to do.

Shabbat Shalom.

The author is a writer and rabbi, currently living in New York.

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