Shabbat Behukotai: Carrot or Stick

May 26, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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I have always resisted threats and felt it counterproductive to employ them to enforce or encourage people to become religious even if these are tools that all religions have used at one stage or another to preserve their power and authority.

We know that warning naughty 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 that their behaviour 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. If we are good 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, the rains will not come, we will suffer famine, and our children will be killed or captured and all kinds of horrors will befall us.
Whereas the blessings are brief and simple and cover a few sentences, the bad stuff fills a whole chapter. The problem is that we see it doesn’t usually work out that way. Violence succeeds and the pious suffer. Just as people act in their own interests, nature functions regardless of what people do. Good agricultural practices can be ruined by poor weather or natural catastrophes. Being good is no guarantee of a good life even if one feels virtuous.

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 on 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. I take these chapters of the Torah to be a convention, like oaths of loyalty. Symbolic rather, even spiritual, rather than material. Ideal, if not realistic.

After the curses, this week comes 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 behaviour. But why insert it here after the bad news 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.

Leviticus 26:3-27:34

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