Volume 31 Issue 29 16 Sep 2022 20 Elul 5782

What motivates us

Coordinator of Informal Jewish Life (HS) | Chavayah Coordinator | Jewish Studies Teacher | Tutor | Acting Year 7 Coordinator

What motivates us?

What motivates you? Why do you do what you do?

Why do you crack that joke at that inappropriate time. Maybe because you value the laughs you might get over fear of the potential repercussions?

Why don’t you pick up rubbish you see on the street or in your common property? Would you pick it up if you received a can of *insert favourite drink* every time you picked up some rubbish? Or tickets to a concert? What if I told you that if you were caught leaving your trash around you would be fined?

What about the positive things you do? Why do you do them? Why are you kind?

What motivates you? Is it reward and punishment or is it something else? Does your motivation lie in a story that you tell yourself about who you are, where you come from, what you are connected to and who you are supposed to be?

Parashat Ki Tavo is part of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), in which Moshe is reminding the people of their story, their covenant, their responsibilities, the rewards for adhering to them and the punishments for failing to do so.

In Ki Tavo we are warned that if we do not keep God’s covenant that:
וְהָיְתָ֤ה נִבְלָֽתְךָ֙ לְמַֽאֲכָ֔ל לְכׇל־ע֥וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וּלְבֶהֱמַ֣ת הָאָ֑רֶץ וְאֵ֖ין מַחֲרִֽיד׃
“Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off.”

We also get the rewards in this parasha. The “good stuff” like a land flowing with milk and honey and other such blessings.

These blessings and curses made me think about the question of motivation. What motivates us? Are we trying to do the right thing to avoid punishment or reap rewards? Do we follow rules for fear of what may happen to us if we don’t, or, because we want to feel good about ourselves for improving our lives?

These are always important questions to ask ourselves, but I also think that when it comes to Judaism, it’s not so clear cut. I am not sure that today, in 2022, we are so motivated by reward and punishment, especially when it comes to our Judaism. I mean yes, we know that the more good we put into the world, the more good exists in the world and the same applies to evil (or just nastiness). But how many times do we see people getting away with bad things or greatness being unrewarded? What about in a Jewish context? There are some Jews out there who don’t keep a fair few mitzvot and don’t think twice about the punishment that may come. For example, the parasha says that if you don’t keep the covenant “ה’ will strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation”. Do people think about that when they drive on Shabbat? I’m not so sure they do…

There is something else vital that motivates us to be Jewish that also appears in Ki Tavo.

In Moshe’s list of mitzvot and laws for this week’s reading, he requires the Jewish people to tell their story. It is a slimmed down version of our story. Basically, we are all one family who ended up in Egypt where we were made to be slaves and then God saved us. What is so interesting about this is that this is the first time that we were commanded to tell our story. It is an obligation and a religious act for every citizen of the nation. This act is accompanied by many commandments to ״זכור״ “zachor”, “remember”. The phrase “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt” is mentioned five times in Devarim alone! Throughout the book of Devarim, Moshe warns the people 14 times not to forget who we are and where we came from.

It is important to note that we are not required to tell a history of the Jews, we are required to remember. Ancient Hebrew doesn’t even have a word for history, rather we use ״זיכרון״ “zikaron”, “memory”. History is his story, memory is my story and for the Jewish people, our story. What is so remarkable about the Jewish story is that it was not only the ruling class or the literate who tell the story, it is all of us. It is our collective responsibility; we are a nation of storytellers. We are a part of an unbroken chain of storytelling, and I think that is what motivates us, the story of who we are and where we come from. The values that we are custodians and protectors over the world, that inform us of how the world may look and who we might become. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, may his memory be a blessing, wrote that: “Judaism is less about truth as a system than about truth as a story. And we are a part of that story. That is what it is to be a Jew”.

So, I ask you again, what motivates you?

What story do you want to tell and to be told about yourself and what part do you have to play in the bigger stories in your life, that of your community, your people, your family, your country, your world?


Shabbat Shalom