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Reward and Punishment

7 May 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

In his book “Punished by Rewards”, Alfie Kohn shows that while manipulating people with incentives seems to work in the short run, this strategy ultimately fails and even does lasting harm. Drawing from hundreds of studies, Kohn demonstrates that programs that use rewards to change people’s behaviour are ineffective in the long term. Promising goodies to children for good behaviour can never produce anything more than temporary obedience. In fact, the more we use artificial inducements to motivate people, the more they lose interest in what we are bribing them to do.

This week’s Torah portion seems to have exactly this strategy. The ending chapters of the Book of Leviticus have many promises of rewards for obedience and punishment for transgression. Most evidently, they are listed in Leviticus 26. Rewards for observing God’s commandments include good health, rain, peace. The opposite is promised in the case of breaking God’s laws – disease, drought, and war.

Texts like this leave us with many questions. Are these blessings and curses for the individual or the collective? Are they miraculous or natural? Might they be limited to a specific time and place or are they relevant always and everywhere? If the latter, why are they not always manifest?

Understanding of the concept of reward and punishment reflects the development of Jewish thought throughout history and presents us with a set of important questions.

In the Mishnaic collection of Rabbinic wisdom from the second century CE, Antigonus makes the following statement:

Do not be like servants who serve the master in the expectation of receiving a reward but be like servants who serve the master without the expectation of receiving a reward, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you. (Pirkei Avot 1:3)

In other words, one should not be religious out of hopes for reward. If the ideal is that one observes commandments regardless of compensation, why does Torah text devote so much space to listing numerous blessings and curses?

Ramban - a leading medieval Jewish scholar, Sephardic rabbi, philosopher, physician, kabbalist, and biblical commentator - suggests that there is a hierarchy in motivation of performing commandments.

Those who perform with hopes of either material or spiritual reward or out of fear of punishment are at the lowest level, though they still merit reward.

Those who serve out of love, but are still involved in matters of this world, are at the next level.

Finally, those who can leave all physical matters behind and turn their entire being and thoughts to God’s service, with their soul clinging to the Divine, are at the highest level.

I think that for most people in our community today, it is difficult to follow any teaching without an understanding of its core purpose. Perhaps that is why, as Jews, we spend a lot of time learning and trying to understand key principles of Judaism rather than following all commandments in a thoughtless way.

The modern Jewish approach to commandments is to look at the core and main essence of each commandment and fulfil its main purpose - to lead a life of exemplary ethical quality, to work for the betterment of human society, and to practise a devotional discipline of study, prayer, and observance.

Shabbat shalom, 

Igor Zinkov

Shabbat B'Midbar

14 May 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

From there I will give her back her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Disturbance
The Door of Hope.
(Hosea 2:17) 

The first of the twelve 'minor' prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Hosea, preached to the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE. Israel had lost her outlying lands to Assyria and constantly turned to Egypt and Assyria for help. Hosea scorned these appeals and the people's faithless wandering after the ba'alim. Like Elijah before him, Hosea attacked those who built shrines in their backyards and worshipped indiscriminately under every tree or on the top of every hill. Idolatry was the cause of criminality and immorality, he said. 

Hosea 2 is the Haftarah that is read with B’Midbar, the first parashah of the Book of Numbers. As Numbers begins with a census of Israel’s warriors, so the Haftarah opens with a verse that compares the number of the people of Israel to the sands of the sea, ‘not to be measured or counted’ (Hosea 2:1).  The prophet veers between a vision of the future, when the people of Judah in the southern kingdom and Israel in the north will be united and called ‘the children of the Living God,’ and a bitterly critical attack against the conduct of Israel: ‘Ah, Israel has balked like a stubborn cow.’

The most difficult part of this attack lies in the imagery the prophet employs of God and Israel.  God is a wronged husband, Israel an adulterous wife; God has sent her away because of her ‘whorings’, He strips her naked and exposes her as on the day she was born.  He makes her like the wilderness, turns her into a dry land and kills her with thirst.  Her children are shown no love, for they are the children of whoring. Their mother acted shamefully by going after other lovers.

This ‘husband-God’ shows little compassion for the wife he has rejected.  He is disgusted by her idolatrous practices: divination rituals, involvement with cultic prostitutes and kissing of molten images.

In an extraordinary rhetorical device, this God tells Hosea himself to take a wife of ‘whoredom’ and to beget children of ‘whoredom.’  And Hosea’s marital experience becomes a mirror of God’s own experience with Israel.  His wife is named Gomer (‘finished’), his children ‘Lo ruhamah’ (‘not accepted’) and ‘Lo Ammi’ (‘not my people’).  God will no longer accept the House of Israel or pardon them, His people are no longer His people, and He is no longer their God. And if Hosea can send away his wife, then God, too, will dismiss the people of Israel.

And yet, despite the brutal imagery, there is also a compelling message of reconciliation and love in the Book of Hosea.  The forty years in the wilderness are seen as a time of courtship between God and Israel, the place where God entices His people and speaks tenderly to their heart.  ‘From there I will give her back her vineyards and make the Valley of Disturbance the Door of Hope; there she shall respond as when she was young, when she came up out of Egypt’ (1:17).

It is this verse that speaks to us painfully this week, as we witness the tragic events taking place in Jerusalem, throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories of Gaza and the West Bank.  What did Hosea mean when he referred to Emek Achor – ‘the Valley of Disturbance’? What troubles was he referring to – the divided kingdoms and hostility between Israel and Judah, unrest and riots on the streets, lack of government and abuse of power, violence and killings?  Was he attacking the leadership of Israel – ‘the officers of Judah have acted like shifters of field boundaries’, moving the boundary markers of the fields, violating moral and ethical standards of behaviour?

Our hearts grieve as we hear and read of the loss of life, the terror and trauma, the untold damage that is inflicted on children and families, the disruptions to daily life on both sides.  Can the Valley of Disturbance become the Door of Hope?

Hosea’s harsh words may not be appropriate for the present time when events leave open and raw wounds, literally and metaphorically.  We grieve for what is happening in Israel and Gaza, we watch and ask ourselves what can we do to help turn the tide of these tragic affairs?  In prayer, we can share our own anxieties for family and friends; we can stand with all those who are bereaved or injured.  We can show solidarity to our sister movement the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.  The celebrations for Shavuot they were hoping would be in person after a year of the pandemic may, for other reasons, have to be online again this year.

Let us pray that calm is restored soon.  But let us go further and pray, not only that a lid is placed on the disturbances of these past days, extinguishing the conflagration, but that a real peace is brokered between all parties.  As Hosea says, Ephraim is stricken, its stock is withered, it can produce no fruit, unless there is rest, unless there is acknowledgement of pain, loss and hurt on both sides.

Israel and Palestine may not be able to embrace the words of espousal and love in Hosea – ‘I will betroth you to me for ever’ (2:21) - but surely, at some point in the not-too-distant future, we can hope that leaders will arise to embrace the prophet’s vision of righteousness and justice, goodness and mercy and the Valley of Disturbance will become the Door of Hope.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach.

Alexandra Wright
*To watch the IMPJ International Briefing about the Situation in Israel, please click here


Naso - Everyone Counts

21 May 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

The Jewish tradition prescribes us to say a blessing before many actions. For example, before eating bread we say:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who brings bread out of the earth.

If you read the translation of this blessing carefully, you may have a reasonable objection to its meaning. Nobody brings ‘bread out of the earth’. Earth provides us with grain, wheat, barley, but not bread. There is some hard work to be done until grain becomes flour and, eventually, a loaf of bread. Is Judaism inaccurate?

 A 10th century midrash Tanna de-vei Eliyahu Zuta (Teachings of the School of Elijah) answers this question in the genre of mashal, i.e. parable:

A king of flesh and blood had two servants whom he loved completely. He gave each of them a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax. The first one what did he do? He wove the flax into a cloth and made flour from the wheat, sifted it, ground it, kneaded it, and baked it and arranged it on the table, spread upon it the cloth and left it until the king returned. The second one did not do anything, though he did keep and treasure it. After a time, the king returned to his house and said to them: ‘My sons, bring me what I gave you.’ One brought out the table set with the bread and the cloth spread upon it, and the other brought the wheat in a basket and the bundle of flax with it. Oh what an embarrassment! Oh what a disgrace! Which do you think was most beloved? The one who brought the table with the bread upon it … (Similarly) when God gave the Torah to Israel, God gave it as wheat from which to make flour and flax from which to make bread and clothing1

In other words, this world needs our support and protection no less than we need it from the world. When we recite or hear a blessing, it is a reminder to us that we are God’s partners in the continuing work of the creation of the world.

This week’s parashah ha a similar message. Naso  - the word that gave a name to this week’s Torah portion - is a verb that has many meanings, among them: to lift, to carry, and to forgive. In this context, and elsewhere in the wilderness years, it is used, in conjunction with the phrase ‘et rosh’ (the head) to mean ‘to count.’ Moses finishes up the census in order to figure out who is available for various tasks. Once he finishes with that, he goes back to creating the rules that will guide the future life of the Israelites. A Hasidic teacher, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, taught that there was the same number of Israelites—603,550—as there are letters in the Torah scroll. Just as the Torah scroll would be invalid if a letter were missing, if any Jew slacks off, Judaism itself loses energy.

Every person counts and everyone is God’s partner in the continuing work of creating a better world. In this time of crisis and conflict escalation, it is natural for us to see the other side as unworthy, wrong, and malicious. I hope that we will see that the world is wide enough for everybody and we have everything to live a harmonious life and build a society where everyone counts.
Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Igor
[1] Composed in Talmudic Babylon/Italy/Israel (c.968 - c.984 CE). Tanna Deve Eliyahu (Teachings of the School of Elijah) is the composite name of a midrash, consisting of two parts, whose final redaction took place at the end of the 10th century CE. The underlying theme of the Tanna Deve Eliyahu, which, with many interruptions, runs through the whole work, is the evolution of the world.


Shabbat B'Ha'a lot'cha

28 May 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

It has been a confusing and upsetting time for Jewish students, pupils and teachers in some British universities and schools. 

A year after the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement took off, young people are motivated to take up other issues about which they feel passionately – and one of these has come to the fore since the latest conflict between Gaza and Israel.  Young people have expressed their support for Palestine through protests, flag-waving, chanting of ‘Free Palestine’ and, in one school, by refusing to attend lessons.

The context of these protests hasn’t always been made clear: highlighting the plight of Palestinians is one thing, but directing protests and actions against individuals because they are Jewish, is another. Waving a Palestinian flag is not an act of antisemitism, but holding Jews responsible for the conflict in the Middle East, is quite simply wrong and shows, not only a lack of knowledge and understanding, but is a blatant act of prejudice and injustice.

If young people are going to demonstrate and protest, they need to be helped to learn, understand and to approach the issues critically, without partiality. Organisations such as Solutions not Sides seek to educate young people through the lens of critical analysis about Israel and Palestine and have done some worthwhile work in schools. They bring together young Arab Palestinians and Israeli Jews; they help young people understand that there are multiple voices and many narratives, and to engage with the conflict within the safe structure of the classroom.

Young protesters need to understand that Jews who live outside Israel are not responsible for the political and military decisions made by the Israeli government and armed forces, just as Muslims around the world are not responsible for the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah.

All forms of antisemitism and Islamophobia must be condemned.  Eradicating hatred and prejudice is done through education and raising awareness.  It isn’t always easy for teachers to judge situations that arise suddenly, but they can embrace a general principle of listening, taking a step back and helping their students open their eyes and ears to the complexity of Israel and Palestine, their history and the current situation.

Many of us have a profound emotional investment in Israel, because we have family and friends there, because it is the place where we have felt most at home, because it connects us viscerally with our past.  The House of Israel – the Jewish people – are indissolubly linked with the land of Israel, a bond that was renewed with the establishment of the State in 1948.

If you are worried about your children or grandchildren in schools in London or around the country and want to help them with information, arranging an assembly or by making a connection to Solutions not Sides, please do be in touch with us at the LJS.

Protesting is not wrong, on the contrary it underlines our freedom of expression and can bring change and hope.  A rabbinic source sanctions non-violent protest in the streets and market-places in order to protect the religious and moral values of Jewish life.  Choosing what we protest about and how we do it, however, must be rooted in truth and a proper search for solutions, rather than taking sides.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright 

This article tells you a little more about how British teachers have responded to pro-Palestine protests.


Tue, 28 November 2023 15 Kislev 5784