Rabbi’s Message: March 16, 2023, 2023.



Illustration: “Virtue is Its Own Reward” (poster from the 1914 movie)

            Sheila bought me a wonderful gift for my birthday this past December, a gift that has helped me improve my life. She bought me a “Fitbit” watch/ biometric monitor. I wear the watch faithfully. It has helped me to embrace a wellness regimen including walking 11,000 steps (5 miles) a day, striving for a certain duration of elevated heartrate for cardio health, and so on.
            Today— oy vey!— I left for Old Dominion University without remembering to take the Fitbit off of its charging cradle and replace it on my wrist.  I walked the ½ mile from where I park to school as briskly as ever, thinking, “the Fitbit is only a means to an end…. The point is that I do what I need to do, not that it rewards me with the numerical display.”  But then, the insidious nature of rewards triumphed over my nature reasoning.  When I gave the students their break, I did not use the time to climb the five flights of steps in the Education Building, as I do other days…. Knowing that the device would not record my progress, I fell to the temptation of putting it off for later in the day.
            Yes, I will stand by my characterization--- “The insidious nature of rewards.” In saying this, I know that I am being quite counter-cultural.  Our entire society is structured on rewards. Gold stars for pre-school students, honor rolls for elementary schoolers, worker of the month parking spots close to the place of employment, interest rate reductions for revolving credit card users, even words of praise, have a negative side as well as a positive one. 
How can this be? Don’t these rewards work? Isn’t that the point?
The negative comes to the fore in the long-term, not the short term. Rewards can ruin you  when the recipient begins to do the sought-after behavior for the sake of the reward, not for the intrinsic value of the accomplishment.
We see the deleterious effects in outcomes such as the following:
  • People stop reading for the pleasure of reading;
  • They stop learning for its own sake;
  • They give less charity when the tax code no longer rewards it;
Indeed, we could extend this list indefinitely.  The point is that the reward is extrinsic, not intrinsic, to the good behavior being rewarded. At some point, the extrinsic nature of the reward tends to displace the joy in mastery of the challenges of life, intellectual or ethical.
Illustration: Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
             This disturbing thesis is the subject of a thought-provoking, tightly argued work by one of our country’s leading educators, Alfie Kohn.   Hear his words:
            “Rewards don’t bring about the changes we are hoping for…. Something else is going on: the more rewards are used, the more they seem to be needed. The more often I promise you a goody to do what I want, the more I cause you to respond to, and even to require, these goodies… [T]he other, more substantive reasons for you to do your best tend to evaporate, leaving you with no reason to try except for obtaining a goody. Pretty soon, the provision of rewards becomes habitual because there seems to be no way to do without them…. This cycle… help[s] to explain why we have spun ourselves ever deeper into the mire of behaviorism.” (p, 17)
            While we are pondering that, let us bring some Jewish traditions into the picture. At first, Judaism seems to be very much about rewards and punishments. But it is more than that. Our religion actually teaches a set of lessons on the question of “why be good?” Some of these lessons are more austere—even more sublime—than the popular image.
            The Bible – it is true—contains promises of earthly reward in return for the keeping of God’s commandments.  Rain in its season, fertility in our flocks and our families, success in our political aims—these are the corporal rewards that the Bible promises repeatedly.  Other biblical voices are heard, such as the accusation of Job, that the righteous are the playthings of unjust misfortune; but the voice of God out of the whirlwind silences Job rather than meeting his complaint.
            The Rabbis never rejected the Biblical promises of this-wordly reward, but they extended the Biblical picture significantly, by adding the dimension of “’Olam Ha-ba”—“the world that is coming.” In Rabbinic parlance, that phrase can mean, The Afterlife—or it might mean, a perfected world-order when the Messiah finally comes—or some combination of the two.  The Rabbis never defined their eschatological explanations too precisely, and only rarely turned their idealistic pictures into dogma.  What emerges from the Rabbinic discussion of reward and punishment is a web of beliefs that includes enough deferred gratification to avoid being refuted by the harsh realities of our individual tragedies and our corporate life as a persecuted nation.


Illustration: “The Reward for a Mitzvah is the Mitzvah itself”

            Later Jewish thinkers picked up on selected remarks in their rabbinic heritage to propound a still more rarified view of the rewards that the righteous might justly expect. The great theologian Maimonides spoke about the rewards that appeal to the mature mind as opposed to the immature or untutored one.  As he explains it, one offers tasty candies to children to train them in good behavior but must guide them to set those rewards aside and ultimately do the right thing from the sheer love of God. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book One: The Book of Knowledge, Laws of Repentance, Ch. 9)
            While the 18th pietist movement, Hasidism, was emotional rather than cerebral in its way of being Jewish, there is a surprising point of contact with Maimonidean theology just here. Why should one fulfill the commandments? In order to cling to God.  The key Hassidic value, devekut, “clinging to God” emerges as the mainspring of the entire mechanism of religiously-approved behavior:
אמרו רז״ל שכר מצוה מצוה, רצה לומר שהשם יתברך נתן לנו המצות כדי להדבק על ידיהם בהשם יתברך, וזהו שכר מצוה הוא מצוה, לשון צוותא, דהיינו שנדבק על ידי בהשם יתברך ואין לך שכר גדול מזה

            The rabbis of the Talmud said "the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah," that is to say, that God gave us commandments so that we might thereby cleave to God. Thus, the reward for a mitzvah is mitzvah, that is, tzavta (joining together), for, by means [of performing a mitzvah] one cleaves with God, and there is no greater reward than that...
Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (18th c.)
            When I came home today, I noted with rue the low step count on my sadly-neglected Fitbit, since regardless of the true physiological benefits gained today, the walking to and in and from campus had “not counted.”  At this writing, I am officially credited with having managed only two and a half miles today, but it is still only 8:00, and I will channel Robert Frost, and aver that I “have miles to go before I sleep.”
            And so it is with the commandments of God: fulfilling them may or may not grant you bodily vigor, children who give you contentment, let alone world peace! We would hope that they give you a share of Heaven--- but if you are of a modern temperament, you will probably decide to fulfill them without ever quite knowing for sure.
            And for those of us who are in that mental framework, I have saved the best rabbinic quote for last: Sekhar mitzvah mitzvah--- The reward for [the fulfillment of ]a commandment is--- a commandment!
            Virtue is its own reward, runs the famous maxim. Who knew—this maxim can be sung in a Jewish key as well?
            At the end of the day, here is my advice:
            Be good. Do the right thing.  It might be for this reason or that--  your reward might be in one domain or another--  but ultimately, what counts is not the reward. What counts is that, in performing the mitzvah, you were, for a while, the person whom God created you to be.  Let that be reward enough.