Monday, June 3, 2019

Parashat BeHukotai: Intrinsic Motivation

Thoughts on Parashat BeHukotai 2019
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Parashat Behukotai begins with God’s condition to Am Yisrael. He told them that by following His laws – If you will walk by My statutes (26:3) – they would merit wealth, security and strength. Concluding these promises of prosperity, God told the nation:
I will walk among you; I will be a God to you and you will be a people to me. (26:12)
Paralleling His condition of our “walking by His statutes,” God foresaw “walking among us” – in the sense that we would feel His presence. Instead of mentioning this reality as the immediate result of following the missvot, which would then inspire the possibilities of material success, “I will walk among you” is mentioned as the final promise to the people who follow His will. It appears, then, that the promise of “I will walk among you” stands as the reward, independent of anything else.

Suppose, in theory, that a mixture of technological breakthroughs and human creativity bring the world to a state of utopia. Machines would produce stress-free universal wealth, psychology would vaccinate against mental disorders, and a perfected human intellect would raise us above all fights and competition. What would we then do all day? Philosopher Bernard Suits suggested that we would play games. Games, he explained, are played for their owns sake, irrespective of ulterior considerations.[1] R. Yisshak Hutner z”l accordingly explained the several biblical references of Torah as a “sha’ashua’a” – a “plaything” (Tehillim 119:92; Mishlei 8:30-1), as study of its words and concepts is likewise an intrinsically motivated activity.[2]

As members of a world and community which unabashedly value outcome above process, it is no small feat for us to identify and appreciate any of the intrinsic ideals that life has to offer. Indeed, the novelist KJ Dell’Antonia recently quoted a Senior high student who reflected upon her appreciation of extracurricular activities: “There is definitely this sense that you are putting work into activities so you can get some sort of payback – admission to a top college – and afterward, your work is done.” Dell’Antonia remarked:
Ironically, in placing so much value on activities that our children came to out of love or interest, we grown-ups replaced the intrinsic motivations we often claim to value with extrinsic ones. When you’ve been taught that every action has a purpose, it’s harder to find meaning in just doing something you enjoy, and much more difficult to persuade yourself to do it.
Our society has effectively commercialized the sports and activities which kids once did “just for fun,” and turned them into a means to an end.[3]

The simple activity of taking a walk, however, has withstood the winds of time as it continues to serve no function outside of itself. The noted author Erling Kagge mentioned this facet as a core dimension of his love of walking outside:
I remember that in school, they strived for objectiveness. Tasks had a beginning and an end, tests got graded, and behavior had a norm. To walk is about something else. You can reach your goal, only to continue walking the next day. A hike may last a lifetime. You can walk in one direction and end up at your starting point.[4]
The contemporary French philosopher Frederic Gros similarly contrasted the activity of walking to the world of “sport.” He began his book, A Philosophy of Walking, by succinctly stating that “walking is not a sport.” Whereas the sports of today are a matter of techniques and rules, scores and competition, “Putting one foot in front of the other is child’s play.”[5]

Rashi commented on God’s promise of “I will walk among you”:
I will stroll with you in the Garden of Eden, like one of you, and you will not tremble because of me….[6]
Harkening back to the original story of Adam and Hava who, following their sin, “heard the sound of God walking about in the garden” (Bereshit 3:8), Rashi taught that whereas God was then “walking alone,” following his statutes will earn us the role of “Divine walking buddies.” But what will be the purpose of that “walk”? Already granted the promise of material achievement and security, it appears that the ideal of His presence would not serve any extrinsic value, but rather the intrinsic value of “the walk” itself.

Internalizing the fundamental message of Parashat BeHukotai requires an uphill march against the pressures of our culture and society. In a world where “walking” remains the sole vestige of an independently valued activity, “walking with God” must represent for us the ideal of pursuing a life inspired by intrinsic motivations.

[1] Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia, 3rd ed. (Peterborough, Ont., 2014), pg. 182-95.
[2] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Igerot UKetavim (Brooklyn, NY, 1991), no, 2. See, as well, R, Moshe Shapiro’s elaboration of this idea in UMessarah LeYehoshua (Jerusalem, IS, 2017), pg. 72. And cf. Yaakov Elman, “Pahad Yitzhak: A Joyful Song of Affirmation,” Hakirah 20 (Winter 2015), pg. 49.
[3] KJ Dell’Antonia, “How High School Ruined Leisure: Will kids still do what they like when it won’t help them get into college?” The New York Times, May 18, 2019.
[4] Erling Kagge, Walking: One Step at a Time (New York, NY, 2019), pg. 148.
[5] Frederic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking (London, UK, 2015), pg. 1-2.
[6] Commentary of Rashi to VaYikra 26:12, s.v. ve-hit’halakhti.