One of those school classes which has always stuck in my mind is the one where we learnt about the carrot and stick approach to situations. The idiom was explained to us in the context of a donkey. The donkey could be motivated by the promise of a carrot, or by the threat of a stick; essentially the desired behavior could be encouraged by positive or negative reinforcement.
This approach can be seen clearly in this week’s Torah portion. God simultaneously offers the Israelites a carrot and a stick for why they should observe the commandments. The carrot comes first as God says: ‘If you walk in my statutes and are sure to obey my commandments, I will give you rains in their time, etc.’ (Leviticus 26:3-4). There follows a list of various positive blessings and gifts which the people will receive for obedience in following God’s instructions. But the stick is not far behind; ‘if, however, you do not obey me and keep all these commandments …. I will inflict horror on you, consumption and fever, etc.’ (Leviticus 26:14 & 16).
The promises and the threats, the carrot and the stick would seem to offer a compelling enough reason for observing God’s commandments. But there is an additional incentive contained within these verses.
Throughout this chapter the Hebrew root which keeps appearing is hay-lamed-chaf, which has a meaning related to walking and is the reason that Jewish law is called halacha. At the very beginning it does not say ‘if you obey my statutes’, instead it says im bechukotai telchu ‘if you walk in my statutes’ (Leviticus 26:3). And further on it suggests a different direction to follow; v’im telchu imi keri ‘if you walk in hostility against me’ (Leviticus 26:21). By using the concept of walking, there is a sense in which the people would be moving in a positive or negative direction.
What is striking though is that it is not just the people who will be walking. If they observe and keep the commandments, God says vehithalachti betochechem ‘I will walk amongst you’ (Leviticus 26:12). When we walk in the right direction, God walks with us; God joins us to support our journey.
But if the laws are not followed and the people walk in hostility against God, then it says vehalachti af ani imachem bekeri ‘I myself will also walk in hostility against you’ (Leviticus 26:24). It is as though God will pursue us to punish us for disregarding the laws. The people have the choice of which direction to walk in, but they must know that depending on the direction they choose, God will also walk accordingly.
Amidst all of the promises and threats, the ultimate stick is that God will walk against us, moving to punish us. But there is also the potential of receiving the ultimate carrot. This is not just about rain or success in battle, it is about God actually walking amongst us. When we follow the commandments God is there with us, not just joining us in the moment, but walking amongst us, accompanying us on our journey so that we are never alone. And with God by our side we can step forward boldly as we journey together towards a promised land.
And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: