We logic constantly with If-Then statements. “If you do the dishes, then I’ll take care of the laundry,” we negotiate with our partners. “If you surpass your sales goals,” your supervisor tells you, “then you earn a bonus at the end of the year.” “If you clean your room,” a parent tells her child, “then we’ll go out for ice cream.” (A win-win situation for the parent.) “If I stick to my diet, then I will lose weight.” “If I do more pushups, then I will build more arm strength.” If-Then statements are an integral in how we speak with one another, and how we get one another, and ourselves, to be responsible.
This logic system has psychological connections. Operant conditioning is a way that someone or something learns, and simultaneously strengthens behaviors. Think back to Psychology 101. A pigeon is in a cage and has two levers to peck. Peck at one, and it does nothing. Peck at another, and food drops into the cage. The pigeon learns to peck at the lever that gives it food. It conditions itself to focus on that lever. Likewise, think of Pavlov’s dog, conditioned to associate the ringing of a bell with dinner time. Take away the dinner plate, but still ring the bell, and the dog will come. “If I hear that bell, then it is dinner time,” the dog logics.
Our primal, animal ways are inherently logical. “If I strike a flit over some dry leaves, then I can start a fire.” From this sort of learning, humanity began to build. We created tools, logically constructed, to make our lives easier and to assure our survival against natural threats we encountered.
Today, our world runs on innumerable If-Then statements, triggering micro-switches that run so fast, they are imperceptible except when seen collectively. Every keystroke on a smart phone is a series of zeros and ones, arrays of If-Then statements that make our phones do the things that phones do. And our If-Then statements are only getting more elaborate. With wifi enabled devices in my home, as I drive into my driveway now, the lights turn on, and the heat sets to a comfortable temperature. These are some of the most complex examples of human ingenuity, all constructed out of those two simple words If-Then.
If-Then can be broken down into a single word, as well: consequences. If one thing happens, then another should, too. If I put out my hand, then you should shake it. If-Then is about consequences, that then transforms the philosophy of logic into a theology of logic.
By theology I mean a way of belief. If we are to think of how If-Then statements get applied to the realm of what we believe, then we end up in a dangerous place — the place of Reward and Punishment. In this week’s Torah portion, we read a clear articulation of reward and punishment theology:
God gives a set of instructions to Moses and the Israelites. They come across as a series of If-Then statements. If the community unwittingly errs in any of God’s mitzvot, then the priests are to make a number of particular offerings. If an individual unwittingly errs in any of God’s mitzvot, then that person is to offer a particular sacrifice. But, if someone purposefully transgresses, then there is a consequence. Namely, that person is to be cut off from the community. That person is to bear the guilt of his transgression.
After describing these general situations, and their consequences, the text shifts to an example of consequences bearing out. Once, the Israelites were in the wilderness where they came upon a man gathering wood during Shabbat. This was a clear violation of one of God’s mitzvot. The Israelites took the man into custody, and brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole community. The biblical God declared before everyone that this man had transgressed, and therefore he was to be stoned to death. The Israelites carried out the punishment.
The promise of reward or the threat of punishment are powerful motivators. Yet, a theology built upon them is problematic in our day an age. If-Then statements are how we communicate, and consequences are real. The idea that rewards and punishments are the way that we related to God, and the way that God relates to us — well that is a logic by which many cannot abide. It leads to perverse interpretations of current events. Why would bad things happen to good people, under this theology? Because they in fact were not good people. They must have sinned on purpose.
Blaming the victim, making the tragedy their fault because they must have made God frown — that is a perverse theology, and false. It scares me when I hear smart, considerate and compassionate individuals, or people in positions of power, toe a line toward this sort of thinking.
If we reject Reward and Punishment as valid consequences, then what sort of consequences are theologically sound? Why take any particular religious action? Because what we do matters. If we observe a mitzvah, there are consequences—spiritual consequences.
The set of If-Then statements found in this week’s Torah portion emphasize that God wants us to observe the mitzvot. If we transgress unintentionally, then there are rituals to make up for that. The first supposition is that we are observing the mitzvot.
And the story of the wood gatherer is complicated by a later version: Every shabbat, a community gathers in the mornings for services and then a kiddush lunch. The people linger through the lunch, and enjoy their day. Mysteriously, the rabbi disappears midway through the lunch, each and every week. A few of the community leaders take note, and appoint one of them to follow him one Shabbat afternoon. The rabbi, not realizing he’s being followed, heads out of the Shul, as he does each and every Shabbat toward the middle of the kiddush lunch. He heads home, and changes his clothes, from his Shabbat fineries to a set of work clothes and boots. He grabs an axe and heads into the forest, and there collects a bushel of firewood. The man following is appalled. His rabbi is violating Shabbat!
The rabbi hauls the firewood along a not-so-obvious path until he reaches a small home. The man continues to follow. The rabbi knocks on the door and lets himself in. The man following him, peers through the window, hoping to not be discovered. What he sees is the rabbi saying hello to a old woman, lying on a small cot. He helps her sit up, and makes sure she’s comfortable. He places the firewood he gathered near the fire, and makes sure that there is enough heat in the house. They sit and talk for a while.
The man who followed the rabbi now understands. His rabbi may have intentionally violated Shabbat, but he intentionally was observing the mitzvah of bikur cholim, caring for the ill and infirm. Before he can be discovered, the man heads back to the synagogue to report to the other leaders.
When asked where the rabbi heads, some make all sorts of speculation. Finally, one person in the room expresses the belief that perhaps the rabbi gets to go to Heaven for a little while, on Shabbat. The man who followed the rabbi now relaxes. He smiles at the others, and says, “Yes. Heaven. If not even higher.”
God wants us to observe the mitzvot. Those are the actions that we distinctly do as Jews. And there are spiritual consequences to those actions. Lighting is not going to come out of the sky should we break a command. Bad things do not happen to us because we do not observe the letter of the law. But spiritual worth is conveyed through their observances. Living ethically, loving our neighbors, honoring our parents, teaching our children, doing business justly—these are actions that have spiritual consequences. They convey worth. And the ritual mitzvot can as well, if we give them a chance. Shabbat matters because if we do not rest, if we run ourselves into the ground, how can we be at our best for ourselves and for those whom we love? The ritual mitzvot too convey worth.
We often speak in If-Then statements. And those statements are a part of a construction to how we logic through our days. An aspect of this is living a life of worth and value. How do we construct our behaviors to convey this worth and this value? Consequences are real. And both positive and negative consequences are a spiritual matter. What we do to enliven our spirit matters.