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Shoftim

By Miriam Lorie

What are the things you live for? What motivates you above all else? What would distract your focus from a mission you are committed to? In this week’s parasha, Shoftim, we get a glimpse into the motivational psychology employed by the new Israelite army as it enters the land of Canaan. Imagine you’re a teenage Israelite. You were brought up in the desert on a diet of manna and stories of the horrors of Egypt. You and your friends are tougher than your parents’ survivor generation. You’re ready to fight for the land you’ve been promised. But alongside national dreams, you have personal hopes and commitments. You hear the following pep talk: ‘Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or panic, or in dread of them. For the LORD your God marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.’

You feel motivated. This is not just a military campaign, but a holy one. God is going to be marching alongside you towards victory. But then the army general says the following: ‘Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.’

Three things exempt a soldier from national service, and all are activities of putting-down roots (literally and metaphorically) which have started but not yet come to fruition. They cover three of our most basic needs: protection, food, love. We can imagine the young Israelite with the nagging image of the vine he and his bride planted in their new home. Will they ever drink the wine together? Can he truly fight with this on his mind? There is one further exemption: ‘Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.’ Another key human driver: fear. At a moment of national motivation, the Torah is perceptive to individual human needs. There are times when we can get swept up in a group project. But most of the time, other motivators will be present.

In modern leadership parlance, you would call this ‘bringing your whole self to work’ – the acknowledgement that we are whole people, whose home lives, emotional make-up, even our experience on the morning commute will impact on our day in the office. Rather than encourage us to disconnect from these drivers and knuckle down to the job at hand, thinkers like Brené Brown and Mike Robbins describe how, by encouraging greater vulnerability and authenticity in the workplace, employees feel motivated and appreciated. They form better relationships and are more productive. Rather than encourage a young soldier to become another anonymous fighter, the Torah recognises the importance of being a ‘whole self’ and listening to our most deep-rooted drivers – both the fears and the dreams.

Miriam Lorie is Director of Programmes at Lead – providing leadership development for the Jewish community

Posted on 2 September 2019