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Devarim - Shoftim


What are the things you live for? What motivates you above all else? What would distract your focus from a mission you are supposed to be undertaking?


In this week’s sedra, 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. The year is 2488 (1272 BCE). 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. There are tough battles ahead if you’re to inherit Canaan. But alongside your national dreams, you also have your own personal hopes, plans and commitments.


After a motivational pep-talk, your army general takes up the following theme:


“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. What do they have in common? They are all 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 and drivers: protection, food, love. We can almost imagine the young Israelite with the nagging image of the vine he and his bride planted in their new home – will he ever return from battle for them to drink the wine together? Can he truly fight with this on his mind?


There is one further exemption:

The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “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 – this time negative rather than positive: fear.


At a moment of high national inspiration and motivation, the Torah is perceptive about individual human drivers and needs. There are times when we can get swept up in a group project. But most of the time, other motivators or fear factors 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, or even our experience on the morning commute will have an impact on our day in the office. Rather than encourage ourselves or those we work with 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 at the end of the day are more productive.


Rather than pushing a young soldier to become another anonymous fighter storming into battle, the Torah recognises the importance of being a “whole self” and listening to our most deep-rooted drivers – both the dreams and the fears.



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