Promises, Promises

Your ‘yes’ should be just, and your ‘no’ should be just.
— BT Bava Metzia 49a

Can you, the sages of the Talmud want to know, renege on a gift you've committed to give? "Rabbi Yohanan says, 'One who says to another: I am giving you a gift, is able to renege on his commitment.'" Other rabbis are surprised at Rabbi Yohanan's position, "One is able to renege?" It seems unlikely. The answer would seem obvious: no. If you said it, you must have meant it. That supposition would work if human beings weren't so fickle, especially when it comes to money.
Rabbi Yohanan then clarifies his opinion. When it comes to a small gift, a person cannot renege if he has made a verbal commitment. If you said it, you have to do it. But a person can renege on a large gift because even the recipient knows that when it comes to large financial decisions, people change their minds. We grant a cushion of time for a person to reconsider. The nineteenth century satirist George Prentice quipped, "Some people use one half of their ingenuity to get into debt, and the other half to avoid paying it."
In a subsequent discussion about changing one's mind as a buyer, the Talmud has its own lemon law. The time a buyer has to change his mind after a purchase is "the time it takes for him to show it [the item] to a merchant or a relative" [BT Bava Metzia 49b]. We can easily imagine the scene. A buyer takes his new purchase home and his wife, son, first cousin chide him for overspending. "You paid what? I bought an even nicer one in the market for half the price." This measure of time is suited to the insecurity we have about the way we use our money. Many of us second-guess ourselves or beat ourselves up about poor decisions. The rabbis of the Talmud understood this and created a get-out clause.
But the rabbis also understood that a person who does this regularly or in certain instances is committing an act of bad faith and even brings a curse upon himself. One can regard this strange response as superstitious or the natural result of what happens to a person's reputation who consistently backs out of promises, just as the expression above says: make your 'yes' just and make your 'no' just. Mean what you say. If you don't, there are moral consequences. Because there was no formal punishment for reneging, the sages came up with a curse. Here it is if you ever need to use it: "May the One who exacted payment from the people of the generation of the flood, and from the people of the generation of the dispersion, and from the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah  and from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, exact payment from whomever does not stand by his statement" [BT Bava Metzia 49a]. You may think you're getting away with exploitation or dishonesty, but God is watching. Beware. Just look at the stories in the Good Book that show how people who were once in power got their comeuppance.
And there is one instance where the curse is definitely activated. Later rabbinic discussions conclude that if it is a gift to a poor person then one may not renege no matter the size of the gift. When you commit to give a gift to someone who really needs it, you have catalyzed optimism in that individual's future. That recipient is mentally imagining that tomorrow will be better than today. If you renege on that, you have taken away something much more precious than money alone; you have robbed that needy person of hope. According to a 16th century authoritative code of Jewish law, reneging on a gift to the poor is tantamount to reneging on a charitable gift [Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 202:8, 243:4].
As we close this painful election year, we're closing the door on lots of political promises. Will there be a just 'yes' and a just 'no'? Will people who have been promised change lose hope because those who promised reneged on their commitments? It's easy enough for us to be cynical when it comes to others. We must also turn inward. We are also closing a financial year when many charities will turn to us before the end of December. Are their commitments and pledges we have made that we must make good on? We cannot, according to Jewish law, renege on them. And, in general, while we can get out of verbal commitments, there is always, the Talmud reminds us, a price to pay for broken promises.
Shabbat Shalom

Get Motivated

It is permitted for a person to motivate himself...
— BT Nedarim 8a

In our new cycle of talmudic tractates, we encounter a volume on oaths and a fascinating question: can a person take an oath to fulfill a mitzva? I swear I am going to keep Shabbat, for example. The specific example the Talmud brings is taking an oath to study Torah. Can a person swear to get up early and study a chapter or text of choice. It seems the answer is yes: "It is permitted for a person to motivate himself."

This answer is shocking because taking an oath was regarded as a very serious matter in Jewish law. We know the solemnity and severity of oath-taking from the start of Yom Kippur prayers where we use a lot of legal jargon to ask that any oaths that we have taken be totally and utterly nullified so that we are not held spiritually captive by commitments we've made that we cannot keep. A mental debt is owed unless we can vitiate the oath altogether. Swearing that something is what it can never be or swearing that something is what it is is a serious misdemeanor in God's books. If I said that a circle is a square, for example, or that a circle is a circle, these are both foolish oaths that have no meaning. Swearing falsely is a transgression from the Ten Commandments since God's name was usually used in ancient oaths as another means of enforcing ourselves to do what we have committed to do.

The question is why you need to take an oath to motivate yourself. The likely reason is that you know you either don't like a particular mitzva or you care about it so much or it is so necessary that you want to take every precaution and measure to ensure its fulfillment. If you have a special deed in front of you that is hard for you to keep, the Talmud asks, should you take an oath to force you into its performance? The answer is debated but appears to be generally affirmative. Help yourself do that which is good for yourself or others. If an oath helps, then go for it.

I've always been interested in what motivates people to make a change they knew they should have made long ago or what inspires people to take on a new challenge. Motivation in general is a fascinating prompt. When in seminars I've asked people to think about the time in their lives when they've had weak motivation and peak motivation, the peak times almost always emerge from self-driven desires and the weak motivation is almost always due to external pressures that thin out quickly. There was the man who decided to run a marathon for charity and never felt more motivated in his life to train and cross that finish line. There was the graduate student who had a punishing professor who procrastinated on every paper because he just didn't care. He felt worn-down by the class culture.

Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee in Primal Leadership write: "Motivation on the job too often is taken for granted; we assume people care about what they do. But the truth is more nuanced: Wherever people gravitate within their work role indicates where their real pleasure lies - and that pleasure is itself motivating." We can offer rewards and awards but, they conclude, " external motivators can get people to perform their absolute best." Only you can be the best driver of your best self.

Daniel Pink in Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us explains why external motivation rarely works or cannot be sustained long-term. He offers seven "deadly flaws" related to carrot and stick motivators:

  • They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
  • They can diminish performance.
  • They can crush creativity.
  • They can crowd out good behavior.
  • They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behaviors.
  • They can become addictive.
  • They can foster short-term thinking.

If we are too driven by external motivation, we may crush inner motivation and creativity. We may behave badly around or to other people in our competitive zeal to get something done better or more efficiently than someone else. This is something to think about in an age of entitlement when we are always passing out gold stickers and rewards.

It also helps us return to today's talmudic debate. Perhaps the argument against allowing people to take an oath to do a mitzva that they are obligated to do anyway is to encourage them to find internal drive to do it. It may be permitted simply because we care most about outcomes or believe that sometimes people who habituate themselves to perform mitzvot will eventually come to do them out of love, what we call "mitokh shelo lishma ba lishma." What we do not for its own sake, we will come to do for its own sake.

For what mitzva might a little external motivation help?

What mitzva do you have a lot of inner drive to fulfill?

Shabbat Shalom