A Spoonful of Sugar?


Pesach is an important time to ask ourselves why. The text of the haggadah formulates a series of familiar “why” questions: Why do we eat matzah and maror? Why do we lean while drinking four cups of wine? Though we ask these questions at the seder, we already know their answers. 

As we prepare for this singular night, we have an opportunity to ask a deeper question: Why are we having a seder in the first place? Why am I choosing to observe the mitzvot of seder night? Why are we committed to a life of Torah and mitzvot generally? 

The seder is a microcosm of Jewish life. It is an evening of faith, mitzvot, Torah learning, celebration, family and tradition. Our goal is to convey all of this to the next generation, and we are equipped with the seder – an integrated experiential project that engages the mind, heart and palate. The Rabbis structured the seder so we may engage our children in its lessons by asking questions, telling stories and by providing treats and incentives. 

Maimonides (Chametz U’Matzah 7:3) teaches that we should give children treats to keep them involved in the seder – although his suggestion of nuts as an attractive motivator may need to be updated for our time. Our children first engage with the seder because it’s fun, sweet and instantly rewarding. 

The prominent role of incentives for children on seder night mirrors the place of incentives in our broader educational and spiritual approach to life. We encourage people to lean in to Judaism with a variety of “carrots” that the Rabbis categorize as שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ, “motivated by other reasons,” with the hope that it will ultimately lead to an inspired and committed life of לִשְׁמָהּ, of being “motivated by the right reasons.” Accordingly, Maimonides delineates various stages of incentives that parallel a person’s development: we reward children with candy, adolescents with clothing and adults with honor (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin, Perek Cheilek).

Though they are not the most noble reason to perform mitzvot, incentives are acceptable and even encouraged. Why should we choose to do mitzvot? Because we receive an attractive reward. This is understandable. 

If, as the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot teaches, this world is like an entry hall and the world to come is the main stage, we earn our place in olam haba through our performance of mitzvot in this life. It would follow, then, that what we do matters more than why we do it; the goal is to accrue merits. In this vein, we often incentivize observance with the promise of olam haba, a more noble and lofty reward than treats, money or honor, but an incentive nonetheless. 

We must recognize that these incentive-based approaches to Torah life have drawbacks and even dangers. When we create extrinsic incentives emphasizing מִתּוֹךְ שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ בָּא לִשְׁמָהּ, “from a different motivation we will come to the right motivation”, we demonstrate the value of the activity by investing in it. But at the very same time, we also run the risk of devaluing the practice we are trying to reinforce. 

My childhood Disney memories illustrate this well. In the iconic Mary Poppins song, A Spoonful of Sugar, Michael and Jane, two boisterous British youth, clean their nursery to this fabled tune. Mary Poppins uses extrinsic rewards to motivate the children to clean the nursery. Though incentives like these are effective and appropriate for housework, the application of this model to our Torah lives is problematic. It implies that a life of Torah observance is akin to eating cod oil: burdensome, unpleasant and requiring something enticing to motivate us to comply. Why should we embrace an observant life of Torah and mitzvot? Rewards and incentives – even the reward of olam haba – are a shallow answer to this question and can leave us feeling empty.

Additionally, what happens when the “spoonful of sugar” we offer as a reward for mitzvot is less appealing than the alluring pleasures of the modern, secular world? When rewards and incentives are the primary motivations for living a Torah life, we risk losing people who find the incentives of the broader world more enticing than our own. Will we lose these people from Torah life entirely?

Although incentives surely have a place in our overall religious experience, there is a far more compelling reason to make a seder, observe Pesach and live the life of an engaged and inspired Torah Jew – a reason found in the seder itself. 

Authentic happiness in life can only be achieved, appreciated and felt when we live a deeply spiritual existence. The core message of the seder is that each of us lives in an ongoing relationship with Hashem, the Creative Force of the universe. Though we appreciate periodic moments of fun and excitement, it is our daily awareness of Hashem’s presence with us in the everyday details of life that fills our lives with meaning and happiness. 

Our emunah, our spiritual awareness, is the source of our self-worth and inner fulfillment. It nourishes our confidence and supports us during times of loneliness and disappointment. Our mitzvot connect us with Hashem, the Source of life, which is why the true reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah – another opportunity to connect with the deepest part of ourselves. 

On seder night we feel Hashem holding us tightly just as he held on to and protected each Jewish home in Egypt. This closeness, the way we can feel the Divine Presence within us at our seder table, brings us so much joy that we break out in song (Hallel). The words of the haggadah help us progress in our personal journey. We move from feeling enslaved to the limitations of the physical world to the freedom of connection with transcendence: our relationship with Hashem.

Incentives are a wonderful way to create moments of fun and excitement within Judaism on Pesach and throughout the year. But the primary education we provide our children is through modeling a joyous Torah life of connection with Hashem. If our children see us truly enjoying our Torah lives and our relationship with Hashem, it can inspire them. If our seder table not only features plastic frogs and preschool projects but also an authentic sense of personal connection with Hashem, it can fulfill its primary purpose of passing our greatest gift and source of joy – our spiritual heritage – to future generations. 

Why do we celebrate the seder? Because the seder brings together so many aspects of Jewish life all centered around the greatest reward of all: a life of connection with Hashem Himself.


Rabbi Reuven Brand is the Rosh Kollel of the YU Torah MiTzion Kollel, a community Torah institution with a vibrant Beit Midrash, array of creative learning opportunities, unique women’s initiative and diverse outreach programming. He lives in Skokie, Illinois with his wife, Nechama, and their five children.

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