“Reward and Punishment”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In the second of this week’s double parashiot, Behar-Bechukotai, we encounter the very challenging concept of Divine reward and punishment.

In Leviticus 26:3, the Al-mighty declares: “Im b’choo’ko’tai tay’lay’choo, v’et mitz’vo’tai tish’m’roo, va’ah’see’tem o’tahm.” If you follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them: G-d promises to provide rain in its proper time and great abundance in the fields. The Al-mighty assures the people that peace and security will prevail in the land and that their enemies will fall before them. In Leviticus 26:9, G-d states that He will turn his attention to the Jewish people, make them fruitful and increase them and establish His covenant with them.

But, the Al-mighty also admonishes the people not to turn aside. In Leviticus 26:14, He warns: “V’im lo tish’m’ooh lee, v’lo tah’ah’soo ayt kohl ha’mitz’vot ha’ay’leh,” If you will not listen to Me and not perform all of these commandments–-if you annul My covenant, then I will do the same to you. And so begins the Torah portion known as the Tochacha–G-d’s extensive reproof of the Jewish people that is contained in verse after verse of the entire 26th chapter of Leviticus.

The question of Divine accountability, a major feature of Jewish theology, has been discussed previously in our parasha analyses (see Bereshith 5762-2001). It is expressed with particular intensity in the second paragraph of the Shema prayer, the source of which is Deuteronomy 11:13: “V’ha’yah im sha’mo’ah tish’m’ooh el mitz’vo’tai ah’sher ah’no’chee m’tza’veh et’chem ha’yom,” and it will come to pass, if you listen to My commandments, that I command you today to love G-d, to serve Him with all your heart and soul, then G-d will provide rain in your land in its proper time. But, G-d warns, if your hearts are seduced and you turn away to serve other gods, then the wrath of G-d will be kindled against you!

Upon careful analysis of the above texts, a number of fundamental issues arise with regard to the nature of Divine accountability. In his very important work, Meditations on the Torah, B.S. Jacobson discusses some of these issues. He cites the Abarbanel (1437-1508, Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator) who asks: Why do all the rewards in the Torah seem to be expressed in material terms–-abundance of rain, crops, fruit of the land, fruit of the womb, etc.? Why is there no promise of perfection for the soul and no mention of spiritual immortality? Isn’t the perfection of the soul the ultimate objective of Judaism? Jacobson notes that both the Abarbanel and Isaac Arama (1420-1494, Spanish Talmudist and exegete, also known as the Akeidat Yitzchak) contend that the biblical texts themselves seem to verify the claim of the enemies of the Jews who argue that Judaism denies any spiritual reward after death.

The fact that spiritual reward is not clear and obvious from the text has given rise to those, like the philosopher Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927, Asher Ginzberg, Zionist leader, thinker and writer), who questions the validity of the concept of Olam Ha’bah (World to Come) in Judaism. In his essay, Flesh and Spirit, Ahad Ha’am argues that the concept of Olam Ha’bah,and the other-worldly rewards are not original biblical concepts but rather developed only after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., after the people had lost all hope. It was at this point, due to the pervasive despair of the people, that Judaism was compelled to find a new approach to the concept of reward and punishment. It did so by separating the body from the soul and by arguing that while it is true that the body would not survive eternally, the soul would. For all the injustices that the body experienced in this world, there would be infinite spiritual reward in the World to Come. That is why our sages in Avot 4:21, maintain that this world is only a vestibule for the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the vestibule (this world), the sages urge, so that you may enter into the banquet hall (World to Come).

The traditional commentators take strong umbrage at the suggestion that the concept of reward in the World to Come is not of biblical origin and may be of later vintage. The Ibn Ezra (R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) cites the verse in Deuteronomy 32:39: I kill and make alive, I have wounded and I heal. Since the verse mentions death first and only afterwards life, the Ibn Ezra sees this verse as proof of life in the World to Come. He similarly regards the verse in I Samuel 2:6, “the Lord kills and makes alive, brings down to the grave and brings up,” as additional proof for Judaism’s unequivocal belief in the revival of the dead.

Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) in the Laws of Teshuvah 8:7, claims that the reason that all allusions to the World to Come are only hinted at vaguely in scriptures is because mortal man has no way of knowing or comprehending the nature of the World to Come. In order to discourage speculation and derision, emphasis on the concept of the World to Come was diminished. Maimonides therefore maintains that all the material rewards that the Torah promises are not really compensation for a good life in this world, but rather serve as Divine support to enable people to merit goodness in this world. These material gifts facilitate the peoples’ success in making the best of their lives in this world, so that real reward will await them in the World to Come.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) attempts to answer this conundrum by noting that the Torah makes a distinction between the collective Jewish community and individual Jews. Nachmanides maintains that the rewards of ample rainfall and abundance of corn and wine, and the threats of drought and famine occur only in response to the conduct of the majority of the people. Accountability and compensation are therefore mentioned only in the second paragraph of the Shema which speaks of the community, not individuals.

And so it seems that material blessings such as weather and wealth, are showered upon a deserving community in this world only, while personal spiritual rewards are set aside for the World to Come.

The Akeidat Yitzchak, however, disagrees with all this. He simply rejects the perception that the Torah emphasizes material rewards at the expense of spiritual rewards. Citing the verse in Exodus 26:11, he notes G-d’s promise to be with the Jewish people at all times: “And I will set My abode among you and will be your G-d, and you shall be My people.” What greater spiritual reward can there be than to always be in G-d’s presence–in this world? Despite the paucity of frequent textual references, declares Arama, spiritual rewards are to be found in both this world as well as the World to Come.

May you be blessed.