Ned Flanders: But, Reverend, I need to know. Is God punishing me?
Reverend Lovejoy: Ooh. Short answer: “yes” with an “if.” Long answer: “no” with a “but.”
– The Simpsons<1>
The Torah seems to speak often of reward and punishment in this world. For example, Parashat Bechukotai tells us that if we obey the mitzvot, we’ll receive the rain we need (Vayikra 26:4); if we disobey, the sky and ground will be as unrelenting as iron and copper (pasuk 19).
This is the straightforward reading of Torah SheBikhtav. What’s the problem? The problem is that it doesn’t seem to fit with Torah SheB’al Peh! Multiple statements in Chazal indicate that reward and punishment are not received in Olam HaZeh (this world) but rather in Olam HaBa (the world to come). For example:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What’s the meaning of the pasuk (Devarim 7:11), “Which I command you today, to do them”? [It means] doing [mitzvot] is for today as opposed to tomorrow (Rashi: after death). Today is for doing them, and tomorrow is for receiving their reward (Eruvin 22a).
S’khar mitzvah mitzvah – The reward for a mitzvah is [another] mitzvah, and the punishment for a sin is [another] sin (Pirkei Avot 4:2).
S’khar mitzvah b’hai alma leka – There is no reward for a mitzvah in this world (Kiddushin 39b).<2>
If there is no reward for a mitzvah in this world, how can we make sense of Bechukotai and the other places in the written Torah (such as VeHayah Im Shamoa, the second paragraph of the Shma) that do speak about reward in this world? There are many possible answers to this question,<3> but we will summarize three.
One possibility is that Bechukotai is speaking communally, not individually. In explaining the statement that “There is no reward for a mitzvah in this world,” the Maharsha suggests that the pesukim which speak about reward and punishment in this world are all dealing with Klal Yisrael – there is hashgachah klalit, Divine providence over the Jews as a whole, which may indeed involve reward and punishment in this world. In contrast, the Maharsha continues, when ma’amarei Chazal emphasize that Olam HaBa is the place for reward and punishment, they are all dealing with individual Jews.<4>
A second possibility is that Bechukotai’s assertion of reward and punishment in Olam HaZeh was indeed an accurate description of reality, but only in Biblical times when we had a closer relationship with Hashem. This is how the Ramban understands VeHayah Im Shamoa and similar passages in the Torah.<5> Interestingly, even within Tanakh we see a progression: Hashem first seems very close to humanity (e.g., He “walks” among the people in Gan Eden), but gradually is less and less openly involved in human affairs.<6> By the time of Tanakh’s last story, Megillat Esther, Hashem’s name does not appear at all. We call Hashem’s apparent absence hester panim, literally “hiding the face.” Just as human emotions are often expressed – willingly or not – through the face,<7> so too Divine intentions are expressed through the metaphor of Hashem’s “face.” To say that Hashem’s face is hidden is to say that we are unable to discern Hashem’s intentions. This is why we do not even try to understand why the Holocaust happened. As Pirkei Avot (4:15) puts it, Ein biyadenu – it is not in our hands, we are simply unable – to understand why good things happen to bad people or why bad things happen to good people.<8>
A third possibility is that the standard interpretation, which assumes that Bechukotai’s blessings and curses are the same thing as reward and punishment, is simply incorrect. Rather, the Torah is warning us that our behavior may well have consequences in this world. Professor Richard Elliott Friedman spells this out:
A people who is faithful to its God and keeps the Sabbath and honors its parents and does not steal will be prosperous and enduring in its land. A people who loses sight of its commitments and values will suffer. (It should not be hard to think of contemporary parallels.) . . . There is a big difference between a punishment and a curse, between a threat and a warning. This explanation is still distressing, but it does not so easily picture the deity as malicious, as people have sometimes taken these curses to mean. The God of the Hebrew Bible is not the “Old Testament God of Wrath,” but rather a deity who is torn between mercy and justice, between affection for humankind and regret over the continuous conflict with them. The curses are a sad outcome of a certain kind of human behavior. But, then, the blessings are the outcome of the other kind.<9>
To sum up, we have seen three ways to reconcile Bechukotai with statements such as “There is no reward for a mitzvah in this world.” One approach limits the subject of the reward and punishment (it’s the group, not the individual), one limits the time (it’s strictly Biblical), and one reinterprets it as not having anything to do with reward and punishment (it’s a warning). See if you can come up with your own approach – you may find it rewarding!
1. The Simpsons, Episode 4F07: “Hurricane Neddy,” original airdate December 29, 1996. Written by Steve Young.
2. One of my father’s teachers, Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), thinks that this approach is that of Rabbi Akiva, while the attitude that mitzvot may be rewarded in this world is that of Rabbi Yishmael. See Rav Heschel’s Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations, tr. Gordon Tucker and Leonard Levin (Continuum, 2005), end of Chapter 7 (pp. 140-143).
3. See, for example:
a) Rav David Milston, The Three Pillars, Vol. 3 (Midreshet HaRova, 2007), pp. 264-265; also at http://www.harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=1459
b) Rav Michael Hattin, “The Promise of an Afterlife”; http://etzion.org.il/en/promise-afterlife
c) Rav Gil Student, “The Missing Afterlife,” Hirhurim Blog, May 26, 2008; http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2008/05/missing-afterlife.html
4. Maharsha (Rav Shmuel Edels, 1555-1631), Chiddushei Aggadot on Kiddushin 39b, s.v. harei she’amar leih.
5. Ramban (Rav Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) on Vayikra 26:11. (This is where he argues that medicine is regrettable and a b’diavad situation, in contrast to the Rambam who thinks that medicine is lekhat’chilah.)
6. This is the theory of Professor Richard Elliott Friedman, The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery (Little, Brown and Company, 1995).
7. See “A Conversation with Paul Ekman: The 43 Facial Muscles That Reveal Even the Most Fleeting Emotions,” The New York Times, August 5, 2003. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D00EED8113EF936A3575BC0A9659C8B63
8. For the wide range of Chazal’s explanations of why good things happen to bad people, I highly recommend Rabbi Morey Schwartz’s book, Where’s My Miracle? Exploring Jewish Traditions for Dealing with Tragedy (Gefen, 2010).
9. Prof. Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (HarperOne, 2001), p. 411.