All For One and One For All
Much of our parasha describes the positive consequences if Am Yisrael adheres to a life of Torah and Mitzvot, and the negative repercussions if they foolishly defy the Almighty’s will. The Abarbanel raises a fundamental question, and it is to him we turn for a comprehensive summary of the answers.
Surely we have been taught there is no reward and punishment in this world for the observance or non-observance of Torat Hashem? God’s inherent message to the human being is to search for spirituality within the physical world; to aspire to glory way beyond anything imaginable in our daily lives. We have been given a mission to make the physical world holy. This world is no place for rewarding our actions; this world is for action. Shouldn’t we enjoy the fruits of our efforts in the World to Come?
How then could we possibly receive material compensation for dedicated Torah observance? And surely the consequences of failing in our holy task cannot possibly be measured in physical terms. How can a person who has fallen by the wayside, missed the point and chosen the wrong way, be physically punished? His ultimate sin is a spiritual one; surely no material repercussion could possibly compensate for his misdeeds?
Moreover, this is a parasha clearly implying absolute physical reward and punishment in this world. By default, that means this world is the only world; there is no future world, no world of souls. If our actions and their consequences are all part of this world, there is no need for Olam Haba! Obviously such a conclusion is heretical in every way. Indeed, many a non-believer has cited our parasha as proof there is no other world but this one.
This is a major dilemma. How are we to understand our parasha? If we are being offered reward for our deeds whilst at the same time warned of transgression by the threat of punishment, then why material repercussions and what of Olam Haba? And on the other hand, if our parasha is not describing reward and punishment, what is it talking about?
The Abarbanel quotes seven answers to this important question. Let us examine a few of them.
The Rambam’s opinion is that positive consequences and negative repercussions are categorically not to be seen as reward or punishment. The soul’s reward is reserved for the true world; there can be no physical compensation for spiritual prowess attained through blood, sweat and tears in the lifelong battle between body and soul in this world. Furthermore, the Torah has a fundamental purpose of teaching us to develop a relationship with Hashem out of pure love, and not because of any rewards or punishments.
We are not encouraged to do Mitzvot simply to get benefits. Quite the contrary; we are encouraged to develop a love of the Almighty independent of anything and everything. Thus there can be no logical relevance of reward and punishment alluded to in a Torah that is a guide to a successful spiritual life in this world.
We must therefore conclude that the positive and negative repercussions of our actions are in fact our personal assistants along the path we choose to follow. If an individual walks in His ways in search of perfection, the Almighty will assist him in fulfilling those objectives. He will remove obstacles and break down barriers in order to make things easier for the person choosing the right path. God really will help those who help themselves. And if man chooses the wrong path – Heaven forbid – God will similarly accompany him along the path he has chosen. He has decided to reject and deny, escaping the reality of God in the world, so God too will further distance himself from this person by ‘hiding’ Himself. In a simple sense, God does not interfere with man’s free choice.
The Omnipresent is the ultimate parent. He knows we must make our choices and live by them. Hence our parasha does not list rewards and punishments but rather ‘natural’ consequences of our actions in a world run by the Almighty. Those that choose His way will receive His assistance while those who choose to deny Him will get the exact reality they believed in. Some people are blessed with Divine Providence while others will have to fend for themselves!
The Ibn Ezra suggests a very different approach. He says no-one can argue that true reward and punishment are reserved for Olam Haba. However, to assume every human being can reach the spiritual heights of Avraham Avinu would be misleading at the least.
Avraham Avinu served God out of love. Every one of his actions was driven by an unparalleled devotion and dedication to the Almighty. He was in no need of encouragement, incentive or threat; he understood his role in this world and knew what awaited him in the World to Come. But the man in the street, still very low on the spiritual ladder balanced between Heaven and Earth, has no real perception of the true spiritual rewards awaiting him after a life of challenges.
Those days are far away in the future as far as he is concerned, and now he needs a reason, an active push to help him choose the right path. Because there are so many physical advantages for doing the wrong thing, there has to be a tangible and relatively immediate consequence for doing the right thing too. Otherwise, we may never reach the stage of appreciating that this world is not the place for spiritual compensation.
When little Rivki cleans her room because she knows Mom will give her a bar of chocolate or an ice cream, the simcha on her face is a joy to see. But what would happen if we offered her a $15 check instead. We would undoubtedly draw tears and upset, not to mention disbelief and mistrust. We know how much chocolate Rivki could buy with $15, but for her it’s an inedible piece of paper! So we give her the chocolate, and when she’s old enough to appreciate it, she’ll get the check.
This ‘check’ – says the Ibn Ezra – is what awaits us in the true world. That is our real reward; a reward on a completely different scale to anything we could possibly imagine. But exactly because this is the case, and exactly because we are not yet at the spiritual level of Avraham Avinu, we have to be enticed with the chocolate bar! The Torah was written for everyone, not just the elite!
And so our parasha does indeed offer reward and punishment. They are consequences the spiritual child can perceive and appreciate and they are there to guide us in life. If we were told of eternal spiritual luxury or punishment as being the direct consequences of our actions, it wouldn’t really affect us because we have no concept of what they are. So in the meantime we have temporary tangible reward and punishment.
The Ran offers us a third possible approach to the Abarbanel’s question. He suggests Avraham Avinu’s theological battle was not only a monotheistic one. Avraham was not just determined to prove the existence of One Creator. He was aiming to reveal a Creator that was, is, and will be, i.e. not only in terms of being but in terms of doing as well. The message Avraham fought to transmit was that the Almighty is constantly involved in all we do. Now, as then, there are people who argue the world runs only by nature, through cause and effect. Even if there is a God, He is far too lofty to involve Himself in the menial realities of this world.
The most significant challenge facing every human being is the search for God. Can we reveal God in nature? Can we see Him, when it is so easy to just see cause and effect? That is why our parasha effectively shows the Almighty’s response to our actions. There is Divine Providence.
Had Hashem told the people there would be a disconnected spiritual reward at some future, undisclosed date, it would have only supported those who believed God is not involved in the world. And so the Almighty deemed it necessary to impose physical reactions on both positive and negative deeds. The objective was not so much to award brownie points but to reinforce the notion that God is involved here and now. The people would see a direct and immediate consequence of their actions and their belief in an Omnipresent Creator would be immeasurably enhanced.
Rav Sa’adia Gaon suggests that ancient idol worshippers would do certain actions that would supposedly affect their physical wealth and wellbeing. When the Torah came and forbade such actions it was difficult for the masses to digest. It was completely contrary to centuries of indoctrination. They believed if they would not comply with certain pagan traditions, it would bode disaster for their wealth and material wellbeing.
Am Yisrael had spent years in an idolatrous culture. They were but weeks away from entering a land infamous for its idol worship. Idolatrous activities had the power to ensure success, so if the Torah was going to forbid such actions there had to be a balancing factor to calm the people; to reassure them they would not suffer as a result of choosing Derech Hashem. That is why Hashem – just before Am Yisrael leave Sinai on their final journey to Eretz Yisrael – promises them they will only benefit from walking in the ways of God. And conversely, if they do choose to continue in their pagan ways, not only will they fail in life but they will suffer terrible losses to boot.
Again, Rav Sa’adia Gaon explains we are not really describing reward and punishment per se, but rather a statement of fact aimed at making Am Yisrael aware of the emptiness of paganism.
In conclusion, the Abarbanel suggests his own enlightening answer.
When we talk of reward and punishment in a classic context, we are referring to the individual. A human being is born and begins a life of trial and error; of constant searching. His ultimate aim is to live in this physical world and make it holy. If his soul succeeds in this world he will undoubtedly receive his due reward in the World to Come. However, our parasha is not referring to the individual. It is referring to the People of Israel. As a people, Am Yisrael only exists on Earth, and its reward and punishment as a nation is only relevant in this world. Indeed, if we look at some of the punishments, they are clearly relating to the nation as a whole and not to the individual. For example, rain is a national phenomenon. It is not going to rain in righteous Reuven’s field whilst sinful Shimon simultaneously suffers from drought!
As we near the end of our stay at Har Sinai, the Almighty ‘signs’ a contract with the entire nation. Blessings and curses alike relate to the people as one indivisible unit, and hence the parasha is mostly written in plural form.
The Abarbanel’s theory is exceptional! He implicitly defines a twofold role for the Jew. On the one hand, we are free-thinking individuals who will be ultimately rewarded in the World to Come for our performance in this world. And at the very same time, we are an integral part of Am Yisrael. Even though we may be worthy as an individual for eternal joy, we will not be able to excuse ourselves if the nation as a whole is worthy of punishment in this world.
What an important message! Just before we leave Mount Sinai, Hashem reminds us: Do not think you leave here as individuals, each with his own life, each with his own mission. No! Not at all. You leave here as a nation! From now on you are mutually responsible for each other. Your success or failure in the Land of Israel – whether in agriculture or in battle – will be dependent on your performance as a people and not as individuals.
How can we understand that today? Am Yisrael will not bring the Final Redemption by simply retaining tradition within our small, protected communities. We will never truly reap the ultimate rewards until we can somehow unite the entire nation; until we come together as a united Torah force, halt assimilation and shine our “light unto the nations.”
All for one and one for all!