|Reward and Punishment – Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz
The foremost book of mussar on the Jewish bookshelf, ‘Mesillat Yesharim’, a book learned by Jews of all different groups and sects, opens with the following words:
CONCERNING MAN’S DUTY IN THE WORLD
THE FOUNDATION OF SAINTLINESS and the root of perfection in the service of G-d lies in a man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors all the days of his life.
Our Sages of blessed memory have taught us that man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in G-d and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His Presence; for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found. The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avot 4:21), “This world is like a corridor to the World to Come.”…
Therefore, man was placed in this world first – so that by these means, which were provided for him here, he would be able to reach the place which had been prepared for him, the World to Come, there to be sated with the goodness which he acquired through them. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Eruvin 22a), “Today for their [the mitzvoth’s] performance and tomorrow for receiving their reward.” …
To summarize, a man was created not for his station in this world, but for his station in the World to Come. It is only that his station in this world is a means towards his station in the World to come, which is the ultimate goal.
These words of the Mesilat Yesharim express what has become one of the most central of Jewish beliefs: Olam Haba (the World to Come) is the goal, aspiration and purpose of Torah and Mitzvot.
In light of the above, this week’s Parsha presents us with a major problem. Why is it that the Torah completely ignores the issue of Olam Haba when discussing the reward and punishment for those who adhere or disobey the mitzvoth? Furthermore it should be noted that not just in this parasha and in parashat Ki Tavo which also contains the blessings and curses, the Torah does not mention Olam Haba, but in fact there is no explicit mention of Olam Haba in the whole Tanakh!  This indeed led many to claim that ancient Judaism did not embrace the concept of Olam Haba at all.
Obviously this is a question that has been dealt with by almost all the major Rishonim and many Acharonim. For those interested, I suggest learning the Abarbanel at the beginning of our parasha, for a comprehensive summary of seven different solutions that were offered by other Rishonim before him. The Abarbanel himself agrees with the last one which he quotes in the name of the Sefer Ha-Ikkarim.
I would like to present Rav Kook’s approach on the issue after a brief discussion of the Rambam’s and the Kuzari’s opinions.
The Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva and in his introduction to Perek Khelek fully embraces the belief that the reward for Torah observance and dedication is Olam Haba. The Rambam then addresses our question as follows:
[A question arises:] As explained, the reward for the mitzvot and the good which we will merit if we observe the path of God as prescribed by the Torah is the world to come …
[If so,] what is the meaning of the [statements] made throughout the entire Torah: “If you observe [the Torah’s laws], you will acquire such and such;” “If you do not observe [the Torah’s laws], such and such will happen to you?” All [of the benefits and difficulties that are promised] are matters of this [material] world, for example, plenty and famine, war and peace, sovereignty [over other nations] or a humble [national standing], the settlement of the land or exile, success in one’s deeds or loss and all the other points mentioned in the covenant.
[In resolution, it must be stated that] all those statements are true. They have been realized in the past and will be realized in the future. When we fulfill all the mitzvot in the Torah, we will acquire all the benefits of this world. [Conversely,] when we transgress them, the evils written [in the Torah] will occur.
Nevertheless, those benefits are not the ultimate reward for the mitzvot, nor are those evils the ultimate retribution to be exacted from someone who transgresses all the mitzvot.
Rather, the resolution of the matter is as follows: God gave us this Torah which is a tree of life. Whoever fulfills what is written within it and comprehends it with complete and proper knowledge will merit the life of the world to come. A person merits [a portion of the world to come] according to the magnitude of his deeds and the extent of his knowledge.
[In addition,] we are promised by the Torah that if we fulfill it with joy and good spirit and meditate on its wisdom at all times, [God] will remove all the’ obstacles which prevent us from fulfilling it, for example, sickness, war, famine, and the like.
Similarly, He will grant us all the good which will reinforce our performance of the Torah, such as plenty, peace, an abundance of silver and gold in order that we not be involved throughout all our days in matters required by the body, but rather, will sit unburdened and [thus, have the opportunity to] study wisdom and perform mitzvot in order that we will merit the life of the world to come…
Similarly, the Torah has informed us that if we consciously abandon the Torah and involve ourselves in the vanities of the time …
He will bring upon them all the evils which prevent them from acquiring [a portion in] the world to come so that they will be destroyed in their wickedness. …
Thus, these blessings and curses can be interpreted as follows: If you serve God with happiness and observe His way, He will grant you these blessings and remove these curses from you in order that you may be free to gain wisdom from the Torah and involve yourselves in it so that you will merit the life of the world to come. “Good will be granted you” – in the world that is entirely good; “and you will live long” – in the world which is endlessly long, [the world to come]. 
The Rambam’s explanation is that the rewards and punishments in the Torah are merely aids or obstacles for us to eventually obtain the ultimate goal – Olam Haba.
The Kuzari on the other hand, although of course in agreement with Chazal and the Rambam concerning the ultimate reward in Olam Haba, has a unique response to the King of the Kuzars when asked about the promises of other religions in the hereafter in comparison with the lack of such promises in the Torah.
104. Al Khazari: The anticipations of other churches are grosser and more sensuous than yours.
105. The Rabbi: They are none of them realized till after death, whilst during this life nothing points to them.…
109. The Rabbi: Now all that our promises imply is that we shall become connected with the divine influence by means of prophecy, or something nearly approaching it, and also through our relation to the divine influence, as displayed to us in grand and awe-inspiring miracles. Therefore we do not find in the Bible: ‘If you keep this law, I will bring you after death into beautiful gardens and great pleasures.’ On the contrary it is said: ‘You shall be my chosen people, and I will be a God unto you, who will guide you. Whoever of you comes to me, and ascends to heaven, is as those who, themselves, dwell among the angels, and my angels shall dwell among them on earth. … But how can they boast of expectations after death to those who enjoy the fulfillment already in life? Is not the nature of the prophets and godly men nearer to immortality than the nature of him who never reached that degree?
… We do not deny that the good actions of any man, to whichever people he may belong, will be rewarded by God. But the priority belongs to people who are near God during their life, and we estimate the rank they occupy near God after death accordingly.
Unlike the Rambam, the Kuzari emphasizes that the Torah’s goal is a realization of closeness to Hashem in this world. The Torah’s description of peace and prosperity in this world is not merely a means to another end, rather a portrayal of a G-dly, holy existence in this world.
It would seem that the Rambam and the Kuzari are very diverse in their opinions regarding something so basic in Judaism.
Rav Kook however resolves this contention with a very penetrating understanding regarding the essentials of Judaism. In an essay called “Concerning the Process of Ideas in Israel” where Rav Kook surveys the history of Jewish people (and much more), he puts forward the position that there are two elements at the basis of the Jewish existence: the National “idea” and the G-dly “idea”.
The National idea is that pride and courage which propels a collection of humans to create a society. It includes the concept of State, but goes beyond that. The Divine idea, on the other hand, is the spirit which moves Man to engage the Infinite. It gives joy and vitalizes the Jewish nation, provides meaning to life, and acts as a light unto the nations. It is the presence of shekhinah within the nation.
These two concepts are completely interdependent. The spirit of the Divine imbues the National with meaning and height, while the National provides bravery, esprit de corps and a proper vessel for the nation’s mission. The Jews in the times of Solomon experienced this celestial interaction.
However, even when the nation as a whole dwelled in the Divine idea, individuals engaged in idolatry and other spiritual poisons, to which the surrounding nations lured them. The Divine light was pushed out of individual souls, and unleashed the beast inside. The Divine idea began to rot from within, until all that was left was the National idea. This became so divorced from Godliness, that it became more like the nationalism demonstrated by other nations, and it eventually fell apart. However, as hard as it was to see, the Divine spark rested, deep in the recesses of the nation’s psyche, waiting to re-emerge.
In the exile, the National idea was gone. All that was left was for the exiles to pick up the pieces of their Divine spark. However, without the National bond, and with the Jews dispersed and no longer rightly a nation, the individualistic tendencies of this spirituality came to the forefront. The Jew became obsessed with individual salvation and guarantee of personal immortality. The minutiae of law and custom replaced the joy of national experience. This is when the World to Come became such an important concept. Earlier, the Divine light completely outshone these concerns, and a person found natural immortality through his membership in Knesset Yisrael. Now, however, the Divine idea gave way to the new Religious idea, one which focused on the negative, rather than the positive. Both always existed, but the focus had shifted.
Simply put, when the Jewish people do not exist in their intended environment and capacity, as a nation sanctifying life on earth and bringing Divinity into the human experience, that’s when the concept of the afterlife and Olam Haba of the individual come to the fore.
In our parasha the Torah is describing the most Lekatkhila situation of the Jewish nation. In fact the Tanakh in its entirety is addressing that mission for good and for bad. After the destruction of the second Beit -Hamikdash, the national existence disappeared and the individual’s spiritual bliss became the centre of concern. That is why Olam Haba has eclipsed all other beliefs for the last two millennia.
In conclusion, two points for you to ponder:
i. “Rabeinu answered and said: Behold everyone says there is olam hazeh and olam habah. Now olam habah – we believe exists, it also might be possible (!) that there is olam habah somewhere in the world, because here – it seems like hell (gehinom), because everyone is constantly filled with suffering” (Rabbi Nachman of Breslev, Ukraine 18th Century)
ii. In Israeli society over 80% of the population believe in the existence of G-d. Yet only some 50 % believe in the World -to-Come and Life after Death!
 Mesilat Yesharim Chap.1.
 See Magen Avot on Mishna Avot Chap. 2; Mishna 15 for a collection of earlier sources expressing this doctrine.
 See the lectures of Professor Shalom Rosenberg: http://www.vbm-torah.org/jewphi.htm lectures 47a-f.
 See Abarbanel Vayikra 26 Question 1.
 An even shorter summary can be found in the Kli Yakar at the beginning of our parasha. See also Nehama Leibowitz; New Studies In Vayikra Bekhukotai 1.
 Rambam Hilkhot Teshuva 8;1.
 ibid: 9;1
 Kuzari 1; 109-111
 “the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honor of the group” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/esprit%20de%20corps.
 Brief summary I found at: http://mevaseretzion.blogspot.com/2006/11/of-divine-and-of-national.html
 Likutei Moharan 2;119.
 Guttman-AVI CHAI report—A Portrait of Israeli Jews: Beliefs, Observance, and Values of Israeli Jews, 2012.