Reward and Punishment

Okay, I’m posting this before it gets any longer. Feel free to comment.

I think it’s impossible to be a Jew in this day and age and not be uncomfortable with some aspect of the prayer service. The way the siddur is constructed–layer upon layer of songs, devotional literature, biblical and talmudic passages representing virtually every period of Jewish history and every school of Jewish thought–is such as to virtually guarantee this. Each of us probably has a passage that gives them pause, which they find themselves either hesitating before reading or discretely skipping over. For me, at least, it’s prayers having to do with restoration of the temple sacrifice. Which is a pity, actually, since on the whole I find the general idea of a universally redemptive messianic age compelling, and this is one of the primary forms these sentiments tend to take in our liturgy.

But that’s a subject for another post. Today I want to take a look at a passage from the second paragraph of the Shema:

I will give rain in your land in its season, the early and the late rain; and you shall gather in your grain, wine and oil. I will give grass in your field for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. Be careful lest your heart be tempted and you go astray and worship other gods, bowing down to them. Then the LORD’s anger will flare against you and He will close the heavens and there will be no rain. The land will not yield its crops, and you will perish swiftly from the good land that the LORD is giving you. (translation from the Koren-Sachs Siddur, which is the one I tend to use at the moment)

The connection between obedience and reward, disobedience and punishment, in this passage is so clear-cut and unambiguous that it might make us uncomfortable. How do we reconcile this promised with the many, many examples of undeserved suffering we encounter every day, in the pages of history, in the news and in our own lives? One might be tempted to mentally classify it as the artifact of an earlier, more primitive understanding of G-d and His relationship and creation, holding little relevance for us today.

I think the best way to make sense of this is to examine the differences between this passage and the first paragraph that precedes it. This comparison is especially useful because these passages are so similar. They come from the same part of Deuteronomy, only a few chapters apart, and yet both in terms of content and of language used they are virtually identical. It’s easy to wonder why the framers of this section of liturgy found it necessary to incorporate both passages. The two significant differences between the two are that:

  1. The second paragraph incorporates the passage promising prosperity in return for obedience and threatening punishment for disobedience. The first does not.
  2. Grammatically, the first paragraph is written in the second person singular whereas the second is in the second person plural.

Point B doesn’t come across so well in translation since modern English lacks a 2nd person plural, but it’s important to my understanding of what is at work here. The first paragraph addresses itself to the individual, and in it I am commanded to love and serve G-d, to obey His commandments, to teach and remember them. Conspicuously absent is any mention of reward for such behavior. The second paragraph addresses not I, the individual, but the people as a collective body, but otherwise contains much the same set of injunctions, expressed in a virtually identical way. It is only here, however, that mention is made of any positive benefit associated with performance of the mitzvot. 

I think there’s a sort of brutal honesty to be found here: Individually, it seems to say, I may lead a moral life and suffer while others behave wickedly and prosper. This, while hard to come to terms with, is indisputably true and speaks to our experience of life and history. The more important point, however, is that collectively we can draw a link between morality and prosperity that does not hold true on the individual level. 

An overly simplistic reading of this text might lead us to believe that society has little vested interest in caring for the poor, the sick, or the outsiders because we can ultimately trust G-d to reward those who deserve His favor. But we already know that this cannot be the case, as it conflicts with the positive commandments to be found throughout the Torah to feed the stranger, the widow and the orphan, to take care of the sick. 

I think the actual message being communicated to us here is precisely the reverse: The Holy One, it is saying, does not guarantee that the good will be rewarded and the wicked suffer in this world. Why this is so we do not and cannot know, but sometimes we may be called on to carry on being moral despite circumstances that seem to actively punish such behavior. But because this is so, that makes it doubly important for us a society to take care of the less fortunate. 

In Pirke Avo there’s a passage that talks about four kinds of human beings. The first one mentioned is the one who says “What is mine is mine, what is yours is yours.” This kind of human, say the sages, is the normal kind of person, “though some say that this is the Sodom kind.” The message here is, I think, that a society conceived solely in terms of self interest will quickly devolve from the merely selfish to the truly hellish. By working to create a just society (conceived in Jewish terms as one that reflects the ethical vision embodied in the Torah), we are acting in partnership with G-d to fill the moral gaps we encounter in the world. And by doing so, we are actually helping ourselves more than any kind of narrowly-defined self-interest could hope to promise. 

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