Divine Reward and Punishment

on Saturday, 18 August 2012. Posted in Rabbi Marshall's Sermons

Parshat Re'eh

Moses’ thundering charge to the community from this week’s Torah portion: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: a blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God which I enjoin upon you this day; and a curse, if you do not obey the commandments…”[1]

A blessing and a curse. How do we grapple with this theology? Do we really believe in a Divine force who rewards and punishes? And how do we contend with the many cases when the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? Why would the biblical author even assert this in the first place? It’s not as if the righteous and wicked were justly compensated in biblical times either.

Contemporary rabbi Elliot Dorff, proposes two responses to address this dilemma. First, we cannot fathom God’s justice. Many of us define God as that which is unknowable in the universe, the manifestation of all of the mysteries beyond our limited human comprehension. We can never fully conceive God’s justice. // The righteous are not always rewarded and the wicked are not always punished, and we simply do not know why.[2]

Dorff also believes the Mishnaic teaching (pre-Talmud) that the reward of performing a commandment is the propensity and opportunity to perform another, and the result of doing a wicked thing is the propensity and opportunity to do another wicked thing.[3] Thus, we do the right thing because we desire to act morally, not out of hope for a reward, and we avoid evil acts because they are unjust and not out of a fear of punishment.

Dorff concedes that this is a far cry from the direct, reward and punishment language in our Torah, so how does make meaning from the language in this text? For Dorff, these verses proclaim God’s justice, and equity is an inherent part of the God he affirms. And as the Divine is the model for human beings, we also possess that just foundation.

In addition to understanding God as the Mystery (with a capital “M”), a conception of the Eternal as the force which creates order within our universe is another definition many of us hold. The foundation, the order, upon which our world and creation rests is just. While we may not ascribe to the exact wording of the Hebrew, creates a metaphysical backdrop for human acts of justice.

For me, the Mishnah’s theology that the reward of performing a commandment is the propensity to perform another, and the result of doing a wicked thing is the propensity for more wickedness is compelling. I do believe that the energy we send out into the universe is reflected back on us. And yet, I have witnessed and comforted far too many who suffered greatly through no fault of their own. I cannot believe that there is a reason for their suffering. Tragedy is incomprehensible by nature. But like Rabbi Dorff suggests, for me, the Eternal is just, and I think that in times of devastation, the Divine cries along with our own tears.

It is not necessary to read these Torah verses as a literal statement of God’s reward and punishment. Instead, Re’eh provides us with a blueprint for just living and connection through observing mitzvot. With thoughtful observance of this moral and religious guide and a greater conception of a just world, we will reap rewards. They may not be instantly apparent to us, but a connection to an ever-present just force permeating creation enables us to slowly unravel the Mystery we call Adonai.

*          *          *          *

Our parashah offers us another clue into how to embody a life of blessing. The verse starts out with the word “re’eh,” see. Why doesn’t God just launch into the command, what is it that we need to “see?”

In t
he book of Deuteronomy, Moses retells our entire story, allows us to see/remember where we have been, and the possibilities before us if we truly see/open our eyes. If we believe that we are powerless, if we believe that the Land of Milk and Honey is beyond our reach, then we will not see those doors of possibility. We will be stuck forever wandering through the desert. Re'eh teaches us that at every moment, with eyes wide open, we can choose between Blessing and Curse.

The “blessing” is attention to the flow of the Transcendent that permeates our being. The curse is ignoring that flow and being disconnected from the Source--obscuring the choice that is set before us. Choosing blessings depends on being able to connect to the Divine in each moment—through gratitude, mindful actions, and the act of reciting blessings.


Re'eh,
See.   Here is a vision of a just life. Blessings for the propensity to continually do good, the ability to choose goodness, and to connect with the Divine in every act. This clear vision empowers us to choose a life of brachot, blessings.


Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall



[1] Deut. 11:26-28.

[2] Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, in My People’s Prayer Book, Volume 1The Shema and It’s Blessings, Jewish Lights Publishing: Woodstock, Vermont, 1997, p. 107.

[3] Mishnah Avot 4:2.