One of the foundations of Jewish faith is the belief that God ultimately rewards good and punishes evil. The Torah thus states, "All His ways are just; He is a faithful God, never unfair; righteous and moral is He" (Deut. 32:4).
However, since the present world (Olam HaZeh) must serve as an environment of challenge and accomplishment, and therefore contain evil, it could not serve as the place of reward. God therefore created another dimension, the World to Come (Olam Haba), far removed from this world in essence, and completely good, as the place of reward. The present world is thus essentially a corridor or place of preparation in which man earns his reward, while the World to Come is the place of ultimate reward.
Although the main reward for good is not in this world, God does give some compensation here in order to encourage the righteous by showing them that good is rewarded. The Psalmist prayed for such encouragement when he said, "Show me a sign of favor so that my enemies will realize [that You are still with me] and be ashamed" (Psalms 86:17). Similarly, God punishes the wicked in this world as a warning to themselves as well as to others who would be tempted to follow after them.
God rewards a person by putting him in a position to do more good.
Often, God rewards a person for his good deeds by putting him in a position to be able to do more good. Sometimes this is accomplished by increasing his material wellbeing. If a person then makes good use of his worldly gifts, they can be increased until he has the good fortune to attain good both in this world and the next…
All the reward that the righteous receive in this world is a free gift given as interest for their deeds. It therefore does not in any way diminish from their future reward. The true reward of the righteous is in the Future World, and no power on earth can diminish it…
One cannot determine whether he will receive his reward for good in this world or the next, since this decision is completely in God's hands. Similarly, one cannot ask for his reward on the basis of justice, since God owes no debt to any man for the good he does. All of a man's good deeds are sufficiently rewarded by the mere fact that God gives him life and causes the sun to shine on him…
The ultimate reward for good is infinite, while the punishment for evil is temporary. Because of this disparity, the good that a person does is never used to cancel out the punishment that he deserves for his evil deeds. Rather, God first punishes the individual for the evil he did, and then rewards the good.
We are thus taught that God does not even accept the bribery of one's good deeds to lessen his punishment. Even if a person causes many to do good, he is still punished for his sins. Nevertheless, a person's good deeds may delay his punishment in order to give him a chance to repent, or decrease his suffering if he has already repented.
Conversely, evil does not cancel out good, and though a person may be very wicked, he is still rewarded for any good he may have done. One only loses his reward for good when he regrets having done it, as we are taught, "But when the righteous man turns away from his righteousness… none of his good deeds shall be remembered" (Ezekiel 18:24).
Consequences, Not Punishment
Just as God created a self-sustaining system of physical law, so He created a self-sustaining system of spiritual law. God conceived creation so that man's good comes, not as a reward for his action, but as a direct result of his action. The same is true of the evil that overtakes a person. It is thus written, "Righteousness guards the one who is upright in his ways, but wickedness overthrows the sinner" (Proverbs 13:6)…
God generally makes the result fit the act in an equal and opposite manner. Thus, for example, a person who seeks honor is often denied it, while one who shuns recognition is honored by his fellows. It is thus written, "A man's pride shall bring him low, but the humble in spirit shall attain honor" (Proverbs 29:23).
Just as God punishes a person according to his sin, so does He show mercy to match His punishment, thereby setting an example of how one should make good all damage. Our sages therefore teach us that God heals with the same thing with which He strikes…
The study of God's Torah is essential to the survival of the Jewish people. Its neglect can spell ruin. God therefore told His prophet, "Why was the land destroyed?… Because they abandoned My Torah" (Jeremiah 9:11-12). On the other hand, Torah study serves to protect the Jewish people, both individually and collectively, as it is written, "It is a tree of life to all who grasp on to it" (Proverbs 3:18).
God's purpose in creation was purely altruistic, to give freely of His infinite good. Indeed, since no finite being can be worthy of such goodness on the basis of his own merit, this was entirely an act of love and mercy. It is thus written, "The world is built on love" (Psalms 89:3). Still, God's plan of giving of His goodness freely is balanced by His desire than man enjoy this goodness through the pleasure of his own accomplishment, and therefore, as a reward for good deeds. God therefore established the world on the basis of justice, as it is written, "The King maintains the world with justice" (Proverbs. 29:4).
Since unmitigated mercy would make God's goodness meaningless, while unabated justice would make its attainment impossible, God established His universe under a rule of both justice and mercy. Still, in all cases, His mercy takes precedence over His justice, as we find, "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; mercy and truth go before You" (Psalms 89:15).
Whatever punishment God does inflict is brought about with wisdom and love.
Even God's punishment is for the ultimate good of the individual as well as humanity. His punishment is thus never administered in anger, as the Psalmist said, "But He is merciful; He pardons sin and does not destroy; He frequently turns His anger away and never arouses all His wrath" (Psalms 78:38). God also does not exact all the punishment that a sin may warrant, as we find, "For You are our God -- You have therefore punished us less than our sins deserve" (Ezra 9:13). Finally, whatever punishment God does inflict is brought about with wisdom and love, as the prophet declared, "He is also wise when He brings evil" (Isaiah 31:2)…
Majority of Humanity
Until the Torah was given to Israel, God judged the world collectively rather than holding each person responsible only for his own individual deeds. Though the Jewish people are judged on an individual basis after the giving of the Torah, every Jew retains a measure of responsibility for his fellow Jew and is punished for not preventing the other from sinning. Complete responsibility for each other's secret sins did not take effect until the Israelites crossed the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua, and swore mutual responsibility on Mount Gerazim and Mount Eval…
God's desire to bestow goodness is vastly greater than His desire to punish. The effects of one's good deeds therefore help his children for all generation, as the Torah continues, "But for those who love Me and keep My commandments, I show love for thousands of generations" (Exodus 20:6). Even the dead are aware of what happens to their descendants, and therefore this good is an actual part of their eternal reward.
The merit of one's parents and personal ancestors can help protect him.
The merit of one's parents and personal ancestors can therefore help him and protect him. Similarly, the merit of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs helps Israel and saves them from destruction. It is thus written, "I will remember My covenant with Jacob as well as My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham" (Leviticus 26:42). It is for this reason that the merit of the Patriarchs is often recalled in prayer, as we see from Moses' plea to God, "Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel!" (Exodus 32:13).
Although parental merit helps, one should not depend on ancestry alone, since one's own effort is also required. If a person is wicked, even his parents cannot save him, as the Psalmist said, "No man can by any means save his brother, nor give God a ransom for him" (Psalms 49:8). Therefore, even the merit of the Patriarchs does not help for the wicked who must rely entirely upon God's mercy. Conversely, the merit of one's own effort can help him even when that of his ancestors cannot.
The fundamental principle in understanding all reward and punishment in this world is that God is just to all. The Psalmist expressed this when he said, "He will judge the world with righteousness, and the nations with equity" (Psalms 98:9). God judges every man, and judges all with the same justice. One should therefore never suspect God of being in any way unjust. The prophet warned about this when he said in God's name, "For I, God, love justice" (Isaiah 61:8).
It is only a nonbeliever who says that there is no Judge and no ultimate justice. The Psalmist described such a person when he wrote, "He says in his heart, 'God is oblivious, He hides His face, He will never see'" (Psalms 10:11). If one is indifferent to divine retribution and considers it to be mere accident, then God continues to punish him with "accidents" of a more serious and troublesome nature. This is what the Torah means when it warns, "If you still do not obey Me and continue to remain indifferent to Me, then I will be indifferent to you with a vengeance" (Leviticus 26:27-28). If one does not trust in God, he is no longer worthy of His protections.
One should realize that all that God does is for his own benefit, and should accustom himself to say, "All that God does is for the best." Even the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous is part of God's ultimate plan for good. God does not desire the guilt of any creature. He only judges the world for good at the same time that He judges according to what mankind does.
Therefore, one should bless God for evil just as one blesses Him for good, as we find by Job, "God has given, God has taken, blessed be the name of God" (Job 1:21). One should not be like the heathens who only praise their gods when things are good. It is thus a positive commandment to acknowledge God's righteousness in judgment, as the Torah commands, "You must contemplate the fact that just as a man corrects his child, so God your Lord is correcting you" (Deut. 8:5).
Excerpted with permission from "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 2), Maznaim Publishing.