Reward and Punishment
In this week's Torah portion, one of the most seminal ideas of Judaism is articulated -- the concept of reward and punishment, though the term punishment may be a misnomer, and the word "consequence" may be a more apt description of this spiritual dynamic.
This is not the first, nor the only time that this idea is mentioned, but the idea is dealt with more thoroughly here than in anywhere else in the Torah.
In this week's Torah portion particular attention is paid to the long anticipated entrance to the Promised Land, where the people must follow the Divine word with even more vigilance, or run the risk of exile.
The context of the instructions is clarified in the following verse:
"Hear Israel, you are crossing the Jordan today, in order to come and inherit..." (Deut. 9:1)
It sounds as if "today" is the day when entrance to the land will finally take place, and one of the great dreams and aspirations of the Children of Israel will come to fruition. Some sources indicate that the verse does not intend to convey that literally "today" the conquest will take place, rather that the term is being used in a metaphoric manner.
As the Jews stand on the eastern bank of the Jordan, this message is more poignant than ever.
Be that as it may, the conquest is soon, and the final preparations must take place. Therefore, Mosesf warns of the dangers of lack of adherence to God. Now, at the border, as they stand on the eastern bank of the Jordan, this message is more poignant than ever.
In this context, the brink of the entrance to Israel will give us insight to other specific issues in Parshat Ekev. We saw last week, the first section of the Sh'ma, "Hear O Israel," was taught. This week, the second section is taught. A comparison and contrast of these two sections is certainly called for. An in-depth analysis would cover a book, but a number of specific points must be noted.
Superficially, the two sections are quite similar, many themes introduced in the first are repeated in the second: love of God and diligent care to keep the commandments are two of the basic teachings which are repeated.
But, in the words of the Mishna, there is a fundamental difference between the two, and awareness and cognition of this is part and parcel of the fulfillment of the commandments. The Mishna teaches that the primary purpose of the first section of the Sh'ma focuses on the relationship with God (referred to as the acceptance of the "yoke of heaven"), while the focus of the second is the acceptance of the commandments, though these distinction may not appear clear at first glance.
The second section of the Sh'ma covers in detail the consequences of adherence to the commandments, and alternatively, the results of rebellion.
And it will come to pass, if you continually follow my commandments which I command you today to love God your Lord, and serve Him, with all your hearts, and with all your souls. I will provide rain for your land in its proper time ... you will eat and be satiated. But take heed, lest your hearts become seduced and you deviate, and serve other gods and prostrate to them. Then God will be exceedingly angry with you, and He will restrain the heavens that there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield its produce, you will be quickly exiled from the good land which God has given you. (Deut. 11:13-17)
Here the Torah describes a direct cause and reaction for people's actions. This description is quite instructive. Often people question the relation between man's actions and God's knowledge on the one hand, and man's freedom of choice on the other. If God indeed knows all that was, is, and will be, then apparently man does not possess freedom of choice. However, life without freedom of choice is a theological nightmare. What is the purpose of existence if God sits in the heavens pulling strings while we dance below like marionettes?
God's knowledge is something which is beyond human understanding, but if we were to posit that God exists outside of time, then the problem would be solved. Indeed Judaism has insisted for millennium that God transcends time. For God the following sentence would be both theologically and grammatically correct; "God knows yesterday what you did tomorrow." God's knowledge simply transcends time.
God knows yesterday what you did tomorrow -- God's knowledge simply transcends time.
While this is true, we understand God to be both transcendent (beyond time and space) and immanent (within our reality). Can we make the same argument about the immanent aspect of God as about the transcendent aspect of God?
This brings us back to the question of predeterminism -- God pulling all the strings. The idea of monotheism -- that there exists a one all-powerful God -- suggests that God has control over all. Therefore, the description of puppets on strings would be appropriate.
Maimonides, with his passion and logic, cut down the strings and insisted on man's freedom of choice. No strings pull man, man has choice, and therefore life has meaning. Man controls his own destiny.
But the Kabbalists insisted that, in truth, there are strings between man and God, and from afar it seems as if God is pulling the strings. But the reality is quite different, it is not God pulling the strings, rather it is man.
In a sense, existence is a cosmic puppet theater. Surely it was God who built the stage, and connected the strings, and has the ability to pull them at will. But in our lives it is our actions that cause the reaction from God.
This idea should not sound that radical, it is the major message of the second section of Sh'ma. As we saw above if man performs Gods commandments, then a relationship is forged, and God for His part will provide man with all his needs. On the other hand, when man rebels, God responds with withholding the Divine blessings.
This argument requires more explanation, after all, why do we not witness this meted out daily and individually?
To clarify, let us return to the comparison between the first two sections of the Sh'ma. There is a fundamental, but subtle distinction between the sections as noted above.
The first section is written in the singular while the second is written in the plural. (This distinction is not always felt in English translations, where the distinction between singular and plural is often blurred.)
This analysis helps us resolve a number of difficulties posed in Jewish law. For example we know that there is a Jewish ethic that "He who saves a life is as if he has saved an entire world" -- why then is there a limit on the amount of charity to be spent by a community? Or in other words, how can a value be put on something of limitless value?
Rav Haim of Volozhin (1:7) explained this idea with following insight. The first section of the Sh'ma calls upon man to love God with all his heart all his soul and all his possessions, while the second section teaches us to love God "with all your hearts, and with all your souls."
The community as community possesses different responsibilities than the individual.
The second section, which speaks to the community, never mentions "all the community's possessions." Apparently the community as community possesses different responsibilities than the individual.
The second section, which speaks to the community, speaks of the Divine cause and effect. It is here that we are told that our rebellious behavior will result in lack of rain, and eventually exile. One cannot imagine a situation where it rains for one man but not for his neighbor.
Certain punishments are communal -- exile is one such type of punishment. Especially when we realize that exile in its traditional understanding is not a description of a geographical change, rather it refers to the exile of the Shechina, God's presence. This is obviously a response to communal behavior -- either God's presence is among us, as best manifested by the Temple, or we suffer as a community the pain of alienation from God.
Now we can better understand verse which precedes the second section of the Sh'ma:
The eyes of God your Lord are there [on the land of Israel] from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. (Deut. 11:12)
This description seems obscure, what does it mean that God looks at this land all year round?
The previous verses contrast Israel with the land of Egypt. The specialness of Israel is manifested, in the eyes of God watching over the land. It is a land that needs rain, it is a land in a dry climate. It is a land where, if the rain is not forthcoming, man will have to turn to God and pray for the rain. It is land which brings man in touch with the idea of the Shechina. It is a land which demands man to have a relationship with the Almighty. It is not a place where water can be carried from the Nile. It is a land where the symbiotic relationship between man and God is felt.
THE LAND MAKES DEMANDS
Now we understand why this is the introduction to the second section of the Sh'ma. If man behaves, the Shechina will be felt amongst us. If man ignores God, then exile will follow.
The land is a land where the very air makes us wise, because it is a land which demands of us a relationship with the Divine. Surely God rewards and punishes all men in accordance with their actions, and the purity of their deeds and minds.
This land, which has so much more than milk and honey, has a spiritual capacity to bring us close to God.
But the ultimate issues of reward and punishment are on a communal level. All members of the nation of Israel are responsible for one another -- this principle was taught as the Jews crossed the Jordan. Here as the Jews stood on the other side of the Jordan, issues of communal responsibility needed to be examined and understood. This land, which has so much more than milk and honey has a spiritual capacity to bring us close to God. To make us wise. When the land is ignored spiritual havoc results.
As the people stood on the banks of the river, poised to meet their destiny, they received a lesson in metaphysics. It was the type of lesson that, if learned, understood, and internalized, would make our stay in Israel an eternal glorious stay. It is a lesson which we still need to review today.