by Kari Tuling
Does God reward good behavior?
When we read this week’s Torah portion, we encounter one of two sets of blessings and curses specifically related to the performance of the commandments.
First, if you do what is good and follow God’s commandments, then all will go well for you. But, if you reject God’s commandments, then a litany of curses will be upon your head. Many of them are quite graphic; they are intended to be frightening.
Specifically, the blessings are as follows:
- Fertility of the land (verses 4-5);
- Peace in the land (v. 6);
- Victory over external enemies (7-8);
- Divine individual providence, increase of the population, coupled with economic prosperity (9-10);
- The dwelling of the Shekhina in the midst of Israel.
The Shekhina, by the way, is the indwelling presence of God, which during the wandering in the desert is represented by a pillar of fire or cloud. Though the Shekhina represents the spiritual realm, it is indeed a physical manifestation of God. The Israelites can see the Shekhina as it travels with them.
It could be said, in fact, that each of these blessings are a form of material reward.
And some of the commentators have had a genuine problem with that fact. It makes no sense to them. How can we gain material goods by doing what is right? How can it be that piety is rewarded with free stuff?
For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Abravanel (born in the 15th Century in Spain) asks the question directly:
“Why does the Torah confine its goals and rewards to material things…and omit spiritual perfection an the reward of the soul after death – the true and ultimate goal of [hu]man[kind]? Our enemies exploit this text and charge Israel with denying the principle of the soul’s judgment in the afterlife.”
And he has a point. This issue has long been a point of attack by those who have sought to discredit Judaism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that Judaism is not properly a religion because the Jewish Bible makes no mention of an afterlife. In his view, only those traditions that promise a reward in the world to come can make a claim to being a true religion.
What are we to make of this? We have a couple of possibilities here.
The first possibility is that God really does reward us in our observance of the Torah. The great thinker Maimonides (who was born in the 12th century in Spain) takes this position:
“…These matters are to be understood as follows: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave us this law – a tree of life. Whoever fulfills what is written therein and knows it with a complete and correct knowledge will attain thereby life in the world to come. According to the greatness of his deeds and abundance of his knowledge will be the measure in which he will attain that life.”
The more that you know, the greater your reward will be. Maimonides was, admittedly, an elitist. But he continues, arguing that you will reap material rewards as well:
“The Holy One, blessed be He, has further promised us in the Torah that if we observe its behests joyously and cheerfully, and continually meditate on its wisdom, He will remove from us the obstacles that hinder us in its observance, such as sickness, war, famine, and other calamities; and will bestow upon us all the material benefits which will strength our ability to fulfill the Law, such as plenty, peace, abundance of silver and gold.”
In other words, following the Torah will indeed make things go better for you, both in the material world and in the world-to-come.
How can that be? From Maimonides’ perspective, the Torah is the product of God’s overflow, distilled into human language. Its purpose is to provide guidance in response to the daily decisions that arise in the ongoing challenge of ethical living.
The best choices, of course, are those that are founded on a true understanding of the world. For Maimonides, the Torah is the source of that knowledge, for the structure of Jewish law corresponds exactly to the very structure of creation. So, that’s why it is true that if you follow the Torah, all will go well for you.
But the problem with this point of view is twofold.
First, if God’s providence could be counted on to rigidly assign suffering to those who had committed the most grievous sins, then perhaps problems like extreme poverty would not be a problem. Such suffering could be rationalized as deserved punishment for wrongdoing. But that is not how the world works.
We know of people who are deeply knowledgeable about Torah who have seen sickness, war, famine, and other calamities. We know righteous people who have suffered.
Second, we know of problems within the Torah text itself that have caused difficulties. For example, one of the precepts of this week’s double portion is the law of the jubilee year:
“You shall count off seven weeks of years — seven times seven years — so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years… and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family…”
On the face of it, this suggestion sounds like a great idea. The jubilee year would prevent permanent debt and see to it that no one would lose his or her family’s ancestral home. However, in practice, the problem was that in the years leading up to the jubilee, loans to the poor stopped. Why make a loan if it will be forgiven shortly thereafter, without receiving payment?
And the problem with that approach is one we understand: if no one can get credit for activities such as buying and selling land, then even greater harm is caused to the poor. So the rabbis enacted a takanah – a fix – that would see to it that these kinds of problems would be avoided.
So let’s consider our second possibility: this series of blessings and curses is a kind of covenantal language. In the Ancient Near East, covenant agreements would be enacted with a series of ritual gestures. It is a way of guaranteeing that each side of the agreement – in this case, us (the descendants of the Israelites) and God – will follow it.
To give an example, when I was a teacher, I enacted an agreement with my students who had been facing a difficult situation. Their teacher had left midyear and I was asked to take over the classroom. They were unnerved by the changes and needed reassurance. So together we created a covenant that specified what they would do and what I would do. We identified witnesses to our covenant – in the case of the covenant with God and Israel, it is the heaven and the earth that serves as witnesses. In our case, it was the Principal and Vice-principal. And we had blessings and curses. They were really more like incentives and punishments, really. Good behavior was rewarded at the end of semester with cake (their suggestion) and bad behavior was punished with an extra assignment (my suggestion).
The advantage of the covenant model is not that we can predict how life will unfold for us if we follow the commandments. Rather, the purpose of this structure is to remind us that the world does make sense, at the core of it, even in the midst of chaos.
Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel of Plattsburgh and an adjunct instructor at SUNY Plattsburgh. She will receive her PhD from Hebrew Union College in June.
 Ibid., “Behukotai I,” p. 572.
 From Hilkhot Teshuvah 9, 1, translated by Isadore Twersky, as quoted in Leibowitz., pp. 577-8.
 JPS translation.