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September 16, 2022 10:33 am
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Parshat Ki Tavo: Rewards and Punishment

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

The Torah this week contains blessings and warnings. It declares that if the people are loyal, God will protect them, the rains will come at the right time, and the people will prosper. It also warns of famine, destruction, and slavery if the people betray God.

Why do we do things in life? Is it to get some kind of reward? Most people think that this is the function of religion — to ensure that we get rewarded for doing the things that God or whatever moral code wants us to do. And reading Chapter 28 of Deuteronomy reinforces this idea. It is the second time in the Torah (after Leviticus 26) that a chapter is devoted almost entirely to threats if we misbehave, as opposed to a few lines telling us we will be rewarded if we do as we are told. Yet this doesn’t seem fair to those good people who suffer while bad people thrive. We lost our land and temple twice because we failed as a people and a nation. But did we get our land back because we were so good?  Who knows?

Some rabbis take reward literally, that God rewards and punishes us in life on earth as individuals for our actions. Others believe this happens after we die. Of course, the Torah uses a language appropriate to its times and its audience. But it was designed to be a code of practice, and allows both the simple mind and the intellectual person to make sense of it in their own different ways.

The Mishna in Avot, tells us not to think about doing things to get rewarded, but to act righteously out of a commitment to God, truth, or goodness, regardless of benefit. The Mishna also says that the reward of a good deed is another good deed.

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This is why Maimonides says that doing good encourages us to do more good deeds and enhances our spirituality. We do not agree with Shakespeare when his character Marc Anthony says, “ the evil that men do lives after them, the good, is often interred with their bones.” We are witnesses to the fact that good can indeed live on after us.

I look at it this way: Parents will try their best to train their children. They will give them advice they believe will help them cope and find success. But they also know that however well-prepared children are — and however well behaved they are — there will always be failures, forces beyond their control, crises, wars, or accidents.

The Torah, like a parent, gives advice, warns us of the dangers, recommends how to behave, and calls on an authority to try to persuade or command us to follow the right path. If we follow its guidelines, although there can be no guarantees, they are bound to be of value in helping us cope with life’s challenges.

The author is a writer and rabbi based in New York.

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