Fundamentals of the Jewish Faith
Chapter Four: The Divine Merit-System (Part 1)
What sets us humans apart from all other species, Ramchal offers -- be
they animal, vegetable, mineral, or angel -- is the fact that we alone
were granted free will and the ability to affect the heavens by our deeds
in ways we spoke of.
That means to say that we were endowed with the ability to change the
route of history and the very course-ways of the cosmos by our actions.
For we can make a particular move that will play itself out one way and
rotate our local reality and beyond in one direction, or make another one
and have it rotate a wholly other way accordingly.
(It’s an awesome ability -- one that only a loving G-d who believes we’re
capable enough to do it right often enough and who had granted us the
instructions to do it correctly -- His Torah -- would allow us.)
Needless to say though, G-d realizes that many of us will do good things
with that freedom that will benefit the course of human and cosmic
progress, while many will abuse that ability and dampen progress. So He
instituted a merit-system, if you will: one in which the effective would
be rewarded, and the ineffective would be penalized. It’s customarily
referred to as the system of reward and punishment, but since the
terms “reward” and “punishment” bear such a heavy and unsightly series of
connotations, it would serve us better to understand it as we laid it out.
In any event, while everything we do is weighed on the scales of what’s
popularly known as “measure for measure”, “as you sow, so shall you
reap”, “you only lie on the bed that you make”, and the like (see
Sanhedrin 90a), there’s more to it than that. Since not everything is as
it appears to be.
And so we’re taught that only G-d can make that judgment-call, since He
alone is privy to all the facts and circumstances, and only He can
determine the weight and import of any particular deed on the course of
cosmic progress. After all, while certain things look terribly wrong on
the surface, they might actually be very right in context.
The next point to be made is that not everything connected with this merit-
system plays itself out before our eyes. A lot occurs here, but a lot also
goes on beyond the here and now: either in the Afterlife or in The World
to Come, as we’ll explain.
Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has translated and commented upon "The Gates of Repentance", "The Path of the Just", and "The Duties of the Heart" (Jason
Aronson Publishers). His works are available in bookstores and in various
locations on the Web.