January 14, 2021   ✦   1 Sh'vat, 5781 - Rosh Chodesh Sh'vat   ✦   Torah Portion: Vaera, Exodus 6:2-9:35   ✦   Haftorah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21

By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld | Series: | Level:

Given (lit., ‘being that it is known”) that the reward for good deeds and the good we will merit if we observe G-d’s ways as written in the Torah is the World to Come, as it is stated, ‘In order that He will do good to you and you will lengthen days’ (Deut. 22:7). [Conversely,] the revenge which is exacted from the wicked who have forsaken the paths of righteousness written in the Torah is excision, as it is stated, ‘That soul shall be utterly cut off; its sin is in it’ (Numbers 15:31).

If so, what is [the meaning of] that which is written in the entire Torah, ‘If you will obey you will receive such and such, and if you do not listen such and such will occur to you?’ And all such matters (discussed in all such verses) relate to this world, such as plenty versus famine, war versus peace, sovereignty versus lowliness, dwelling in the land [of Israel] versus exile, success in matters versus losses, and all the other words of the covenant [of Deuteronomy 28].

The week’s law in the Rambam is quite long. I therefore translated only the first half, leaving the answer to his question for a future class.

In the last chapter the Rambam discussed the concept of the World to Come — what it will be like (to the very small extent we understand), when it will occur, and the alternative excision (‘karais’) visited upon the sinful.

In this chapter the Rambam deals with a relevant basic question: If the true reward we are promised is the entirely spiritual World to Come, why does the Torah generally promise much more mundane rewards for our observance of the Torah, such as rains, prosperity, good health, and peace, and the opposite for our disobedience? Being that the true reward we will receive is so much greater, what role do these temporal promises fulfill? We wouldn’t even think of them as “reward” per se. They absolutely pale before spiritual, eternal reward. The Talmud likewise states, “There is no reward [for good deeds] in this world” (Chullin 142a).

If so, what role do such promises of plenty fulfill? We would certainly hope that a portion of our reward will not be spent on physical matters in this world. That would be a very poor exchange indeed — big rain puddles in place of eternal closeness to G-d. Yet such is at least a part of what the Torah promises us for our righteousness?

We will translate and discuss the Rambam’s answer G-d willing in the next class (it will be worth the wait of course). In the meantime, I would like to address an important side issue. I’d like to note what the Rambam did not ask over here — something which no doubt bothers us about the issue he’s discussing.

When we read such verses — promising rain and plenty if we behave, the first thing that comes to my mind is as follows: How come the Torah mentions virtually nothing of the World to Come? If the main reward we will receive for observing the mitzvos (commandments) is the eternal bliss of heaven, why does the Torah make no mention of it? It is true the are various oblique references to it in Scripture, but a simple reading of the Torah does not even mention a world beyond the current one — let alone promise that our true reward will be there! Why is the Torah so silent about something so basic to Jewish thought? It almost sounds as if Judaism does not know of a world beyond this one, that the best G-d can offer us for our good behavior is the creature comforts of this world!

(It’s true that the part of the Rambam we translated this week could be understood to be posing this very same question, but it will be clear from his answer that that was not at all his intention.)

As an unfortunate aside, as a result of this, critical scholars of religion propounded that the Torah originally never “knew about” life after death. The verses of Scripture never speak of a world beyond the present because its “authors” didn’t come up with that idea at the time they invented its verses. The belief in an afterlife was therefore something the Jews “picked up” from various other cultures during their exiles and only later incorporated into Jewish thought — into a “new and improved” version.

Now from a traditional point of view, such a theory can be readily dismissed. The Torah we received at Sinai was not a written law alone. The vast majority of the explanation of the Written Torah was handed down to us orally as the Oral Law (much of it later put to writing in the Mishna and Talmud). And our equally-authentic Oral Law teaches us explicitly of the existence of the World to Come, in fact telling us (as I quoted above) that this world is not the place of reward at all.

In fact, very little of the Written Law makes very much sense at all without the accompanying interpretation of the Oral. It consists mostly of vague, inspiriting-sounding statements which tell us next to nothing in terms of what G-d actually wants of us. It is inconceivable that a G-d who wants His nation to obey Him would have instructed us with such cryptic verses (“observe the Sabbath day to sanctify it,” “they shall be a sign between your eyes,” “on the seventh month on the tenth of the month afflict your souls” etc.) — leaving all the details up to our imagination.

(I discuss elsewhere at great length why much of the Torah was originally given to us orally — with the explicit instruction that it not be written down. (The Sages decided to write it down only much later, for fear it would be forgotten altogether.) See my Pirkei Avos class, way 22 of the 48 Ways. (The link for the first of that three-part series is here.))

Throughout the ages and until this day there are groups and individuals who insist on observing only the direct word of G-d — the literal text of the Scriptures (most of them can’t understand the original Hebrew anyway) without the gratuitous interpretations of the Rabbis. Needless to say, their resulting “religion” bears little resemblance to true Torah Judaism. What Scripture actually meant in a myriad of cases is left completely up to the individual’s imagination. Really, now… We would expect an all-powerful G-d to do better than that.

We are thus left with the following. The Oral Torah teaches us about the World to Come while the Written Torah makes virtually no mention of it, instead promising us physical reward for our good behavior. Now the Rambam himself wasn’t concerned with this discrepancy between the two Torahs since he knew that both are equally authentic. He was only interested in the role temporary physical reward plays in the scheme of things.

Most of us I’m sure, however, find the first issue much more bothersome. Why does Scripture leave out so basic a concept as the World to Come? Why does it limit itself to physical matters alone? Shouldn’t heaven be the first thing the Torah promises when discussing reward and punishment? Why leave it to far less explicit sources, even if in our eyes entirely authentic? And again, this is especially vexing because of the existence of people who till this day reject the Oral Law. Why couldn’t G-d at least once have made unequivocal reference to the World to Come, dispelling such a basic misconceptions once and for all?

The answer is actually self-evident when we consider the roles of the Written and Oral Law. Keep in mind that the two works are inseparable. G-d gave us both of them together; neither of them without the other provides us with meaningful religion. What one leaves out the other fills in. The Written Torah was thus never intended to be understood on its own for all its implications. It provides us with only one aspect of Judaism.

But what is that aspect? What precisely is the role of the Written Torah?

The answer is actually quite clear when when we think about it: The Torah is the story of Planet Earth.

The Torah — and by that term I am referring to the Written Torah alone, is not a book about G-d or about Jewish theology. Although many great theological lessons may be gleaned from it, it never presents itself as a book describing G-d or discussing philosophy. Rather, it is the story of the world — how it was created, how at its inception it was close to perfection but fell, and then the origin and development of a plan to bring it back to its ideal state.

Man at first was nearly perfect. He sinned and fell, lowering the very universe with him. Not long after, the world became so sinful as to nearly warrant its entire destruction. G-d flooded the earth, leaving only the most bare remnant to begin anew. And then Abraham arrived on the scene, discovering G-d in spite of the corruption and idolatry which surrounded him. From him descended the Jewish nation which would bear G-d’s message to the world. They were purified through the bondage of Egypt, redeemed through the vivid display of G-d’s might, and at last given the Torah and instructed in G-d’s commandments. Finally, they were brought to the Land of Israel where they were to create a Utopian society which would serve as a light unto the nations — ultimately leading the world back to Eden.

This is actually a big topic with a long way to go. Let me outline the remainder of the discussion — which we will G-d willing complete in the next installment. There are two basic issues we must still address. One — which is basically understandable already, is why the Torah is so silent about such topics as the World to Come. The Torah is the story of this world, not of the World to Come or any other matters metaphysical. Likewise, when the Torah instructs us in the mitzvos (commandments), it is not to tell us how we may earn the World to Come (even though to us that is so much more significant), but how we may perfect this world. Finally, as we will see G-d willing next time, with this we will also be able to understand why the Written Torah discusses the mitzvos only very broadly, leaving so much of the detail for the Oral Law. Till then!

Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org