In this week’s portion, the Torah seemingly indicates that there is a simple formula for Jewish life and success while living in the land of Israel. If we follow the commandments of God and observe the laws of the Torah, the Jewish people will be showered with physical blessings of health, longevity, and prosperity. And if the Jewish people, for whatever reasons, chooses to deviate from the service of God, then physical calamities will befall them.
A literal reading of the Torah portion would certainly bring the reader or student to this conclusion. And yet, this understanding, i.e., observance of the commandments as the determining factor in achieving blessings and success in life in this world, flies in the face of the famous victim of the rabbis of the Talmud, that states that a reward for observing the commandments does not really exist in this world.
If that is the case, then what are we to make of the obviously literal lesson that this week’s Torah portion seemingly teaches us? If reward and punishment are not to be based upon the performance of the commandments, then what does the Torah really mean to teach us? These issues and questions have been raised by the scholars and commentators for many centuries. As one can well imagine, there are several different approaches to this question. All of them are worthy of mention, but in this short essay, I will restrict myself to one of the central ideas advanced regarding this problem.
The promises advanced by the Torah for the observance of the commandments is not meant as a reward, so much as it is intended to be a natural consequence of good behavior and enduring faith. True reward and permanent blessings are rare events in human existence. Many times, a person rejoices when having, what he or she believes, to be a stroke of good luck. Unfortunately, just as often in life, it turns out that the good luck was not so good after all. And the same thing is true in reverse. Many times, we are discouraged by events that occurred to us, only to later see, in the fullness of time, that we should be grateful for that experience. Heaven uses a different measure of goodness and reward than the one that we use in this world.
We all pray for length of life and longevity of years. However, we have learned that our father Abraham, who was apparently scheduled to live for 180 years, passed away five years prematurely. The Talmud saw this as a blessing, so that he would not be alive when his grandson Esau began his sinful rampage of murder and rape. Standards of reward and punishment that are exhibited by heavenly judgment are beyond human comprehension and understanding. And the rewards of heaven are eternal, while all the good or benefit in this world is always temporary. Therefore, it is indeed possible to say that reward and punishment are truly not present in this world.
Rabbi Berel Wein