Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reward and Punishment and Natural Law

Over Shabbat, I was learning a very difficult (to me) Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah. I have had difficulty with it for years to the point that for a while I used to skip the first half of this Perek whenever I read Hilchot Teshuvah. As I was planning to learn with my young friend this Shabbat afternoon (never made it that far) I decided to confront it one more time and I hit pay dirt. (Lets not exaggerate – I made some headway!)

Here is the Rambam in question: (Hil. Teshuvah 3:1-4)

כל אחד ואחד מבני האדם, יש לו זכייות ועוונות: מי שזכייותיו יתרות על עוונותיו, צדיק; ומי שעוונותיו יתרות על זכייותיו, רשע; מחצה למחצה, בינוני.
ב וכן המדינה--אם היו זכייות כל יושביה מרובות על עוונותיהם, הרי זו צדקת; ואם היו עוונותיהם מרובין, הרי זו רשעה. וכן כל העולם כולו.
ג [ב] אדם שעוונותיו מרובין על זכייותיו--מיד הוא מת ברשעו, שנאמר "על רוב עוונך" (ירמיהו ל,יד; ירמיהו ל,טו; הושע ט,ז). וכן מדינה שעוונותיה מרובין--מיד היא אובדת, שנאמר "זעקת סדום ועמורה כי רבה" (בראשית יח,כ). וכן כל העולם כולו, אם היו עוונותיהם מרובין--מיד הן נשחתין, שנאמר "וירא ה', כי רבה רעת האדם" (בראשית ו,ה).
ד ושיקול זה אינו לפי מניין הזכייות והעוונות, אלא לפי גודלן: יש זכות שהיא כנגד כמה עוונות, שנאמר "יען נמצא בו דבר טוב" (מלכים א יד,יג); ויש עוון שהוא כנגד כמה זכייות, שנאמר "וחוטא אחד, יאבד טובה הרבה" (קוהלת ט,יח). ואין שוקלין אלא בדעתו של אל דעות, והוא היודע היאך עורכין הזכייות כנגד העוונות.

Every human being has merits and sins. One whose merits are greater than his sins is a Tzaddik (righteous) and whoever his sins are greater than his merits is a Rasha (evil). 50-50 he is a Beinoni (average? Literally: in the middle.) So too a nation – if the sum total of the merits of all its inhabitants is greater than their sins, the nation is righteous. If on the other hand their sins are more numerous, it is an evil nation. The same goes for the whole world.

A person whose sins are greater than his merits – dies immediately because of his evilness as it says “because of your many sins”. So too a nation whose sins are greater is lost at once as it says, “the cry of Sodom and Amora grew”. The same applies to the whole world; if their sins are more numerous they are destroyed at once, as it says, “God saw that men’s evilness was great”.

This weighing is not done by the number of merits and sins but according to their magnitude. One merit may outweigh many sins as it says, “Because a good thing was found in him”. There is also one sin that outweighs many merits as it says, “One sinner and much good is lost”. They only weigh based on the knowledge of the Lord of knowledge. He is the only one who knows how merits against sins are valued.

In our regular upbringing (if we are FFB) and subsequent learning, we generally think of merits and sins in the context of Mitzvot. At least that is my first reaction. So when I read this Halacha my rational self questions the relationship of my Chilul Shabbat or eating Chazir for example with the destruction of a nation. Whatever approach I try I end up with an apologetic sounding argument and it rings hollow. The Mashgiach in Yeshiva belaboring this Halacha in his Schmuessen still rings in my ears and my reaction of complete disavowal feels very real even today (maybe more so as I know more.) So this Shabbat I noticed something that I had missed all along. Rambam uses the words כל אחד ואחד מבני האדם which clearly is talking about humankind in general, not in a Jewish context only. Slowly this Halacha started to make sense. Let me explain.

Reward and Punishment is an essentially natural phenomenon in our world. To put it in simple terms, our actions are consequential. All biological entities that have a brain of sorts, including man, use it to act independently for survival. Man’s uniqueness is his ability to think and analyze the consequence of his actions. Acting with long-term survival in mind is not always the same as acting for the short term. There is also more to it. Man has the ability to act morally and ethically even if it runs counter to his individual survival interests. He can take into consideration the other members of his family, nation and world. Reward and Punishment is the result or the consequence of how he acted. In those situations where man acts overwhelmingly only with his short term interests in mind, ignoring the ethical, moral and longer term outlook, destruction is set in motion. Once things start moving in a certain direction it is much harder to reverse course. Sometimes it is too late and nothing will stop the outcome.

Rambam in MN 3:17 tells us clearly that Reward and Punishment is the outcome of whether we act morally and ethically based on natural law.

That God will reward the obedient individual for all his pious and righteous actions, although no direct commandment was given to him through a prophet and that is punished for all evil acts, although they have not been prohibited by a prophet[1], this being forbidden by the inborn disposition- I refer to the prohibition against wrongdoing and injustice.

I bring your attention to the words “inborn disposition”. Rambam is telling us that there is a natural sense in man where he knows if something is ethical or not. The seven Noachide Laws were legislated by early man to formalize this “inborn disposition”. The problem is that man has a hard time seeing how his actions are going to work out. Are his actions going to bring about the desired effect? That is why the valuation of man’s actions is left to God. From a practical perspective, man has to act to the best of his abilities in accordance with his sense of right and wrong. He then hopes that his assessment was correct and things will work out as planned. This is where true Bitachon comes into play.

I believe I now understand this Halacha well. The problem is that Halacha 10 through 13 (numbering based on Mechon – Mamre Kafih edition) is much more difficult to understand and I am still not there.

[1] Rambam is saying that right and wrong can be determined even without revelation not that revelation does not support it.

1 comment:

  1. David: Could you have a look at Abir Warrior Arts? My brief knowledge of history makes me think the claims are delusional of it being authentic mesorah. It might have more claims to be based on the Khazzar's arts (e.g. The Jews of Daghestan's warrior arts are more probable to be based on the Khazzar).