Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reward and Punishment: Reality or Myth? Zechor Yemot Olam.

As I was discussing reward and punishment in my last post, I would like to share some thoughts on the subject.

The idea that there are consequences to all our actions is something that is accepted by most of us as an axiom that we acquire growing up. However, we do not always see the outcome from our deeds. Sometimes consequences are immediate and at other times, they may take a long time to become manifest, at times even generations pass before the outcome(s) from an action can be known. Sometimes, the long-term outcome from an action that, at the time it was done looked to be good or bad, may turn out in the long term to have the opposite result of the intended outcome. The question that comes to mind then is, is this belief in consequences a myth or reality? I believe that looking at reward and punishment from this perspective, highlights why Rambam considers this to be a commanded belief rather than an empirical fact. It is listed among the 13 principles and is a necessary and required a-priori belief. Like all these principles, we have to accept them at first and then, as we acquire further knowledge about the world and our environment and how it operates, we develop a deeper understanding of exactly what they mean. A child’s understanding of God’s uniqueness is not the same as that of an adult especially one who has philosophic tendencies, nor is how a child understands reward and punishment the same as how an adult does. 

Assuming actions are judged by their consequences, there is a certain amount of prophecy required at the time the decision how to act correctly is made. Prophecy in this instance being the ability to understand how God’s world operates and adapt one’s actions to conform to His original will. That is exactly how Rambam understands Hashgacha – Divine Providence. The closer a person is to prophecy, the more he acts in a way that agrees with Divine Providence – Hashgacha. Is a person ever certain about his actions? Of course not: even the greatest prophets doubted themselves and constantly questioned their decisions. We see this with Avraham, the first to have developed a philosophy about God and how he runs His world. As we are introduced to him in Breishit 12, we immediately are told that his goal was to build a nation of believers.

ב  וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing.

And a little further, in Breishit 15 he questions himself and falls into a great depression fearing that he did not act correctly, that he misunderstood how things work.

א  אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה,
הָיָה דְבַר-יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, בַּמַּחֲזֶה, לֵאמֹר:  אַל-תִּירָא
אַבְרָם, אָנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ--שְׂכָרְךָ, הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד.

1 After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying: 'Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield, thy reward shall be exceeding great.

וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם, אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה מַה-תִּתֶּן-לִי, וְאָנֹכִי,
הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי; וּבֶן-מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי, הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר.

2 And Abram said: 'O Lord GOD, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go hence childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?'

  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם--הֵן לִי, לֹא נָתַתָּה זָרַע; וְהִנֵּה בֶן-בֵּיתִי, יוֹרֵשׁ אֹתִי.

 3 And Abram said: 'Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed, and, lo, one born in my house is to be mine heir.'

Avraham was questioning whether he was living in a fantasy, as he was childless and he was unsure that Eliezer, his sole inheritor at the time, could be the biological father of such a nation. As he meditated further on the matter, he came to realize that if one acts to the best of his knowledge with the goals clearly in mind, one must believe that there will be a good outcome. That is the crux of the belief in Reward and Punishment.

 וְהֶאֱמִן, בַּיהוָה; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ, צְדָקָה.

6 And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.

Rambam in MN 3:53 discusses the meaning of the word צְדָקָה .

The term edakah is derived from edek, "righteousness"; it denotes the act of giving every one his due, and of showing kindness to every being according as it deserves.”

In other words, צְדָקָה has two meanings, one ethical the other moral:  giving someone what is due to him, an ethical obligation, and charity, a moral obligation.  

In Scripture, however, the expression edakah is not used in the first sense, and does not apply to the payment of what we owe to others…. But we do perform an act of edakah when we fulfill those duties towards our fellow-men which our moral conscience imposes upon us; e.g., when we heal the wound of the sufferer….Thus Scripture says, in reference to the returning of the pledge [to the poor debtor]: "And it shall be edakah (righteousness) unto thee" (Deut. xxiv. 11).”

When the word צְדָקָה is used in Torah, it is used in its moral sense rather than its ethical one. Returning collateral to a poor debtor is a moral obligation, not an ethical one. The true understanding of moral obligation in Judaism comes from contemplating how God runs His world. Judaism understands God as an entity that is completely separate from any physicality yet at the same time sees Him as the Creator responsible for existence. That existence in itself is seen as charity; there is no obligation for God to bring us into existence. Charity is thus an act of emulating God once one has apprehended this concept. Charity is therefore a rational and knowledge based act rather than an emotional one. The natural emotions that charity triggers are controlled and induced by the rational faculty. 
When we walk in the way of virtue we act righteously towards our intellectual faculty, and pay what is due unto it; and because every virtue is thus edakah, Scripture applies the term to the virtue of faith in God. Comp. "And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him as righteousness" (Gen. xv. 6); "And it shall be our righteousness" (Deut. vi. 25).”  

This to me is one of the most amazing and inspiring comments of Rambam. Charity, the one described above, which is based on knowledge and not on pure emotion, benefits not only our fellow man, the recipient of that charity, but also the giver who arrived at this act through developing his rational faculty. The two benefits are independent of each other. One does charity with oneself by developing the mind and actualizing the rational faculty. It is this charity that Avraham did to himself by believing that by emulating God’s ways the way he understood them, a good outcome was to be expected. It is the belief that “good” actions bring about “good” consequences that allows us to act. Without that acceptance, we would be paralyzed. Is that belief really true or is it just a utilitarian belief?  We believe it is real and we stake our whole raison d’etre on it. It is at the root of how we understand ourselves as the standard-bearers of true monotheism to the world. Our long-term survival as a nation working towards perfecting ourselves proves it. It proves that the “good” deeds and plans for us started with Avraham and his children, the divine Torah Moshe gave us and the way of life it set out for us, were really “good” by accomplishing their intent. Their influence of so many thousands of years is still very much felt in the here and now. That is how I understand when we invoke the memory of our ancestors, the Avot, during prayer; we say that by our mere continued existence we confirm that they read correctly God’s will.

Moadim Lesimcha and Chag Sameach.


  1. You say "....the Creator responsible for existence. That existence in itself is seen as charity; there is no obligation for God to bring us into existence."

    If someone does not desire in any way to exist but ends up existing because God brought that person into existence, isn't God then responsible for obligating that person to exist?

  2. also, if God is not obligated to bring man into existence, why is man obligated to exist? And why be grateful for existing if existence is temporary and not a straight path either? what guarantees there is a hereafter?

  3. Dear David,

    "As he meditated further on the matter, he came to realize that if one acts to the best of his knowledge with the goals clearly in mind, one must believe that there will be a good outcome. That is the crux of the belief in Reward and Punishment."

    Isnt the essence of this episode is that Avram trusted Hashem's promise to be provided with a biological inheritor? And not simply the general true principle that if you function with clear [universal] goals in mind - there will be good outcome.... This trust of Hashem's Hashgacha - is a Tzedakah to the mind as you apprehend and applied a true principle of Hashem's Hashgachaso!

    I agree with your point -not your application

  4. Pinny,

    Please correct me but isn't the next subject the story of Hagar? Apparently Avraham acted upon his insight immediately and saw to it that he has offspring. That is Hashgacha! not the Bitachon that people preach so commonly.

  5. Are you arguing that without this nevuah he would not have agreed to Sarah's suggestion to have a child through a surrogate mother - Hagar? Isn't the principle of Pru Urvu sufficient motivation for Avraham? Doesn't the posuk highlight the fact that she was barren for 10 years in Kenaan as a key factor?

  6. I am having a hard time seeing your problem. Avraham's decision to take a woman in addition to Sarah was quite difficult as we can see from the rest of the story. It certainly was a difficult and momentous decision that he had a lot of cogitation about. That was part of the underlying pain and anxiety during the Brit bein Habetarim.

    As an aside, it is problematic to ask kushyot based on different midrashim. They are not necessarily consistent with each other.