Reward and punishment? Focusing on building a just and moral society

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein

By Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34)

Even when I was a child, I noticed an unsettling disquietude among some adults during the recitation of a sentence of the prayer said after finishing a meal. The prayer is well-known as Birkat HaMazon. The sentence reads: “I was once a child and now I have grown older and I have never seen a righteous person forsaken or his children lacking food.”

I have been in groups in which it was the custom to recite that sentence silently or to skip it entirely.

This is because, taken literally, that sentence seems to imply that if a person is “good” she or he will be rewarded materially in life and if a person is “bad” that person will be punished by G-d in some way. Further, it seems to imply that a person who does experience calamities must be a “bad” person. In the Torah portion known as Bechukotai we find the following:

“If you follow My commandments and observe My statutes, I will grant you your rains in their season, so that the earth will yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshings will overtake the vintage, and your vintage will overtake the sowing; you will eat your fill of food and dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace in the land and you will rest untroubled by anyone….I will look with favor upon you and make you fertile and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you…But if you do not observe My commandments, and if you reject My Statutes and commandments and break My covenant….”

There follows a long list of all the horrendous calamities that will follow this disobedience.

The view expressed in this biblical text is a locus classicus of the biblical concept of what is popularly known as “Reward and Punishment.” Put simply: G-d rewards the good person and punishes the wicked person.

But in the book of Job, the hero, Job, a perfectly righteous person in every possible way, suffers every possible personal calamity you could possibly imagine including a nauseatingly sickening skin disease to the extent that even his wife says to him: “Curse G-d and die!” His so-called “friends” and “comforters” ask him: “What did you do that was so bad, Job, that you are suffering so much?

They are expressing the view that if G-d rewards the good and punishes the wicked if people do experience calamity it must be because G-d is punishing them because of their wickedness. But Job’s suffering is G-d’s way of showing that there are people like Job who can do good without considering a reward. It is G-d’s proof that there are people who do not need material rewards in order to be good. They can be good by their nature, not motivated by gain or greed.

But to this day many people believe implicitly in G-d rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. Why otherwise be good? To this day, for example, I have heard parents say to their children “You better be good or G-d will punish you!” A mistake in more ways than one! It is another expression of the popularly believed idea that of G-d rewards good individuals and punishes wicked individuals.

But if we accept this view how can we explain the many times over the ages that Jews have suffered in history? How about the perduring exile of the Jews from the Holy Land? How about the centuries of exclusion and discrimination and degradation suffered by Jews? Historic anti-Semitism? How about the pogroms and the Holocaust? Is the suffering endured by the Jews in history an indication that they deserve G-d’s punishment? And then more generally, how about Great Depression in the United States and Europe? Was it due to the evil doing of the American people in general? Of the masses of Europeans? Was the death of thousands including children in the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, because the people who worked or were there or simply walking on the nearby streets evil doers?

Surely the average person has more than adequate reason to doubt the concept of individual reward and punishment which seems to be the meaning of the statement which we have quoted from the Torah at the beginning of this essay. Surely that view is inaccurate and pernicious!

But wait! The Torah portion we have quoted is not all about the popular belief in reward and punishment of individual persons.

First of all, it is a social doctrine. This biblical text does not refer to individual persons. Note that in the English language there is no way of distinguishing between the “you” singularand the “you” plural designating a group, a community. But Hebrew does distinguish between the “you” of the individual and the “you” meaning community. Our text is not referring to individual persons, it is referring to the “you” of the entire community and therefore to the character and culture of the entire community of Israel. This society is being addressed, the culture of the society as a whole, its laws, its practices. Thus there is an implication here that indeed if a community is in its culture, its custom, its laws is an indecent, a corrupt society due to a corrupt leadership, then the society cannot endure for long but ultimately will decline and even collapse.

That is to say: Take a society in which those who have the greatest wealth and whose political representatives the greatest power in Congress. They can appoint, for example, the members of the Supreme Court who make the laws which determine the percentage of the income to be paid in taxes by the very rich as compared to the percentage of income to be paid in taxes by the much larger middle class.

As a result the middle class pays the larger percentage of their holdings in taxes than the wealthiest classes and thus bear the brunt of supporting community institutions (the wealthy being free from paying their fair share). Something is wrong in that society; it is an economic inequity. The entire society as a whole when not following the moral teachings of the Torah will ultimately become conflicted within, groups at odds with one another, and weakened as a result; following which there will be decline of the society and perhaps even collapse. All will suffer.

But if the society, as we might say, is so structured in accord with G-d’s moral teachings which continuously emphasize economic equity and especially care for the marginal in that society, that is, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, then the society will be solid and enduring. It will provide well-being in the long run for everyone in the society.

But if the society is not in accord with G-d’s moral law then, according to the Torah, the society will not know well-being but will experience inner conflict, decline and perhaps even, possibly, collapse.

All of this is not about individual reward and punishment; it is as we have, said a social doctrine, a law of history. The text is put into the language of cause and effect. It states “if…..then”. As if to say “if” the society in its laws and customs is structured in accord with G-d’s moral teachings, that is, in accord with the Torah, then the society will have peace and productivity and general well-being. If however the society is not in accord with G-d’s moral law as expressed in the Torah, then the inequities of society will ultimately result in conflict and decline and suffering for many, and perhaps even collapse.

It is now half a century since Peter Drucker, who founded the academic field known as Business Administration and indeed the MBA degree, stated that inequality of income in the United States it is greater than the income inequality that existed in France under the reign of Louis XIV. In other words, the difference between the average income today in the United States of CEOs of the largest corporations on the other hand and the income of the people who clean up at night after them, who mop the floor, and make the lowest income in those same corporations is greater than the difference between the income and holdings of Louis XIV of France and the lowest peasant in his empire.

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein is senior scholar at North Shore Congregation Israel.

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