A manual of Jewish belief (a guide to real Judaism) for the thinking individual.

Copyright © 1977 by R' Avi Shafran

[Web Page Last Revised: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 14:24


Chapter 12. Reward and Punishment

The preferred way to serve G~d is out of pure love for Him and sincere desire to do what He wills. There is even a more commendable attitude with which to serve G~d: out of fear. Not out of fear of punishment, which we will shortly deal with in detail, but rather out of fear of displeasing G~d, fear not of the consequences of displeasing G~d, but of the displeasing itself. A man with such an outlook is sure to take every precaution to fulfill all of G~d's commandments in scrupulous detail and to avoid any semblance of sin. This is the type of man who shudders in dread when he even thinks of wrongdoing. Few people today can hope to attain such a high level of fulfilling their purpose on earth, namely, doing G~d's will. This will remain nothing more than a noble but elusive goal for the vast majority of us.

As mentioned there is a level of service one step below this "fear of displeasing G~d". It is service out of love for G~d, which means simply that a man at this stage serves G~d not out of any ulterior motive, but out of realization that man's purpose is to do so, and that man owes so very much – indeed his very existence – to G~d, who has shown an unselfish love for man. So such a man returns the love and gratitude to his Creator.

The third level, much below the second, is the service of G~d out of elementary fear. This means out of fear of punishment or desire for reward for fulfilling G~d's will. Though the first two levels should be the aim of all people and traces of them should more than occasionally be evident in our actions, we should content ourselves to start out on Level III and be satisfied that we haven't sunk to the fourth level, serving G~d out of faithless desire for physical wellbeing (faking out religion in order to be recognized as a scholar or to otherwise put the holy to personal use), or to Level V, serving G~d and studying His law in order to mock, deride and scorn true believers and worshippers of G~d.

Along these lines, the remainder of this chapter will deal with what we have called Level III, service of G~d out of elementary fear.

Yes, Virginia, there is a reward for doing what the Torah commands and there is a punishment for disobeying G~d. However it should be obvious that the reward and punishment for having – or not having – fulfilled one's purpose in the cosmos should be of a spiritual everlasting nature. It should not be a reward in this world, which is only a temporary home for mankind. Today, as the rabbis of the Talmud put it, is the time to earn and work for one's reward, not the time to reap it; that will come tomorrow. Likewise, they add, tomorrow is already too late to work any more; it is only paytime then.

Therefore, as we mentioned in the first chapter, one's condition in this world is of little importance as regards reward and punishment. Real reward and punishment cannot be attained until we leave this false reality in which we dwell. There are, however, two exceptions.

R. Saadiah and Nachmanides (roughly a contemporary of Maimonides) are two major early Jewish philosophers who mention that sometimes one's reward is given to him in this world – but not for his own good. They explain that occasionally an evil person, who accidentally has a few inadvertent good deeds to his name, may be purposefully rewarded for them in this world. He totally loses out on his reward in the next world, the latter being infinitely more rewarding a reward. Conversely, a man who is a G~d-fearing, observant individual, who has committed sins, even unintentionally, may be punished for them in this world, quite mercifully, in order to spare him from the punishment due him in the next. (Incidentally, for the explanation of why an unintentional sin should merit any punishment at all, see Chapter 16.) All of this, of course, removes any difficulties concerning wealthy sinners and impoverished saints.

Another instance where one's condition in this world is of significance is when a punishment is experienced by a sinner, its purpose being to awaken him to repentance. This type of punishment can easily be recognized because the sinner knows he has been sinning and the punishment always fits the crime in divine justice.

Aside from these cases, all good or bad "luck" in this world should be taken as nothing more (and, at the same time, nothing less) than a test from G~d who will judge the individual in the future on the basis of his reaction to the circumstances. And, as the Mesilas Yesharim, the most famous of the "mussar" books emphasizes, good luck – wealth, fame, fortune and happiness – can be as hard a test to pass and as heavy a tax upon one's judgment as poverty and unhappiness can be. It should be realized that each person is tested exactly to his ability, exactly to the point where his temptations are great enough to lead him astray if he lets them, but not great enough to abolish his free will to counter and overcome them. This, then, is the correct attitude to be taken as regards one's situation in this world. One's situation may be the result of one or more of many factors. The only thing that one can be certain of is that whatever has happened, is happening, or will happen, to him in this world is only a preparation, as is the essence of this whole world itself, for the next world, the true everlasting reality of actual reward and punishment.

Let us then train our sights upon this mysterious real world of true reward and punishment, the next world.

The Talmud in many places talks about the reward and punishment awaiting man in the next world. However, since our existence there will be only a spiritual one, the specifics of our futures are necessarily incomprehensible to us, who have never experienced anything like complete spirituality. An admission of ignorance in such matters is nothing to be ashamed of. We are limited beings. At any rate, it follows that any description of the next world will be of a metaphorical, symbolic nature.

The idea behind all of the various talmudic descriptions is generally the same. There will not be two "places", a heaven and a hell, at least not in the sense of the word "place" as we know it. Places exist only for physical matter. There will be a "feeling" (for lack of a better word) of pleasure and a "feeling" of discomfort, the source of both sensations being identical, namely G~d's radiance. The most righteous will draw upon and fuse with G~d's radiance, producing a heretofore and hereafter unparalleled knowledge-pleasure. Sort of the Ultimate Trip. Those who gave in to their primitive desires during their lifetimes and did not fulfill the Torah's commandments will experience pain-sadness upon "contact" with this "radiance". This will emanate partly from the knowledge that the righteous are being wonderfully rewarded forever. While they, the sinners, are missing out on the pleasure that could have been theirs as easily as it became that of the righteous, and partly from the concept itself. The former unpleasant emotion is not jealousy as much as it is simple inescapable, deep, depressing regret. The latter unpleasant emotion, which derives from the "radiance" itself is, of course, impossible for the human mind to imagine.

Since this punishment is so intense, it is in each man's best interest to try to avoid it, by avoiding its causes. The best way for a man to force upon himself realization of the consequences of disobeying G~d, the best way to reach and maintain firmly a Level III outlook, is to take note of the horror and pain possible in this world and realize that hell's a "hell of a lot" worse, in comparison. One who impresses this thought upon his mind well and fears G~d's punishment as much as he fears earthly pain will easily escape sin, and its consequences. Which is why, as the Talmud relates, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, a great scholar at the beginning of the Common Era, when on his death bed, blessed his pupils with the words, "May it be G~d's will that the fear of heaven in you be as strong as your fear of flesh and blood." His pupils at first were perplexed by their master's curious blessing, but they later realized, as I hope the reader does, that the fulfillment of those words is indeed a most wonderful blessing.

A word must be said concerning the attitude repeatedly stated in the Torah that the reward for doing G~d's will is the bestowal of gifts and good luck in this world. This is seemingly found quite often in the Bible, in the form of G~d's promising an abundance of rain or a plentiful harvest, many children, riches, long life, etc.

This seems to be a clear contradiction of what we have said up until now, namely, that G~d's reward for the following of His orders is so great that it can only come in the next world. The Talmud expresses this thought unmistakably when it says, simply, "the reward for fulfilling a commandment cannot exist in this world".

What then is Scripture saying?

The answer is provided by another excerpt from the Talmud which is the embodiment of the Oral Law of the Torah. The Talmud states that "the reward for fulfilling a commandment is another commandment". Now this passage, if not carefully considered, seems to just make matters worse, providing yet another contradiction of our original point. The cryptic nature of the last quote alone presents a problem.

The meaning of this is as follows:

We were right in the first place. The true reward for doing G~d's will can only be experienced in the next world. However, G~d does do something for His faithful while they are still in this world. He makes it easier for them to do more of G~d's will. ("A good deed brings on another good deed; a bad deed, a bad one" as the Talmud puts it in another place.) This is the meaning of the last excerpt from the Talmud.

Therefore, when the Bible tells of G~d's promises of physical contentment and wellbeing, the intention is that, if we do G~d's will, He will make it easier for us to do more of His will, in order to have us more easily merit even more reward in the next world. How will He make it easier? By assuring us that the rains will come and that the harvest will be good, things that will save us time and labor, which can be used instead for fulfilling the Torah to an even greater degree.

But, once more, this is only a means toward the acquirement of more reward, and not the reward itself. For the reward itself is too wonderful to be available in this world.

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