Parashat Behar-Bechukotai (okay, mostly Bechukotai) raises one of the most challenging questions of the Torah: Is there just reward or punishment for our actions? Torah clearly says there is, but our experience so often says there isn't. How can we reconcile our holy texts with our personal experiences?
“You Shall Eat Your Fill of Bread”: Untangling Torah’s Promises of Reward and Punishment
Our Torah portion this week speaks graphically about reward and punishment. Bechukotai, the second half our parashah, opens with a big claim:
“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season. … Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land” (Lev. 26:3-5).
“But if you do not … observe all these commandments, … I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper. … Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin” (Lev. 26:14ff).
The message seems clear. Follow the path of Torah, and God will bless us, making us safe, secure, and comfortable. Spurn the path of Torah, and God will curse us, causing our fields to rot and our cities to crumble.
“Really?” you ask. “Do you really expect me to believe that?” I know, it’s hard – one of the hardest concepts in the entire Torah. All evidence of science demonstrates that our personal lives have no bearing on the wider natural world. But the Torah defies science, teaching the exact opposite. As Cantor Sarah Sager puts it:
"There is a moral order to the universe that is intrinsically connected to the natural order of the universe, … [and] the two orders are mutually dependent. … The catalogue of threats and promises is a biblical way to explain how intimate the connection of the natural realm of the universe is to the moral realm" (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary 782).
To me, this is one of the most profound statements of the Torah. And also one of the hardest to understand. How could it be that the way I treat my neighbor or the sincerity of my religious life affect the natural world? How could ritual or even ethical matters be of concern to the spring rains or the fall harvest?
Of course, we’re not the first to ask these questions. From the annals of our tradition come three major response to the challenging question of reward and punishment. The rabbis teach us of the World to Come. The rationalists teach us of the Work of Goodness. And the mystics teach us of Unknowable Justice. Perhaps we may find our own truth in one of these Jewish responses.
First: The World to Come. The rabbis of the ancient world could saw as clearly as we do today that blessing doesn’t always follow virtue and that curse doesn’t always follow depravity. Their resolution to this problem was the concept of a future world in which individuals and groups would receive proper justice from their righteous and wicked deeds.
Here’s one view, in the words of the second-century rabbi Eleazar Hakappar:
Those who are born will die, and the dead will live, and the living will be judged. … [Adonai] is God, the Former, the Creator, the Comprehender, the Judge, the Witness, the Plaintiff, and God will judge. Blessed is God, for before God there is no injustice, no forgetting, no favoritism, and no taking of bribes, for everything is God’s. Know that everything is according to the Accounting. … Against your will you are born, you live, you die, and you are destined to give a judgment and accounting before … the Holy Blessed One (Pirkei Avot 4:22).
In other words, God knows and sees everything that happens but doesn’t necessarily act on that knowledge in this world. But at some point in the future, everyone who has ever lived will come back to life to stand in judgment before God. At that time, every deed will be accounted for, and God will distribute perfect justice to every human being. The promises of Bechukotai, therefore, are meant to apply not now but rather only in the World to Come.
When the rabbis first started teaching this interpretation, not all Jews agreed with them. The rival Jewish sect of priests known as the Sadducees famously derided the rabbis’ belief in the World to Come. But in the end, the rabbis won out, and this philosophy was dominant in Judaism for centuries, until the modern age (cf. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised) 874ff).
Indeed, for many people today, this still remains a workable and cogent understanding of divine reward and punishment. “You’ll get what’s coming to you!” Many others, though, are skeptical. There’s no evidence of a World to Come, so it’s hard for many to feel satisfied with this unscientific belief. Enter the rationalists of our tradition, who embrace a philosophy I’ve called the Work of Goodness.
This approach teaches that the concept of divine reward and punishment is simply outdated. While our people used to require it, today we can appreciate the value of virtue without any need for reward.
For example, Rabbi Leo Baeck (1873-1956), who led the German Jewish community during the Holocaust, taught that the human heart is the only valid guide to moral behavior. He wrote:
Every good deed … finds its recompense and satisfaction in itself; its reward is the blessing it carries in itself. … “Happiness is not the reward of virtue but virtue itself.” … These conceptions … have gone through a process of development. The Bible, when it often and emphatically speaks of the punishment of sin and the reward of piety, is referring to tangible and earthly rewards and punishments. In the education of the Jewish people this was necessary and valuable. But as the goal and outcome of the development of Judaism, we find that freedom and unselfishness are categorically demanded as essential to the deed of which the only reward is the continuation of the work of goodness (Essence of Judaism (1948, Revised [original 1905]) 179-180).
For Rabbi Baeck, the Jewish people has been evolving and improving since its biblical roots. Today, we no longer need the irrational and indefensible notion of divine reward and punishment. Rather, we are able to appreciate goodness for goodness’ sake rather than for God’s sake.
But just as some of us will reject the rabbinic concept of the World to Come, others will be just as skeptical of the rationalist denial of the Torah’s message. After all, don’t we proclaim אֱמֶת וֶאֱמוּנָה כָּל זֹאת וְקַיָּם עָלֵינוּ (emet v’emunah kol zot v’kayam aleinu), that the Torah is true and enduring and present in our lives? Surely the Torah still has something to teach us, even if we don’t believe in heaven per se.
And so, we come to our third approach, the mystical concept I’ve dubbed Unknowable Justice. According to this system, we can’t possibly understand God or God’s justice even though both are real and present in our world. All we can do is seek awareness and understanding of God’s power and will. The Talmud teaches “everything is in the hands of God except [our awareness] of God” (BT Berachot 33b). In other words, the mystics affirm that God is in charge of everything even when God seems entirely absent; our job is to seek out the presence of God even when God feels most distant.
The modern-day philosopher Eugene Borowitz also teaches along these lines. For Borowitz, God takes an active role in history but not with any discernible consistency. We can’t say exactly why, but we are able to sense that, in a general way, the promises of Bechukotai are true. He writes:
“God should not be bound by the limits that allow us to accept the imperfections of human justice systems. … I often dimly but really discern God’s shaping power making itself felt, now strongly, now weakly, and then inexplicably not at all, in the ordinary flow of reality. Perfections aside, love engenders love and violence arouses hatred, wisdom enriches life and ignorance diminishes it” (Renewing the Covenant (1991) 149-150).
God is real and God is here, with or without evidence. What is injustice in the physical world is, from God’s divine perspective, ultimately just. And even as we seek to bring these worldly injustices to an end through the work of our hands, we struggle to perceive the righteous presence of God in our lives, even if we cannot predict it.
Three approaches, developed over two thousand years. A future world of judgment, an enduring faith in the human spirit, a commitment to God’s presence even in the midst of uncertainty.
Whichever approach works best for you, I think one lesson from the Torah is clear: What we do matters. Maybe it matters to the world, maybe it matters to God, maybe it matters to ourselves and our community – regardless, our actions don’t evaporate into a vacuum. Every choice we make is tied to our surroundings; our lives are significant. We have the power to manifest blessing or curse.
Let us choose blessing.
Let us take responsibility for the power we have to make a difference.
Let us resolve ourselves to the path of Torah that we may “eat our fill of bread and dwell securely in our land.”
 Full text:
הוּא [רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר הַקַּפָּר] הָיָה אוֹמֵר, הַיִּלּוֹדִים לָמוּת, וְהַמֵּתִים לְהֵחָיוֹת, וְהַחַיִּים לִדּוֹן. לֵידַע לְהוֹדִיעַ וּלְהִוָּדַע שֶׁהוּא אֵל, הוּא הַיּוֹצֵר, הוּא הַבּוֹרֵא, הוּא הַמֵּבִין, הוּא הַדַּיָּן, הוּא עֵד, הוּא בַּעַל דִּין, וְהוּא עָתִיד לָדוּן. בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁאֵין לְפָנָיו לֹא עַוְלָה וְלֹא שִׁכְחָה וְלֹא מַשּׂוֹא פָנִים וְלֹא מִקַּח שׁוֹחַד, שֶׁהַכֹּל שֶׁלּוֹ. וְדַע שֶׁהַכֹּל לְפִי הַחֶשְׁבּוֹן. וְאַל יַבְטִיחֲךָ יִצְרֶךָ שֶׁהַשְּׁאוֹל בֵּית מָנוֹס לָךְ, שֶׁעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה נוֹצָר, (וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה נוֹלָד), וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה חַי, וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה מֵת, וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא:
He would say: Those who are born will die, and the dead will live, and the living will be judged. [We are] to learn, to teach and to comprehend that [Adonai] is God, the Former, the Creator, the Comprehender, the Judge, the Witness, the Plaintiff, and God will judge. Blessed is God, for before God there is no injustice, no forgetting, no favoritism, and no taking of bribes, for everything is God’s. Know that everything is according to the Accounting. Let not your heart convince you that Sheol [the underworld] is your escape; for against your will you are formed, against your will you are born, against your will you live, against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give a judgment and accounting before the king, king of all kings, the Holy Blessed One (Pirkei Avot 4:22).
 Understanding יִרְאָה as Lawrence Kushner does: Awe in the presence of the presence of the Creator outside of physical reality.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”