2382 Reward and Punishment


The traditional approach to the concept of reward and punishment is that the hand of providence is in everything as a payment for past deeds. Good actions receive good payments; actions that are not good can pay a heavy price. Traditionally, we learn through revelation or prophesy about what we are supposed to do, and then must live our lives accordingly. 

In theory, this idea may seem logical. In reality, we see that it does not work this way. We discover through experience that people who live good, clean lives often suffer greatly, while others who are not so careful often seem to have everything they need. This raises the issue of why bad things happen to good people? The ancient rabbis were greatly troubled by this question.

The Talmud tells of a father who sent his son to the roof to bring down some young birds. The son went as instructed and fulfilled the requirement of the law by sending away the mother from the nest before collecting the chicks. On his way down, the son fell off a ladder and was killed. 

Two specific Jewish laws in the Torah say people performing particular commandments will live extended lives. The first of these laws is that of obeying one's parents, the other is that of sending away the mother bird from her chicks.

 In this instance, the boy had fulfilled both laws, yet was the victim of an early death.

The rabbis wondered if there had been extenuating factors. Perhaps the son or even the father was thinking something "sinful" as the boy was descending from the roof. But it was decided that the commission of good deeds should protect someone from thoughts such as these. Moreover, when one is engaged in the performance of a good deed, it is said that this person cannot come to any harm. 

This situation distressed the rabbis. They simply did not know how to deal with it. Indeed it was said that one of the greatest sages, Elisha ben Abuyah, turned away from his religious beliefs and stopped practicing his faith because of a similar incident in which he witnessed someone being killed in the performance of a good deed.

Some of the rabbis tried to solve the problem by saying that there is life in this world and life in the world to come. They suggested that when the law described the prolongation of life by doing good deeds, it was referring to life in the world to come, but the length of one's life in this world was never assured.

However, this idea was in contradiction with other rabbinic dictums based on the principle that everything is repaid in the world "measure for measure (middah ke-neged middah)."

 There are many examples along this line of thinking. The Talmud says that famine comes from not giving tithes, pestilence comes from performing mortal sins, war comes from perversion of judgments, harm from wild beasts comes from swearing, exile comes from idolatry or incest, and bloodshed comes from not allowing the land to lie fallow in the seventh year.

Throughout the Talmud, punishments--in this world--are described as retribution for misdeeds. But this still is not satisfactory. All we need do is look around us to see the heartache and misery of wonderful people, or the comfortable lives of tyrants and thieves. 

There is yet another talmudic approach to the question of reward and punishment. In this, good deeds are their own reward and misdeeds are their own punishment. Each good deed leads to another; this makes for a pleasant life. Conversely, each misdeed also leads to another, and this results in a confused and difficult life. The advice given here is: "Do not be like servants who serve their master with the expectation of receiving a reward, but serve without expectations."

According to this viewpoint, reward and punishment should not be part of our calculation, either in this world or in the world to come. Simply being present in the moment is all we really can do. This talmudic idea is a rejection of the belief of measure for measure; it says that God is forgiving and filled with loving kindness. Even if 999 accusing angels declare a person's guilt and only one says the person is innocent or deserves forgiveness, mercy will prevail.

Along these lines, the Zohar asks, "How is it that so many sinners and transgressors are alive and active?"

If punishment were swift, as some say, these people could not live long. However, it says that if there is a possibility that a sinful person may become virtuous, the person is judged favorably. In addition, if the person is destined to bear a virtuous child, the judgment is always lenient.

Thus we see that the idea of reward and punishment runs the full gamut from guaranteed reward or retribution, either in this world or the next, to living each moment in its fullness, trusting in the merciful and forgiving nature of the universe. None of these ideas, however, is fully satisfactory. On the one hand they leave us with the feeling that we are constantly being judged, and on the other, there seems to be no correlation between one's actions and the rewards of a good life.