This Week's Torah Portion: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? (Part 43)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.


Dëvar Torah – Parashath ‘Éqev (Deuteronomy VII, 1-IX, 25)

As was mentioned last week, our parasha contains the second paragraph of the Shëma‘ (XI, 13-21); the first paragraph is in parashath Va-Ethchannan (VI, 4-9). There are two striking differences between these two paragraphs which bear close examination.

  1. The first paragraph is written entirely in the second person singular and thus addresses the individual Jew, while the second paragraph uses the second person plural and is thus addressed to Israel the nation.
  1. The first paragraph spells out several commandments: the obligation to love Ha-Shem, the requirement to teach one’s children, and the requirements to don tëfillin and affix mëzuzoth to the doorposts of one’s house without any mention whatsoever of a reward for performance of these commandments or of a punishment for transgressing them. The second paragraph essentially deals with the same matters – but, in contrast, is very explicit about reward and punishment.

Why this is so touches on a fundamental principle of Judaism. The concept of moral autonomy, that a human being can freely choose either righteousness or evil, is what is at stake.

To be sure, the fact that one course is labeled “righteous” and the other “evil” is indicative that the autonomy is not perfect and that all choices are not equal. A man’s choice, once made, entails consequences; G-d rewards righteousness and punishes evil.

The form which these Divine consequences assume is somewhat problematic. If either reward or punishment is open and obvious, it seriously impairs the freedom of man’s choice. What idiot would ever transgress a negative commandment, having once seen a transgressor punished before his eyes? What fool would ignore a positive commandment, having seen its reward drop from heaven at the feet of one who had just carried it out?

Under such a regime, the concept of choice is divested of all meaning.

Therefore, the rabbis tell us, it is not open and obvious. Sëchar mitzva bëhai ‘alëma leika, the Talmud instructs us: “there is no reward for a commandment in this world” (Qiddushin 39b); rewards are relegated to the next world. What is more, éyn bëyadeinu lo’ misha;vath harësha‘im vë’af lo’ miyissurei hatzaddiqim (“neither the prosperity of the evil nor the sufferings of the righteous are in our grasp”; Avoth IV, 15).

Why someone who seems to us an obvious scoundrel is allowed to lead a “charmed” life, while an equally obvious saint suffers, is beyond our comprehension. We are not allowed to examine the books.

Accordingly, we do directly perceive the real consequences of our actions, and so it is possible to fool oneself in this world of deception. For that very reason, it is only here that we have the opportunity to earn rewards. “This world is for doing, the next world is for resting,” is a pearl of wisdom from the present Ozherover rebbe. This echoes Hillel’s famous formulation: “If I do not pursue the commandments now, in this world, when shall I do it, since after death I can do nothing? (ibid., I,14, Rabbi ‘Ovadya miBartenura ad loc.)

But if it is so that sëchar mitzva bëhai ‘alëma leika, how are we to explain the words of our parasha: “And it will be, if you will listen to My commandments … I shall grant your country’s rainfall on time … And I shall out grass in your field.” However, if “your heart seduces you, and you turn aside and worship other gods,” then “Ha-Shem will become angry with you and stop up the heavens and there will be no rainfall, and the soil will not grant its yield.”

The above hardly seems to lead us to conclude that “there is no reward for a commandment in this world”! What’s going on here?

The answer to our seeming dilemma is that the Torah addresses individuals and nations differently.

While it is true that our temporary residence in the ‘alëma dëshiqra grants us the capacity for self-deception, it does not necessitate it. Every human being, if he but wills it, is able to know himself (or herself) and to know quite precisely what facets of thought and deed are all right and which need work.

The Torah teaches each of us what is right and what wrong, where our duty lies, and provides us with the basis for faith concerning Divine reward and punishment. To make things more obvious would impair the freedom of our choices and make performance of our duties less the object of merit than of simple prudence.

This is why the first paragraph of the Shëma’, addressing the individual, contains no mention of reward or punishment.

But the nation’s moral state is a very different thing. It is the statistical summation of that status of all its members — and hence unknowable in any absolute sense to human capabilities.

This means that any given individual member of a nation evil in the aggregate can himself be righteous, or vice versa. This explains how a thoroughly reprehensible nation like Midian could produce a Yithro, or how an exalted Israel could produce a Dathan or Aviram.

Yet, as our parasha makes very clear, nations are judged similarly to individuals. The Rambam (Hilchoth Ta‘anith V, 1) tells us that when a disaster befalls Israel it is incumbent on the rabbinical authorities of that time and place to examine matters and determine what caused it and what needs to be repaired. Here we can have nothing to do with éyn bëyadeinu; the Torah’s expectation seems very much bëyadeinu.

This is why, as our parasha states, on a national level the rewards for commandments are very much in this world.

Sensitive observation of Israel’s position in the world, of her relative prosperity or poverty, of the degree and nature of persecutions suffered in various sites of the diaspora, affords the rabbinical leadership of each and every generation a gauge of where the nation as a whole is holding on the moral map, and in which direction things are tending.

That is why the second paragraph of the Shëma‘, addressing the nation as a whole, quite explicitly discusses reward and punishment in the here and now.