Reward and Punishment


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A Plethora of Blessings and Curses

Torah is replete with promises of both rewards for obedience and punishment for transgression. Though these are perhaps most evident in Vayikra 26 and Devarim 28 which each contain a full list of blessings and curses, many other individual verses1 similarly promise recompense, including health/disease, rain/drought, peace/war and more. In the vast majority of cases, retribution is promised in the context of general observance,2 but in other instances, specific mitzvot are singled out as meriting reward or punishment.3

"?היכן טובתו של זה"

Despite the plethora of promises, however, experience suggests that not all who observe Hashem's commands reap the benefits described.  The problem is raised in Yerushalmi Chagiga 2:1Chagigah 2:1About the Yerushalmi4 through the mouth of Elisha b. Avuyah.  He witnesses an individual fulfilling the directive to send away the mother bird, a commandment whose stated reward is longevity, and yet finds that the man dies upon descent:

 פעם אחת היה יושב ושונה בבקעת גינוסר וראה אדם אחד עלה לראש הדקל ונטל אם על הבנים וירד משם בשלום למחר ראה אדם אחר שעלה לראש הדקל ונטל את הבנים ושילח את האם וירד משם והכישו נחש ומת אמר כתיב {דברים כב} שלח תשלח את האם ואת הבנים תקח לך למען ייטב לך והארכת ימים איכן היא טובתו של זה איכן היא אריכות ימיו של זה?

Elisha b. Avuyah asks, "Where is the good promised to this one?  Where is his longevity?"  We, too, wonder, why does it seem that Hashem promises but does not fulfill? The Gemara responds that the verses refer to rewards in the World to Come, but is that the simple sense of the text?5 If the Torah's blessings all refer to the spiritual world, why are the vast majority physical in nature?  If, though, they refer to rewards in this world, why are these not always evident?  Have Hashem's modes of providence changed over time, and what was true in the time of Tanakh,6 is no longer true today?7

Collective or Individual?

The Torah's discussion of retribution leaves another important question open to debate: at whom are Torah's blessings targeted – the individual or the collective? Several factors might influence one's position:

  • While many verses are formulated in the singular,8 others are addressed in the plural.9 Is this difference significant, suggesting that some blessings are for the individual and others for the nation as a whole?  Or, is the formulation irrelevant as one can address both a collective and an individual in either the singular or the plural?10
  • A few passages, such as Vayikra 20:1-5 or Devarim 29:17-20, explicitly target the individual ("בָּאִישׁ הַהוּא") for retribution. Others speak of individual observance of specific mitzvot,11 also implying that the stated reward is personal.  Should these cases be viewed as exceptional or as proof that individual retribution is the norm?
  • Many verses speak of recompense such as rain, famine, or war, which would seem to naturally affect the collective.  Are the verses suggesting that these phenomena will behave as they normally do, and thus, by definition, it is the nation rather than the individual who will suffer or be blessed? Or, might rewards and punishments be miraculous, so that a righteous individual might benefit from peace and rain, while his wicked neighbors do not? 

Related Philosophical Issues

  • Divine providence – To what extent is the world run by natural order, and to what extent via Divine providence? Is there individual providence, only general providence, or neither in this world?  How often will Hashem actively intervene and perform miracles to either reward or punish?
  • The World to Come – What is the nature and purpose of the next world? Is it just for the soul, or for the body as well? How does the retribution received in one world relate to that received in the other? Do individuals get their just desserts in both worlds, some in each, or just the future? Is there a difference between national and individual recompense?
  • Hopes of reward – In Avot 1:3Avot 1:3About the Mishna, Antigonus makes the well known statement, "אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס", asserting that one should not serve Hashem out of hopes of reward.12  How, though, does this jive with the dozens of verses which promise exactly that? If the ideal is that one observe commandments regardless of compensation, why does Hashem devote so much press space to delineating blessings and curses? Might they have another purpose, not related to retribution?
  • Physical or spiritual – Almost all the rewards and blessings of the Torah are physical in nature.13  Why does Hashem not also promise spiritual rewards? Are they not considered to be of a higher level?  And if the World to Come is indeed considered the ultimate reward, why is it never explicitly mentioned in Torah?

In Sum

The Torah's account of retribution, thus, leaves us wondering on many fronts. Are these blessings and curses for the individual or the collective? Do they refer to this world or the next? Are they miraculous or natural? Might they be limited to a specific time and place or are they relevant always and everywhere? If the latter, why are they not always manifest? The approaches page will explore how commentators throughout the ages have answered these questions.