Parasha Be-Har Be-Chukotai

Rewards and Punishment

The story is told of one Rabbi Samuel, who, on a visit to Rome, found a bracelet. The next day the Empress announced that she had lost a precious bracelet. If the person who found the bracelet returned it within thirty days, he would be richly rewarded. If, however, it was found in the possession of someone after thirty days, that person would lose their head.
Rabbi Samuel waited until the thirty first day to return the bracelet. He admitted to the empress that he knew of her decree. “Why then,” asked the empress, “did you wait to return the bracelet?”  “You must know that ethical behavior is inspired neither by the hope of reward or the fear of punishment,” answered the rabbi. “It stems solely from the love of G-d and the desire to follow the commandments.” Rabbi Samuel expresses an optimistic view of human nature.  He believes that people act ethically out of a love for G-d, rather than out of a desire for reward or a fear of punishment. This is a far more optimistic view than is expressed in this week’s parasha.  For this week’s Torah reading does promise rewards in this life for following G-d’s ways, and punishments if ones behavior does not comport to G-d’s mitzvoth.  In fact, there seem to be many more punishments in this parasha than there are blessings. The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra explains that it only appears that way. The truth is, he maintains, that the blessings are broad in nature and the curses are very specific in nature.  This is done to scare and intimidate people into following the laws. People seem to be more motivated to change their behavior in response to fear than in response to love. Perhaps this explains the power and prevalence of negative advertising in politics. In one study published in 2005, researchers found that campaign ads that make people feel fear — with ominous music and grainy images of drugs and violence — caused people to seek more information and remember more facts from a newscast aired afterward.  Ads that sparked feelings of enthusiasm in viewers — with upbeat music and images of flags and smiling children — reduced viewers’ interest in learning more about candidates’ positions.[1] Perhaps this is the very strategy that the Torah takes up in G-d’s campaign to get the Jewish people to follow the mitzvoth.  Present verses upon verses of ominous predictions about the consequences of not following G-d’s ways and people will remember more and seek more information about G-d.  Present a rosier picture of the future if one does observe the commandments, and most people aren’t that interested.  This – some 3000 years before the advent of political advertising! Consider the news.  Bad news gets attention.  Bad news sells newspapers. Gossip and break-ups about celebrities is much more interesting than publicity about the good things celebrities do, or the lasting marriages in Hollywood. Notoriety can drive popularity and enhance careers – Lindsey Lohan, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen.  We, as a society, can’t seem to get enough of them! The heartwarming stories are left for the end of the newscasts, when fewer people are likely to watch. So it makes sense that the dire consequences of not following G-d’s commandments would get more press in the Torah than the rewards that one accumulates by following them.  They make us sit up and take notice!  Yet, it gives a misleading impression as to the purpose of the mitzvoth.  As the story of Rabbi Samuel reminds us, the purpose of the commandments is not so that we can avoid punishment by performing them. It is not so that we can to accrue rewards by doing them.  The commandments were not given to the Jewish people so that we could earn G-d’s love by following them. G-d already loves us. It says so in our prayer, Ahavat Olam that we sing each Friday night.  With an everlasting love, You love Israel, and it was out of that love that You gave the Jewish people the commandments, the mitzvoth.  The purpose of G-d giving us the commandments is so that we have a way to maintain our relationship with G-d.  It is not so we can earn G-d’s love. We already HAVE THAT! It is to show G-d OUR love. Every time we pray, every time we eat kosher food, every time we give tsedaka, every time we light Sabbath candles — we are affirming and renewing our relationship to G-d – showing G-d our love. Every young person who has a bar or bat mitzvah is also performing a holy act in which they are showing G-d their love. I once heard a young man say in his bar mitzvah speech, “Having a bar mitzvah is telling G-d that I am here.” That young man is probably about thirty years old now, but I liked that line so much I remembered it all these years.  I would amend that statement, however. I would tell that young man today that G-d knows that he is here. He doesn’t need to have a bar mitzvah to remind G-d of that. Rather, having a bar mitzvah is telling G-d that G-d is here – “here” being in the young man’s heart.  We live in a society where we expect rewards for our performance. We do well in school and score high in our college entrance exams, and we expect admission to a top university. We do well at work, we expect a promotion, more money, a corner office.  When we don’t get what we think we deserve, we feel cheated.  Judaism presents a different system. It asks us to work hard, to act ethically, to do the right thing, without the expectation of reward.  Judaism asks us to do good, simply because it is the will of our Creator that we do good.  There is a reward, but it is relational, not material. The reward lies in a closer relationship to the Divine that comes from doing the mitzvoth. Shabbat Shalom