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reward and punishment

The promise of reward for observing the Torah seems to contradict an explicit teaching of the Talmud. So how do we reconcile these two teachings?

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

In the Torah portion of “Eikev” (Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25), we come across a number of passages on reward and punishment. For example, “And if you obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will faithfully continue the covenant that He made with your forefathers” (Deut 7:12).

A number of additional similar passages promise reward for those who observe the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah, some of which include bountiful produce, health, and safety. Sound’s great!

However, the promise of reward for observing the Torah seems to contradict an explicit teaching of the Talmud, which itself is based on a different passage in the Torah, that reward for observing the Torah is reserved for the World to Come. According to this approach, there is no guarantee or promise of reward in this world.

So how do we reconcile these two teachings?

One answer given by the commentators is that the passage promising reward in the Next World refers to reward for performing mitzvot that one understands, enjoys doing, and benefits from. It is explained that the enjoyment one receives from actually performing the mitzvah is reward enough in this world.

For example, it is a great mitzvah to have a lavish Shabbat dinner. That’s certainly a mitzvah that one enjoys doing! Delicious foods, mult- course meal, the best desserts, and so on. That delightful meal is your reward in this world. But there’s more reward for you in the World to Come.

However, when observing mitzvot that don’t make sense or are not otherwise enjoyable or beneficial, one gets reward in this world and in the World to Come. For example, the ban on mixing milk and meat, the ban on wearing clothing that contains both wool and linen, and the mitzvah to “send away the mother bird” all don’t make sense to us and don’t provide any real benefit or enjoyment. As such, God offers reward in this world for having performed such mitzvot…with more reward to in the World to Come.

Another interpretation offered is even simpler: One who serves God and observes the Toah “l’shem shamayim,” meaning sincerely and for altruistic motives without expectation of reward, will see reward. On the other hand, one who serves God “on condition” of reward will only see reward in the World to Come. This is reminiscent of the Mishna (rabbinic literature) which teaches: “Antigonos from Socho said: ‘Do not be as slaves who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward.'”

This latter explanation is extremely powerful, meaningful, and relevant. When you don’t have any expectations, you will never feel let down and you will never be disappointed. When you don’t expect anything, then every little favor, every little gift, even every little greeting is special – a bonus.

And so it is in our service of God. No, not every mitzvah is enjoyable or interesting. Yes, some are burdensome, and some are challenging. But we should want to serve God simply for having given us life, let alone having given us the Torah and making us a part of the Chosen people. We should want to keep the mitzvot because, ultimately, it is the best recipe on earth for a meaningful life.

The person who serves God in this manner, without expectation of reward, will see reward because, as mentioned, when there are no expectations, every little positive thing is a gift –  it’s a blessing. But the one who always keeps his eyes open for reward and gifts will never see it. Such people will be blinded by their own expectations. They will never be satisfied with the good that comes their way.

God wants to shower us with gifts and blessings for the observance of mitzvot. It’s there…we just have to not want to see it!

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.

https://unitedwithisrael.org/living-torah-to-bring-blessings-into-your-life-recite-blessings/

https://unitedwithisrael.org/living-torah-how-the-land-of-israel-stirs-the-body-and-soul/

https://unitedwithisrael.org/living-torah-dont-just-count-your-blessings-say-them/

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