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Parashat BeHa’alot’cha 5774 — 06/04/2014

Parashat BeHa’alot’cha 5774 — 06/04/2014

And the man Moshe was very humble, more so than any other person on the face of the earth. (12:3)

In Pirkei Avos, our Sages warn us about the trait of haughtiness: Be very, very humble in spirit (4:4). …

   [The key to understanding the Sages’ guidance] is the well-known fact that here in this world, one does not receive reward for the mitzvos one performs. The reason for this is that all the bounty of the physical world would not be reward enough for even one single mitzvah. …

   Let us elaborate. When a person fulfills a mitzvah, there is no suitable “currency” here in this world with which to pay his reward. Since a mitzvah is spiritual, it is impossible to pay a reward for it with material things. A spiritual accomplishment requires a spiritual reward, and no amount of material reward will do.

   However, if a person receives honor here in this lowly world for having performed a mitzvah – although honor in this world is only a facsimile of true honor – it is already a similar type of currency to that used for rewarding mitzvos. The reason is because honor is essentially spiritual in nature. What is more, although honor – even the greatest honor – has no real market value, people are willing to pay out fortunes in order to attain the “imagined” honor of this world. From this we see the tremendous value of the spiritual satisfaction that a person receives when he is honored by the many. When everyone applauds him and praises him for his good deed or his great wealth, or even for his exceptional wisdom, this is fitting currency for payment of reward for his mitzvos. Although it is a somewhat material form of spiritual reward, it takes the place of the sublime and purely spiritual reward [that he would have received in the World to Come].

   This is why the Tanna warns us in such strong language to beware of haughtiness. True, a mitzvah is a spiritual thing, so it is impossible to pay even a small portion of its reward in the “currency” of this material world. But if somebody is paid in this world with a spiritual currency, such as honor and esteem, it can significantly subtract from his rights to collect true and lasting reward for his mitzvos. (Chafetz Chaim)

Growing up in a Reform Jewish synagogue, I never really got the idea of Divine reward and punishment.  By contrast, a contemporary Orthodox Rabbi, who grew up in pre-WW II Eastern Europe relates a conversation he had with a friend as a child.  The friend apparently had something our future Rabbi wanted, and offered to trade it for half his World to Come.  The reply was instantaneous – “Are you crazy?!”  In other words, the World to Come, the place where the soul is rewarded for its performance of Gd’s Will, was perfectly real to this child.  Even after a number of years reading and thinking about it, I don’t think I’ve gotten much past intellectual assent to the notion.

When we approach the concept of Divine reward and punishment there are a couple of principles that we need to bear in mind.  First, Gd is infinite, unbounded and Self-sufficient.  He doesn’t need our mitzvah performances for His benefit, nor is He diminished in any way by our transgressions.  He certainly has no need for revenge and retribution, and in fact our Sages tell us that He would much rather shower us with goodness than the opposite.  If He doesn’t at any point, it is because we have not prepared ourselves spiritually to be able to handle that goodness, and Gd, for our own benefit, withholds it until we have enlarged our own container and can hold what He wants to give us.

Second, we work on the assumption that Gd is just, as Avraham exclaims: Shall not the Judge of all the world do justice?! (Gen 18:25).  That means that Gd does not let misdeeds go unpunished, nor does He fail to reward positive actions.  Our Sages tell us: Never despair of retribution (Pirke Avot 1:7).  Yet we see that, apparently, there are many cases where evildoers go unpunished (Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il both died in their beds) and righteous people suffer.  Where is the justice in that?

I’d like to go beyond one of the obvious answers to that question, namely that since our limited intellects cannot see the whole perspective of cosmic life and evolution, we cannot evaluate accurately what is “just” and what is not.  As it says later in Pirke Avot (4:19): It is not in our power to explain the tranquillity of the evil nor the suffering of the righteous.  If it doesn’t compute, the fault is in the computer, at least in this case.

Another approach is indicated by the Chafetz Chaim in the passage I have quoted above.  He makes a distinction between the world of materialism and the spiritual world.  While it is true that Judaism does not recognize a hard dichotomy (and indeed, a kind of mutual hostility) between the material and spiritual, it is clear that these two worlds are, to a large extent, incommensurable.  The soul really gets no pleasure from physical sensation, nor does the body get much pleasure from listening to inspiring music or curling up with a good book.  (If you don’t believe that, try dragging a 12-year-old to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

I think that when we expand our consideration of reward and punishment from an exclusive focus on the material world to include the world of the soul as well, we have a lot more flexibility in attempting to answer the question of the nature of Divine justice.  First, since the soul is eternal, it exists long after the body it has inhabited is gone, and can accept responsibility for its actions, for good or ill, either while inhabiting another body (yes, Judaism accepts the notion of reincarnation), or as a soul.  For example, I read a story about a family that was having repeated auto accidents, with injuries.  They consulted a Rabbi, who opined that the injuries made it appear like they were being stoned.  He suggested that they focus on improving the quality of their Shabbat observance (the punishment Torah mandates for Sabbath desecration is stoning); they did and the accidents stopped.  In this case, of course, everything took place within the space of a few months, and the “punishment” had the desired corrective effect.  Sometimes, it seems, there is a delay between the action and the consequnces, and the time span may be more than our canonical 120 years.

But more profoundly, when we perform Gd’s mitzvot, our action may be on the physical plane (we sit in a sukkah, we say prayers, etc.), but the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah is on a spiritual plane, on the level of the intention behind the physical performance.  We may be sitting and eating in a temporary hut we have built, but our mind is contemplating the Clouds of Glory that sheltered our ancestors when the travelled across the desert, and our hearts are feeling connected with all our fellow Jews who are also sitting in their sukkot, and our soul is connecting to Gd.  We presumably are creating some good effect in the physical world, but much more resoundingly, we are creating a good effect in the subtler, spritiual levels of existence, and for that, only a subtle, spiritual reward will do.  That’s why our Sages tell us that “there is no reward for mitzvot in this world.”

What might a spiritual reward look like?  The Chafetz Chaim gives “honor” as an example, along with a warning not to waste our rewards on fleeting, low-grade, this-worldly honor.  Satisfaction and contentment might be other rewards: a soul that is content to bask in Gd’s radiance on the spiritual level, earned through spiritual work on the material level.  (There may actually be a physical correlate to such spiritual rewards, if they are given when we still inhabit our body.  Studies have shown that when one gives charity, the level of endorphins in the brain increases, giving rise to feelings of satisfaction and contentment.  If you are reading this on the Beth Shalom web site, you can experience this yourself by clicking on Tzedakah on the site menu!)

For those whose actions are not so benign one can well imagine the kind of spiritual punishments one might experience, again, from what we experience when we slip up in this world – anxiety, shame, fear – all emotional states, and all of which may well be felt with greatly heightened intensity once there is no physical body to attenuate spiritual experiences.  And whenever we see someone getting away with murder in this world, it’s good to bear in mind that the Judge of all the World, does in fact do justly, and that spiritual and emotional rewards and punishments, coming as they do from a much subtler level, are much more powerful and intense than any physical sensations.

As we have discussed in the past, the world of the spirit is subtler and more powerful than the physical world, and it is also primary.  What I think the Chafetz Chaim is telling us with this consideration of reward and punishment, is that we need to get our priorities straight.  If the primary focus of human life is to draw close to Gd, then that is what we need to make our #1 goal and priority.  Whatever brings us closer to that goal, we go for it.  And that includes supporting ourselves and our families by being valuable, contributing members of our society, no less than it means prayer and meditation and any other overtly spiritual practices.  But it all needs to be done l’shem shamayimfor the sake of heaven.  Not to benefit Gd – to benefit ourselves by coming close to Gd.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 7: Is Ephraim a Dear Son to Me?  (13 October 1997)

This essay was very difficult to read and to reread; it is very unlike R. Steinsaltz to speak despairingly of any situation that affects the Jewish people, for we have, after all, Gd’s promise that He will not let us perish and will never reject us.  However, the topic of this essay is the disunity within the Jewish people, which is a much more serious danger than any outside aggression.  It has always been our wont to argue with one another – “two Jews, three opinions” – but at its best the argument was for the sake of truth, and, even at its worst, the sides never cast the other side completely outside the Pale.  (I was tempted to say “or outside the Palin,” but the subject is much too serious for that.)

It should be clear that the kind of demonization of our adversaries against which R. Steinsaltz rails will eventually cause the destruction of society.  A society is based on mutual trust that all its members have a stake in the common good.  When people feel marginalized, disenfranchised and ignored, it is hard for them to muster much enthusiasm for the kind of sacrifices that it takes to live in a coherent society.  To paraphrase a wise man, if everyone is trying to take, nobody gets anything.  If everyone wants to give, then everyone comes away richer and more satisfied.

Since this talk was given, it has become clear that Israel does have the capability of coming together, as we saw in the second Lebanon war, although it is too bad that it takes a crisis of those proportions to overcome some people’s alienation.  A quick tour of the internet, or of talk radio in the US will make it very clear that we are facing the same problems in this country, and it affecting every one of us in too many ways to count.  We have the advantage of being a very large country, and fluctuations that might be devastating to a smaller economy, we have been able to weather, so far.  But if we can’t learn to talk with one another, instead of at one another, even so large and powerful a country as ours will eventually crumble, as did Israel in the days of the Bible.