This week’s Torah portion, Ekev, offers us a classic formulation of reward and punishment contained in the second paragraph of the Shema:
If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil—I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you…. (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)
This formulation is troubling because it conflicts with how the world works. It offers us a stark, and perhaps even harsh, correlation between the observance of mitzvot with rewards. Simply put, if you observe mitzvot, you get rewards. All of us can think of people who were good yet were not granted long life.
But our Torah, our prayers, state that the more you observe the better your lot. We, however, see far too many examples where this is simply not the case. The Reform movement therefore eliminated this paragraph from our prayers, and the prayerbooks we currently use, arguing that its words run so counter to reality that they cannot be our prayer. How can we say something which is so manifestly untrue?
Yet there might be other ways of understanding this paragraph. First of all the formulation is directed in the plural, to the entire people. It is not a promise to individuals, but instead to the entire group. We rise and fall together, as a people. This paragraph is talking about our collective fate and lot, not our personal. Second the promise is not about a person’s long life, but instead about our land’s fate, in particular the land of Israel’s long life. We will be able to eat our fill because the land will be blessed by our actions. Our observance is connected to the land’s bounty. This is an important reminder during this summer of Deepwater Horizon. If we do right, and only if we do right, will the land provide. Especially in the harsh climate of the Middle East, reward is not measured in years, but in rainfall.
Finally the brilliance of the ancient rabbis was to place the theology of Deuteronomy in our prayerbooks. This act muted the paragraph’s starkness, and perhaps even transformed its theology. By placing these words in the siddur, the rabbis changed a theological statement into a prayer. And what a wonderful prayer it is! I really, really wish the world worked this way. I pray: the more good you do, the more good you get. That is my most heartfelt prayer.
Ultimately, the question of reward and punishment misses the larger goal. Moses Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher, wrote: “It is not enough to serve God in anticipation of future reward. One must do right and avoid wrong because as a human being one is obliged to seek perfection.” This is our goal and our holy task. The reward should be secondary.