The other day, my friend's children were fighting with each other when her elder son hit her younger son. My friend said, "Apologize to your brother or else you are not going to the movies tonight." This scenario sounds all too familiar. As a mother, I, too, can recall saying to my children, "Listen to me, or else … " on more than one occasion.
Like a parent, God sometimes motivates B'nai Yisrael to follow the mitzvot with rewards and punishments. Parashat Ekev includes the second paragraph of the Shema, beginning with the words, V'haya im sha-moa ("And it shall come to pass, if you shall diligently listen to my commandments, then … ").
What follows in Deuteronomy 11 is a list of "carrots" that God promises to bestow upon the Israelites if they observe the mitzvot and a list of "sticks" to strike them with if they "turn astray" from God.
Actions and Consequences
In the Talmud, we encounter a rabbinic worldview that similarly portrays God's workings in the world. The theology of middah k'negged middah ("measure for measure") asserts that there is a symmetry between actions and consequences.
For example, King David's son, Avshalom, sinned with his hair by being vain; thus, he was punished with his hair by being killed when his long locks got entangled in the branches of a tree. Similarly, the rabbis explain that Miriam was rewarded for waiting among the bullrushes to look after her baby brother, Moses; in turn, the Israelites waited for Miriam while she recuperated from leprosy.
So, how is it possible to accept the concept of "measure for measure" and Deuteronomic theology in the world in which we live - the world of the Holocaust and terrorist attacks? How are we, as Jews, to understand the suffering of innocents?
Perhaps we're not to view the theology of rewards and punishments as a description of the way things are, but rather an ideal picture of the way things should be.
Still, I remember learning in a parenting class, "Never threaten your children with a punishment or a reward that you do not intend to implement." If we consider God's relationship to B'nai Yisrael to be similar to that of a parent, it seems that God does not always follow through on all promised rewards and punishments.
If people who observe mitzvot do not appear to receive their just rewards and if people who fail to observe mitzvot are not struck by lightning (or otherwise punished), then why follow mitzvot at all? Why lead a religious life?
Just as children are motivated by reasons other than a fear of punishment and a desire for rewards, so may we be motivated to observe the mitzvot for other reasons.
Mudane to the Holy
For example, we owe it to God to observe the commandments because of our covenantal commitment. Some religious obligations elevate our behavior from the mundane to the holy, some express moral values, and some are inherently logical for other reasons. Some commandments enable us to preserve or express our Jewish identity; some help us to maintain or repair the world.
While some people observe religious obligations because they hope to get rewarded or to avoid punishment in this world or the world to come, this rationale cannot be the sole justification for 21st-century Jews. Regardless of your religious background, consider observing more mitzvot in this year for any or all of the reasons listed above.
Substitute the motivation of "Listen or else …" with "Listen because … ."
Rabbi Lisa S. Malik is religious leader of Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown.