The Complicated Matter of Reward and Punishment

Rabbi Jason Bonder

By Rabbi Jason Bonder

Parshat B’Chukotai

The message of this week’s Torah portion, B’chukotai, is straightforward. If you listen to God’s laws, you will be rewarded. If you don’t keep God’s laws, you will be punished.

I’ve found, as I suspect you have, that the conditional statements in this Torah portion do not match up with the realities of life. As Rabbi Harold Kushner famously put it, “Bad things happen to good people.” The reverse is also true. Good things happen to bad people.
Given this incongruity, can we still find meaning in this week’s Torah portion? I hope so for the sake of our collective future.

One crucial step toward making meaning out of this Torah portion is to take note of whom God is addressing in this portion. In the paragraph above, I was talking to “you.” But in writing this article I am, of course, hoping to address more than one individual. The same is true for this week’s portion. The beginning of the portion is translated, “If you walk in my laws and keep my commandments …” But the verbs “walk” and “keep” in the Hebrew are in the plural. God is not addressing individuals in this portion. Rather, God is addressing the people of Israel collectively.

I used to read these promises of divine reward and punishment on the level of the individual, and that seriously hindered my ability to find meaning in them. Yet I don’t attribute my mistaken reading to a translation error. I read it this way in the past because I am the product of our time, our place and the culture in which we live. We live in a highly individualistic society. We tend to see the world in terms of “me” instead of “we.” This is a serious problem.

Whenever I read this portion, I always think back to the times of my chaplaincy internship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. All too often, as I went room to room visiting patients in the hospital, I heard the following question from patients. “What could I have possibly done to deserve this?”

It broke my heart to see people unnecessarily harboring guilt in their hearts, especially while they were already suffering so much. Seeing this week’s portion through the “me” lens is part of the reason why so many of us think that suffering comes as punishment for breaking God’s laws and commandments. Understanding that these punishments and rewards in B’Chukotai are not meant for individuals can help us to break free from this guilt when suffering arises in our lives.

This shift from the individual to the communal view can be helpful, but it does not solve all of the problems in this portion. I can’t accept the theology that people are collectively punished for their sins either.

The people of Ukraine are just the latest example in an endless list of nations that have unnecessarily suffered. God is not punishing Ukraine. They are suffering because Putin chose to inflict harm. Similarly, countries that experience drought or famine are not being punished for breaking divine rules. They are suffering from terrible weather patterns or failures of our global community to get supplies to that region.

I do not believe in a God that chooses to punish some individuals and reward others. Nor does the God I believe in punish some nations and lift up others. Nevertheless, the shift from the individual to the collective is a move that we need now more than ever.
Too often in our society, when we encounter arguments with which we disagree, we dismiss it entirely. We choose the convenience of a “me” worldview over the difficulty of understanding views unlike our own.

For many years, this is exactly what I did while reading this Torah portion. I rejected the theology of B’Chukotai on behalf of all those who unnecessarily suffer. But that is the kind of behavior that has gotten us to where we are in our “me-centered” society right now.

Only three portions ago, back in Kedoshim, we read the famous words from Leviticus 19:17-18, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.” B’chukotai reinforces this commandment by reminding us that our future not only depends on the actions of individuals. We share our future with everyone. We share it even with the people who think differently than we do.

In this moment in American history, this Torah portion presents an opportunity for us to sharpen the skills which can move our society from “me” to “we.” Can we read the ancient worldview of B’Chukotai, disagree with it and still find meaning within it? I hope we can. The future of our society depends on it.

This week I will let those plural verbs remind me that I am a part of many communities and that all of us who make up this society are in desperate need of a willingness to find meaning in points of view not shared.

Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here