Two problems face us as we read these verses, one textual and the other existential. The textual issue is based on the lack of parallelism: “the blessing, when (asher) you internalize, the curse if (im) you do not internalize.” We would expect to find parallel consistency, either “when…when” or “if you do…if you do not” in both instances!
The existential issue hits us hard, especially in Israel during these fateful but difficult times. Our cemeteries are filled with children who have been buried by their parents, either soldiers in the line of battle or innocent victims at home, at school, at a bus stop, who were targeted by inhuman suicide bombers. Many if not most of these were our best, our brightest, and our most deserving of reward in accordance with the opening verses of our Torah portion. How then can we possibly explain the many instances of suffering and pain on the part of so many virtuous souls who certainly internalized the commandments of God?
I believe that the precise biblical language reveals a profound truth about Torah commandments and human affairs. After all, the Torah iterates and reiterates that the Almighty gave us His laws “for your good”; proper ethical conduct ensures a well-ordered social structure devoid of aggression and violence. The Sabbaths, festivals, and laws of ritual purity provide for a stable and inter-generational familial nucleus, united by meaningful occasions of joy, study, and song. Hence an immediate blessing always comes together with, and precisely when, we perform the commandment: “the reward for a commandment is the very fulfillment of the commandment” – built-in!
In the instance of transgressions, there is also a built-in punishment; evil bears bitter fruit, the sinner is eventually discovered, unfaithfulness and deception destroy relationships and undermine families. However, unlike the blessing, the “built-in” curse is often not experienced until later on, sometimes not until the last years of the life of the transgressor. Hence the adverb used by the Torah is not when – which connotes immediacy – but is rather “if you do not internalize the commandments,” then the curse will come, but not necessarily right away.
Although this is the ultimate truth regarding the immediate reward of the mitzva and the eventual punishment of the transgression, the accompanying emotion when doing the one or the other may be quite different, even opposite.
The great hasidic sage known as the Shpolle Zeide explained that the most fundamental lesson of all is the ability to distinguish between good deed and transgression, to overcome the evil impulse by embracing the former and distancing oneself from the latter. He tells how, as a child, he would go to a shvitz (steam bath, the European version – much larger and more vigorous – than our contemporary sauna) with his father, who would pour out a small bucket of freezing water upon him just as he would begin to perspire profusely. “Ooh!” he would inadvertently scream as the cold water contacted his burning-hot flesh; but – after cooling down a bit – he would exclaim happily, “Aah!” (I myself had the exact same experience as a child attending the Tenth Street Baths on the Lower East Side every Thursday evening with my father and grandfather; may their souls rest in peace.) “Remember my child the lesson of the ‘ooh’ and ‘aah,’” the Shpolle would hear from his father. Before (and often even during) the commission of a transgression, you have physical enjoyment – “aah.” But afterwards, when you ponder your sin and suffer its consequences – “ooh!” In the case of a mitzva, however, you might cry “ooh” when you have to get up early for prayers or for a lesson of daf yomi, but after the fact and in reflection of your religious accomplishment, you will always exclaim “aah” afterwards. Make sure you conclude your life with an “aah” and not with an “ooh!”
The underlying assumption of this interpretation is that aside from the natural cause and effect of our actions, the Almighty does not extrinsically reward the righteous or punish the sinner in this world; one does not have the right to expect that if one is an honest businessman, one will be guaranteed great profits, or that if one observes the Sabbath, one will live a long and healthy life. This world, according to many of our Talmudic Sages, is a world of freedom of choice for every individual. If the righteous would consistently be rewarded with long life, good health, and a large bank account, and the sinners would die at an early age in poverty, choosing to follow the commandments would be a no-brainer. Free choice precludes extrinsic rewards; free choice also means that an individual can even choose to do something which the Almighty does not desire. This world is largely a result of human action and natural happenstance: “There is no [extrinsic] reward for the commandments in this world” (Kiddushin 39b).
Indeed, the only guarantee that the Almighty makes is the eternity of the Jewish people: Israel will never be destroyed. We are assured of our return to our ancestral homeland no matter how long or arduous the exile, and the eventual perfection of human society. As far as everything else is concerned, “not on individual merit does the length of one’s life, the number and quality of one’s children, and the extent of one’s sustenance depend, but rather on luck (mazal) do these things depend” (Moed Katan 28a).
We also believe in the reality of the human soul, the “portion of God from on high,” which resides within every one of us created in the divine image. Just as God is indestructible, so is the soul indestructible. The physical dimension of our beings may pass away at the end of our lifetimes, but the soul – our spiritual essence which emanates from the Divine – lives eternally. To the extent that we develop our spiritual selves in our lifetimes – in deed and in thought – we prepare for ourselves a continued eternal life in the dimension of the divine.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Chancellor Ohr Torah Stone
Chief Rabbi – Efrat Israel