5771 – Ekev — “Reward and Punishment”

03/09/2011 at 21:35 1 comment

“Reward and Punishment”


Parashat Ekev

Neil F. Blumofe

20 August 2011


What is the Shema?

-declaration of faith – prayed twice daily

three sections

–       v’ahavta – accepting malchut shamayim

–       vehayah – accepting mitzvot

–       vayomer – mitzvah regarding tzitzit


Why do we have this order of the Shema?  First paragraph is singular, second is plural – first we must say hineni – to be part of a living relationship with God – to do so necessarily involves being in community – Second paragraph ecologically, spiritually – we truly are responsible for and affect each other.  Third paragraph, answers the question – okay, where do I start – why start with tzitzit?


The words of the middle section are derived from this week’s Torah portion and in many ways are difficult for a modern theological ear to hear.  There are two concepts contained within this section —  (i) kabbalat ol hamitzvot, and (ii) the concept of reward and punishment.


This structure of reward and punishment brings us to an enduring dilemma – why bad things happen to good people, or in Hebrew – tzaddik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo — this opens up the issues of theodicy or the study of trying to explain the continued existence of evil in the world and God’s apparent inability or unwillingness to eradicate it.


It’s appropriate that we consider these themes – especially before the Yamim Noraim.  The reward for observing the mitzvot is agricultural productivity and securing the land of Israel – not performing the mitzvot will bring about agricultural disaster and exile.  This communal responsibility is different than in other places of the Tanach, like Ezekiel 18, which emphasizes personal responsibility and individual punishment and reward.  In this conflict between Deuteronomy and Ezekiel, the rabbis determined that God acts in this world, yet the idea of reward and punishment is fully enacted in the world to come.


We are asked to consider if we truly have free will in this world and how it manifests, in any given moment.  We are asked to consider the nature of God – is God a part of this world (immanent) or existing separate and apart from us – we would say in a different dimension or different conception of time – or a transcendent God.


Maimonides – reasoned that we have choice in this world.  Another medieval philosopher, Joseph Albo, has written that the one who truly loves God is indifferent to considerations of rewards other than the greatest rewards of all, the privilege of serving the Creator.  The mystics maintained that the appearance is that God control us, however if you look closely, you will see that in fact, it is we who control God.


Perhaps our conclusion is that we cannot fathom God’s justice – and the terms that we use for good and evil are limited and do not speak to the depth of what is really at stake and how life really is, well beyond our own individual or even communal perception.  This section makes the demand on us that we accept that God is ultimately just.


Shabbat Shalom.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

5771 — Va’etchanan — “It is About Us” 5771 – Re’eh — “There is No Overtime”

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