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Torah Commentary
Eikev (August 16, 2014)

Reward or Punishment?

Bettijane Eisenpreis

“NEVER PROMISE ANYTHING, whether it is an ice cream cone or a spanking, if you are not sure you can deliver it,” my father, Clinton Long, said frequently. I learned early in life not to ask him to promise me a ride in the country or a day at the beach, even if I were a very good girl. The best I could get was a, “We’ll see.”

My mother, when questioned about the same treat, would respond with the words of Janie Jones, the lady who helped to raise her in Mobile, Alabama, until she was 8 years old and moved to Atlanta. Janie always said, “If I live and nothing happens…”

Obviously, Moses never had the benefit of meeting my parents. This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, begins a long series of promises and threats by which Moses seeks to ensure the survival of the Hebrews, once they cross over the Jordan without him and begin their new life in the Promised Land of Canaan.

Moses has been told by God that he will not be crossing over. Therefore, much of Deuteronomy is devoted to his trying to ensure that, after 40 years in the desert, his people will not ruin their chance of starting a new life in the land God has promised to them. That’s understandable. What is more difficult to figure out is why he chose the method of reward and punishment, the carrot-and-stick approach. After all, Moses was very close to God. He is said to have been the only person who spoke with God “face to face.” But he wasn’t God! He didn’t know what was in God’s mind. And by choosing the path he did, he plunged the human race into a centuries-long dilemma.

Let’s take a simple example: Moses tells the people that if they obey God’s laws, then God “will grant rain for your land in season, the early rain and late.” For an agricultural people living in a semi-desert region, nothing is more important than getting rain — the right amount and at the right time. The soil needs to be sufficiently moist to nourish the growing plants, but a deluge at planting time could wash all the seeds out of the ground. Similarly, the late rains are needed to bring the crops to full maturity. But a flood at harvest time could be a disaster.

But can Moses really guarantee that God will reward good behavior in such a straightforward way? Yes, there were preachers who said that Hurricane Katrina was the result of the immoral behavior of the people of New Orleans. Worse still, in an interview with Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell said that the ACLU, abortionists, feminists, gays and the People for the American Way should share the blame for 9/11 with the terrorists. Falwell spent a lot of time trying to extract his foot from his mouth, but the damage was done. But very few sane people would agree with that point of view. In the words of the book by Rabbi Harold Kushner, Bad Things Happen to Good People, and we don’t know why.

As we continue to read Deuteronomy, we see that Moses really lays it on thick. If the people are good, then they are guaranteed that things will go very well in a “land flowing with milk and honey.” But if they don’t behave — BAM! Some of the consequences described in Eikev are mild compared to what comes later in this book. In some of the later parashiyot, the suffering the people will endure because of their bad behavior is so terrible that reading these passages aloud became a problem. Because Orthodox Jews don’t skip one word of Torah, some congregations used to pay (and probably still do) one synagogue employee to read all the bad parts at Shabbat services — which he did very softly and very quickly, just to get through them. One explanation for this catalogue of horrors is that much of Deuteronomy probably was written after the Israelites had suffered invasion and exile. Many terrible things had happened, and the writers speculated that their forefathers must have sinned to be punished so severely.

The question of reward and punishment is one that has perplexed good people throughout history. The Bible wrestles with this existential dilemma throughout its pages. The prophets —both major and minor — are obsessed with it. It is the sole subject of the Book of Job. Of course, the problem will never be solved. But the prophet Micah does seem to have come up with one answer we can live with:

“It has been told thee, Oh man, what is good
And what the Lord doth require of thee,
Only to do justly, to love mercy,
And to walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8)

There’s no, “If you do this, then you will be rewarded” here. Micah just says, “Do it. It’s the right thing.”

I want to give the last word to my father because I started with him. Clinton paid income tax on cash dividends he received that were not at that time reported to the IRS. When asked why, he replied, “Because I like to sleep at night.” To which I say, “Amen and thank you, Pop.”

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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