Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Reward and Punishment

While the existence of Divine reward and punishment is one of the primary tenets of Jewish faith, the question always arises: Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked appear to flourish? It is a question that theologians and philosophers have devoted many lifetimes seeking to answer.

The challenge for most people is the expectation of cause and effect within a noticeable period of time. A lawyer who takes a week-long job, is paid at the end of the week. A thief who is caught breaking the law, is arrested. (Legal statutes of limitations are an excellent example of the human perspective on time limits for reward and punishment.)

The sages, however, were certain of reward and punishment–but from a different perspective. Looking at the Torah and at history, they recognized that God repays people’s actions on the basis of mida k’neged mida, “tit for tat,” but in His own time. In the Talmud (Sotah 9b), the sages list numerous such examples, both of punishments (“Samson went after [the desire of his eyes], therefore the Philistines put out his eyes...”) and of reward (“Miriam waited a short while for Moses, as it says (Exodus 2:4): ‘And his sister stood afar off,’ therefore Israel was delayed for her seven days in the wilderness, as it is says (Numbers 12:15): ‘the people journeyed not until Miriam was brought in again.’”).

Did Samson recognize that the Philistines blinded him because he had been enticed by a beautiful Philistine woman (Delilah)? Did Miriam realize that the Israelites waited for her, just as she had waited for her baby brother?

Perhaps, but most people don’t look at the global picture. Most people want an immediate and tangible reward (money, a promotion, etc) and want to see evil-doers punished quickly. And as long as humanity maintains these expectations, theologians and philosophers will have much to ponder.

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