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Meaning and Chaos: Reward and Punishment

by Rabbi Tali Lowenthal

  

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What is the relationship between goodness, kindness, selflessness -- and material success? Does goodness lead to health and prosperity? This question, at the heart of mankind's search for meaning, is frequently discussed in Jewish teachings.

The Torah (Liviticus 26) presents us with a firm statement on this subject: "If you walk in My statutes, I will provide you with rain at the right time and the land will bear its crops and the trees will provide fruit... You will live securely in the land... But if you do not listen to Me and do not keep these laws... You will plant your crops in vain, because your enemies will eat them... you will flee even when no-one is chasing you..."

In a few brush strokes, so to speak, these passages outline two pictures: one of "Redemption", i.e., national and individual wholeness, the other of Galut ("Exile" - fragmentation and conflict).

The first picture, that of Redemption, depicts a state of union between the spiritual and physical aspects of life. A good action produces a good effect in the material world. Body and soul are in harmony on every level of being. The people serve G-d, and therefore the crops grow and there is peace. Life has meaning.

even in the state of Galut there is a relationship between one's actions and the events which follow
The second picture, that of Galut, comes as a punishment. Yet the state of Galut is not simply punishment and suffering, but chaos. Galut is the separation of spirit from matter.

In the situation of Galut the goodness of the individual, or of the community, may well not be rewarded in immediate material terms. Sometimes the crops will grow, sometimes not. Even if they do grow, sometimes the enemy will capture them. There is constant uncertainty. Galut is a dislocation between matter and spirit, body and soul. Good people might be stricken with horrifying disease and pain; the wicked often seem to enjoy peace and prosperity.

On a deeper level, even in the state of Galut there is a relationship between one's actions and the events which follow. Yet it is governed by an infinite Divine logic not completely accessible to our minds. To understand it we would have to be able to take into account spiritual realms, the world of souls. We would have to be able to appreciate certain processes in existence which have to unfold. If the full spiritual panorama were accessible to us, we would indeed see precise reward for each individual action. But this is not apparent in the physical world which we see before our eyes.

Yet the fact that we know that there is a deeper reality is itself a step forward. Although we are living in the world of Galut so harshly depicted in the Torah, a world in which the Holocaust could take place, we can be conscious that waiting beyond the shadows is another way to live, the world of Redemption. And in the closing verses of the "Rebuke" the Torah promises that Redemption is the state we should be in, and the one to which we will return.

Hence we should do what we can to help our practical daily world attain that state in which soul and body, spirit and matter, G-d and existence are one, unified. Every step in observance of Torah brings that realm of Redemption closer.


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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Galut
Traditionally translated to mean exile. It refers to the state of the Jewish people until the coming of the Messiah.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.