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Putting Reward and Punishment in Their Proper Perspective

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This is the season we hear most about “sin and punishment.” This usually makes us quite uncomfortable since it stresses the politically incorrect negative. But if we would take a moment to ponder the responsibility G-d gave to man, we would realize that sin and punishment is just a sign of how significant and important man and his actions really are.

The reason for the discomfort is that deep down, man doesn’t believe that his actions are all that significant and therefore, he wonders, why all this talk of punishment. (Of course, nobody has any complaints with the great reward we receive for our actions because we don’t mind getting something we’re not worthy of.)

In truth, however, our every action is most significant. We are like presidents of corporate firms where every small decision we make has monumental ramifications. That is why the salary we get is so high and the consequences of mistakes are so severe.

The Vilna Gaon asks why, in the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (3:1), “Know that you will eventually have to give a ‘din vecheshbon’ (judgment and accounting)” does it use the double expression “din vecheshbon”? Wouldn’t “din” alone have sufficed? He answers that the judgment of man has two aspects; “din”, judgment for the sin itself, and “cheshbon” a judgment that takes into account what he could have accomplished while he was sinning. Man is also judged for what he could have accomplished because he has the capability with his actions to create worlds.

The Midrash makes the following unusual observation: “The Torah teaches us Derech Eretz, that when a person does a mitzva, he should do it with a happy heart, because if Reuven would have known that G-d would write about him, ‘And Reuven heard and saved him (Yosef) from their hands’, he would have brought Yosef back to his father carrying him on his shoulders. If Aaron would have known that G-d would write about him, ‘Behold he will come out towards you and be happy in his heart’, he would have come out with drums and musical instruments (to greet Moshe). If Boaz would have known that G-d would write about him, ‘And he picked for her roasted corn’, he would have served her fatted calves. In earlier times when man would do a mitzva, the prophets would record it, now that there are no prophets, who records the mitzvot of man? Eliyahu and the Moshiach; and HaKadosh Baruch Hu stamps it.” This seems strange; the Midrash seems to imply that our great leaders would have acted differently had they known that their actions would have been publicized.

My grandfather, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, gave the following explanation. At the time they were doing them, these three great people did not realize how significant their actions were. Each one thought they were doing a simple, personal act of kindness. In reality, however, if Reuven had brought Yosef back to his father, the Jewish people could have avoided the Exile of Egypt. When Aharon met him, Moshe was beginning his mission which would lead to the Jews being redeemed from Egypt, probably the most significant event in Jewish history; and Boaz’ interaction with Ruth was the beginning of a relationship which would lead to the birth of Dovid HaMelech and Moshiach.

What each of these three great leaders did not realize is that what they thought was a simple act of kindness toward an individual actually had a profound effect on all of Klal Yisrael.

The Midrash ends by saying that today a person’s actions are written now by Eliyahu and Moshiach, so that a person should not think that since the Torah is already redacted, what he does now cannot have an effect on all of Jewish history. Rav Yaakov illustrated this through an example of a person giving tzedaka to a poor family. The giver does not know the future, and cannot know the ultimate affect of his actions. But G-d knows that a child of this poor family he helped will eventually grow up to be a great Talmudic scholar who contributes greatly to Klal Yisrael.

Rav Yaakov thought this is hinted at in the Mishna in Avot that says, “Look at three things and you will not come to sin. Know what is above you, an eye sees and an ear hears and all your deeds are written in the book.” “The book,” he said, is not the Book of the Righteous or the Book of the Wicked (as some commentators explain), but the books of Jewish history being written by Eliyahu and Moshiach that the Midrash spoke of. They show how every action contributes to the future of Klal Yisrael. The Mishna teaches us that realizing the profound significance of our actions protects us from sin.

This Rosh Hashana let us become sensitive to how important we really are and act with the consciousness that our every action could impact the future of the Jewish people. Ktivah V’Chatimah Tova.

The author is Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya College of Jewish Studies for Women and a senior faculty member at Yeshivat Darche Noam/David Shapell College in Jerusalem, www.darchenoam.org.

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