BeChukotay – Reward and Punishment

ואם תלכו עמי קרי, ולא תאבו לשמע לי, ויספתי עליכם מכה שבע כחטאתיכם

(ויקרא כ”ו, כ”א)

BeChukotay, the last parasha in the book of VaYikra, is one of the two parshiot in the Torah in which we find in detail the consequences of not following God’s ways, also known as the tochecha, or rebuke (the second one is in VaYelech, at the end of Devarim). After spelling out the blessings that we will attain by following the laws of God, the Torah goes on to describe, in excruciating detail (more than 30 verses!), the curses that will fall upon us for not doing so.

Reading the tochecha we find a word which repeats itself several times – keri:

And if you walk contrary unto Me, and will not hearken unto Me, I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins

(VaYikra 26, 21)

The English translation of keri as “contrary”, i.e. purposely going against God’s ways, is not universally acceptable. Rashi explains the above verse by saying that keri means “impermanent”, thus describing a reality in which the people of Israel fulfill the mitzvot only partially and not in a consistent manner.

But the word keri shares the same root in Hebrew as the word mikre, which means a coincidence or something that happens as if by accident. And indeed Rabenu Bechayei explains the verse using a psychological analysis of human behaviour. When people are successful and good things happen to them, they tend to attribute this success to themselves. However, when things go wrong and bad things happen, people tend to attribute this failure to chance or bad luck. The Torah here teaches us that a person should not interpret life as a coincidence, as a mikre, but rather should know that everything comes from God. If bad things come our way we should interpret it as a sign from God to repent and renounce our bad ways. Hence the use of the word keri; God says: if you think it’s only keri, only bad luck, I will punish you in a way that will make you understand it is me and not chance that struck you.

Rambam expands this idea and, true to his philosophy, puts the burden of responsibility on man. He urges us to understand that there is cause and effect; that the way we behave determines the outcome. Rambam uses our parasha to prove the existence of reward and punishment in God’s ways.

This view of the world poses a great dilemma. On the one hand we are encouraged to draw direct conclusions between what we do and how God rewards or punishes us. On the other hand, by doing so, we run the risk of misinterpretation of God’s ways, or worse, of deluding ourselves that we understand his rules of engagement. How to solve this conflict? There seems to be no easy answer. It is our task to pave a golden path between an existence of reward and punishment (“I will do X, therefore God will do Y”) and an existence that presupposes our inability to comprehend the ways of God (“I will do what God told me to do, and it is up to him to decide how to respond”). Human nature pulls us in the first direction but deeper belief in God pull us in the other. Balancing both is a never-ending task.

The idea for this week’s Thought is from R. Aharon Lichtenstein

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One thought on “BeChukotay – Reward and Punishment

  1. Pingback: Torah Thoughts « Nafka Mina

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