The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

KI TAVO, Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
Reward and Punishment

by Avraham ben Yaakov

In the portion of KI TAVO Moses completes his exposition of the commandments of the Torah, after which he launches into his final reproofs to Israel prior to leaving the life of this world.

Almost the last of the commandments given in the Torah are set forth in our portion:

(1) Thanksgiving over presenting the First Fruits to the priest in the Temple (Deut. 26:1-11), where we acknowledge G-d for blessing the work of our hands.

(2) The Declaration over having given the proper tithes from our livelihood (Deut. 26:12-15), where we affirm before God that not only do we seek to feed ourselves, but we also share what we have with the needy - the Levite, whose whole life is dedicated to God, the alien resident, the orphan and the widow.

Written on stone

Prior to the Children of Israel's entry into their ancestral Promised Land under Moses' destined successor, Joshua, Moses instructed them to carry out a special ceremony immediately after their crossing the River Jordan into the Land. In this ceremony they were to take great stones, coat them with white lime, and write on them the entire Torah in all of the Seventy Languages of the root nations of the world (Deuteronomy 27:1-8, see Rashi on v. 8). All the Twelve Tribes of Israel were then to assemble at the twin mountains of Gerizim and Eival, where the Levites were to administer a unique oath cursing anyone who would flout the fundamental laws of the Torah.

If this ceremony came only to bind Israel to the Torah it might have been sufficient for them to write the Torah in their own native language of Hebrew and none other. But the fact that they were to write it in all the Seventy Languages indicates that all the peoples of the world are to learn lessons from the Torah.

Reward and Punishment

One of the most important lessons for all people contained in the portion of KI TAVO is that "HaShem is righteous in all His ways" (Psalms 145:17). The commandments of the Torah are not merely good advice that we are at liberty to embrace or reject without consequences one way or the other. Rather, they are God's Laws for all the world. As with every system of laws, there are benefits from observing them and sanctions and penalties for infringing them. The catalog of rich blessings that God will send to Israel for keeping His commandments (Deuteronomy 28:1-14) and the dreadful curses if they rebel (ibid. 14-69) comes to demonstrate the axiomatic truth that God deals with perfect righteousness to all, whether righteous or wicked.

In the words of Abraham:

It is far from You to act in this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be like the wicked. That is far from You; shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?

Genesis 18:25

Thus the sages of Israel taught that "the Holy One, blessed be He, does not withhold the reward of any of His creatures" (Pesachim 118a). This is said to apply even to animals, and how much more so to human beings, who have free will to choose whether to do good deeds or bad.

Even the wicked are rewarded for their good deeds. Thus even Nebuchadnezzar the evil king of Babylon was awarded the booty and plunder of Egypt in reward for his having carried out God's will in besieging Tyre (Ezekiel 29:18-20).

The wicked are rewarded materially in this world for any good they may do - in order that after having eaten their reward in this life, they then lose the bliss of the life eternal that is reserved for the righteous. This principle is stated earlier in Deuteronomy:

Know therefore that HaShem your G-d, He is G-d; the faithful G-d, who keeps the covenant and mercy with those who love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations; and repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them; He will not be slack to one that hates Him, He will repay him to his face.

Deuteronomy 7:9-10, see Rashi on v. 10

Thus after their great glory in this world, the wicked are depicted by the prophets as descending into hell:

Isaiah 14:4-20 depicts the horror of the inhabitants of the nether world in seeing Nebuchadnezzar, "the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms", cast down to the bottom of the pit like a carcass trodden under foot. Likewise Isaiah 30:31-33 depicts a deep, large hearth kindled with a stream of brimstone to punish Sennacherib king of Assyria. Similarly Ezekiel 32:17-32 depicts all the villainous nations of the earth and their kings and princes in their "graves" in the farthest depths of the pit in punishment for their having caused terror in the land of the living.

The righteous of the nations

Even where God has decreed that certain nations must take a wicked role in history, he does not decree on any specific member of those nations to be among the wicked, for each individual is free to refrain from doing evil if he so desires (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 6:5). Every person in the world is at liberty to opt out of the surrounding wickedness and to "guard the way of HaShem to practice charity and justice" (Genesis 18:19).

Thus "everyone who accepts the Seven Commandments [of the Children of Noah] and is careful to practice them is among the Righteous of the Nations of the world and has a share in the World to Come" (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 8:11).

It must be understood that God's reward for observance of the Torah, whether by the Children of Israel or by the Righteous of the Nations, may not be visible at all in this world, where it seems that often the righteous suffer while the wicked apparently prosper.

But it is an article of Torah faith that this deceptive world in which we live is not the world of reward. Rather, it is the testing ground for our souls amidst all our different trials and temptations here, in order that we should endeavor to follow the path of God's law despite all obstacles, and thereby attain His true reward in the life after life.

Thus the Talmud relates that Rabbi Joseph, the son of Rabbi Joshua ben Levy, fell sick and expired in what might be seen as a case of a clinical death experience. When Rabbi Joseph came back to life, his father asked him: "What did you see?" He replied, "I saw an opposite world: those who are superior here are insignificant there, whereas those who lowly here are superior there!". His father answered: "What you saw there is a pure world" (Pesachim 50a).

The Good of the World to Come

In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:

We call the reward in the World to Come "good" because there is simply no other term to describe it. Yet even the word "good" is quite inadequate, because this reward is far beyond good. Still, the only way to explain it to people is by calling it good, although in truth, "no eye has seen it, other than God" (Isaiah 64:3; Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #55).

The reward each one attains depends entirely on his or her efforts. For "according to the effort, so is the reward" (Ethics of the Fathers 5:22). Even if a person has done much evil, they need not despair, for the path of repentance is always open.




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