Parshat Bechukotai clearly states that good people are rewarded while evil people are punished. In the words of the Torah: “If you keep my commandments…then I will give your rains in their season…but if you will not listen to Me…I will bring terror over you” (Leviticus Chapter 26).
Throughout the ages, this principle has raised difficulty. After all, there are countless examples of good people who suffer and evil people who flourish. This is the famous philosophical question of tzaddik ve-ra lo, the righteous who suffer. Doesn’t this reality run contrary to what the Torah states in our portion?
Another problem with the concept of reward and punishment is the directive “not to serve the Master for a reward, but to serve Him with no reward in mind” (Ethics 1:3). This seems to contradict our portion which suggests that good deeds are performed for reward.
One way to approach these questions is to imagine that good people are always rewarded and evil people are automatically punished. In such a world, freedom of choice would be non-existent. If for every ten dollars one gives to charity one would receive twenty dollars — everyone would give charity. Similarly, if every time one speaks slander one’s tongue would cleave to the palate — no one would speak wrongfully.
Indeed, in a world of precise reward and punishment, humankind would be bereft of freedom of choice. Since freedom of choice is central to the human condition, it follows, that in a world of exact reward and punishment, our very humanity, would be jeopardized.
But how can one explain Bechukotai, which clearly speaks of reward for good deeds and punishment for misdeeds?
Rav Ahron Soloveitchik of blessed memory suggests that the answer may lie in understanding that there are two types of reward and punishment. There is reward and punishment on an individual level and then there is reward and punishment on a collective level.
On the individual level, as the Talmud states, there is no reward for doing a mitzvah in this world- that comes in the world hereafter (Kiddushin 39b). A promise of reward in the hereafter will not compel individuals to act properly. Human choice would remain intact.
In this world, however, reward and punishment does operate on a collective level. When one does something positive, the larger community benefits. Similarly, when one does something negative, the community suffers.
Note that in this week’s portion when discussing reward and punishment, the text is in the plural. Similarly, in the second portion of the Shema recited morning and night, reward and punishment is in the plural. In fact, when reward is written in the singular it refers to an individual’s portion in the world to come. An example is “Honor your father and mother that your days may be long” (Exodus 20:1).
We have come full circle. The good can suffer in this world as there is no exact reward and punishment for individuals. However, when doing the right thing, we do so not necessarily for ourselves, but for the benefit of the community.
In a world that emphasizes the primacy of the self, our portion tells us that fully controlling the destiny of the self is not possible. However, the portion tells us that as a “we,” we have tremendous power. We have the ability to wreak destruction on the world, but we also have the power to infuse it with peace and goodness.