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Choices and Rewards

Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

This Shabbat is the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashana and we are preparing ourselves to face judgment. Jewish tradition teaches us that the judgment on Rosh Hashana concerns the events of this world. As we recite in this majestic prayer:

On Rosh Hashana will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed: how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who will die before his time; who by water who by fire; who by sword who by beast; who by famine, who by thirst; ... who will rest and who will wander; who will live in harmony and who will be harassed; who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer; who will be impoverished and who will be enriched; who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

But although the prayer service informs us about the sorts of matters that are decided on Rosh Hashana, it is less explicit about the considerations that enter the deliberations of the heavenly court. Consequently, it is all too easy to miss the entire point of the day. Not only does such an error result in a missed opportunity, it also opens the door to the possibility of failing to obtain the best possible judgment.

Judgment is a concept that involves the determination of "just deserts" and is related to reward and punishment. Thus, a decree for a trouble-free, healthy life in the coming year represents a reward, while a bad decree that results in poverty and sickness is a punishment.

But Jewish tradition would appear to dictate that as far as Rosh Hashana is concerned, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is impossible to receive the reward for any mitzvah in this world (Talmud, Kidushin, 39b).

The commentators explain that it would be utterly cruel of God to reward any good deed in this world when the option exists to reward it in the next. The reward for any good deed preformed by someone with a share in the World to Come (Olam Haba) should automatically be received later on simple utilitarian grounds. The payoff in this world is incomparably less, and rewarding the good deed here would be an unconscionable waste of a valuable resource.


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The real reason goes deeper. The truth is that the reward of a mitzvah simply doesn't fit into this world. If you lined up the pleasure felt by all human beings from the beginning of the world to the present and squeezed it into a single moment, it would still not equal a moment's pleasure in the World to Come.

Reward in this world is mainly distributed to those who won't make it to the World to Come.

Reward in this world is mainly distributed to those who cannot receive their reward in the World to Come because they simply won't make it there. (The exceptions are too complicated to explain in the context of this essay.) But even such people, known as reshaim gemurim, or "totally evil," have many good deeds to their credit. They may have been good fathers or husbands, they may have helped people when they felt the urge, and consequently they need to be rewarded.

Of course, it is impossible for us to grasp how such people with all these good deeds to their credit can be considered reshaim gemurim without appreciating how evil is to be understood, according to Jewish tradition.

Nachmanides explains (Genesis 1:4) that the word tov or "good," refers to something "everlasting," and that the word ra or "evil" refers to something "temporary." This view is intuitively sensible as well -- God wants the good to last forever, whereas evil is clearly a temporary phenomenon. According to this perception, a rasha is not necessarily an evil person in the common sense of the word; rather, he is a person who is attached only to the temporary and transient and has never connected himself to the everlasting.

Look, I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil, that which I command you today, to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, to observe His commandments, His decrees, and His ordinances ... But if your heart will stray and you will not listen, and you are led astray, and you prostrate yourselves to strange gods and serve them, I tell you today that you will surely be lost ... I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life so that you will live, you and your offspring... (Deut. 30:15-19)

Our Torah portion presents us with the choice between life and good, and death and evil.

As Nachmanides explains: Life and good and death and evil are not different things but synonymous; the good is life everlasting, and the evil is death because it is temporary. This passage states that life is gained through choice: choose life so that you will live. The rasha is not evil in the common sense; he is merely a person who chooses the temporary and the short-lived rather than the everlasting.

But there is another concept that needs to be understood before we can understand who the rasha is.


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Rabbi Dessler explains that while we make many choices in life, most of them are not the type of choices that are referred to by our passage. It is obvious that a choice between a gray suit and a black one cannot be considered a life choice, but Rabbi Dessler explains that even most moral choices cannot be regarded as life choices as defined here.

Most of our moral decisions do not involve facing down wrenching moral dilemmas.

A person who loves his wife will sacrifice a great deal for her without experiencing any conflict or difficulty. He doesn't do it out of a sense of right and wrong, or because he is obeying God's will, he does it because he wants to. People take pride and joy in depriving themselves in order to be able to educate their children. Rabbi Dessler explains that such sacrifices, although they are clearly right and good, are not the sort of choices that attach a person to eternal life.

The type of choices that are able to accomplish such attachment are those that are taken precisely for the reasons stated in the passage. Choices taken for the express purpose of attaching to life and to good instead of what is temporary and therefore to the evil.

We desire one thing, but we know that the right decision is in the other direction.

These kinds of choices are made in the context of confronting moral dilemmas when we are torn in two directions, and we do not have a powerful inner program instilled by heredity or environment pointing us in the right direction. We desire one thing, but we know that the right decision is in the other direction -- not because of our inner program but because God told us in the Torah that that is the way to go. It is in these sorts of situations that present us with the opportunity of attaching ourselves to life.

Thus, in the Torah view, a person can be considered a rasha in the eyes of God, even if he seems like a very fine person to us.

Many people are blessed with loving natures and come from the sorts of fine upbringing that naturally predisposes them to do the right thing in most situations as a matter of course. Indeed, that is the major goal of all successful child rearing -- the creation of character traits that will automatically guide our children into taking the right and moral course in any of life's dilemmas. In other words, our aim is to build the type of complex and powerful program into our children's characters that will force them into the correct moral choices by the anxiety that an immoral choice would generate.

But even when people are programmed or educated to do good, they can still be reshaim -- that is, people who will not have a share in the World to Come because they have never chosen to attach themselves to the everlasting and the eternal.

They have merely acted out their inner programs, and in fact, have always done what came easiest for them, no matter how difficult it may have appeared to the outside observer, who was not fortunate enough to be instilled with an inner program of such high quality. Whenever these reshaim encountered a situation which was outside their program, they failed to come up with the self-sacrifice to make the correct moral choice and always fell into the easy and convenient option. They chose to go against what God dictated in the Torah by means of various rationalizations, such as that the Torah's injunctions really didn't apply to their particular situations and the circumstances. Despite their good deeds such people have no share in the world to come.

On the other hand, people who have attached themselves to the eternal, even if they have only done so once in their lives, will make it to the World to Come eventually in spite of the multitude of their transgressions.

Jewish tradition teaches that God's policy is never to allow a person's mitzvot to be cancelled by his transgressions. Therefore, if a person performed his mitzvot with the type of dedication that is required to attach himself to God and to eternal life, this act altered his inner reality permanently. He is now a person who is attached to Olam Haba once and for all and he will eventually enjoy that life.


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But what about that person's past transgressions? His transgressions are a barrier to the enjoyment of Olam Haba and consequently they must be dealt with and purified. Consequently, the transgressions of such a person must be dealt with either in this world or in Gehenom or Hell. But once again utilitarian considerations mandate that the necessary purification be accomplished in this world. Therefore, anyone who belongs in the World to Come but is blemished by transgressions -- as most of us are-- this world is logically be expected to be a vale of tears.

On the other hand, for our rasha who has failed to attach himself to the eternal even once in his life, but who has performed many good deeds which must be rewarded, this world is the only place where such rewards can be made available. As the rewards of mitzvot are so incomparably large, we would expect him to have a wonderful life in this world.

We have now arrived at the difficulty of comprehending Rosh Hashana.

We certainly do not want to think of ourselves as reshaim. But most of us know that we are not tzadikim gemurim, "totally righteous people" either. If so, we will make it to the World to Come with God's help, as all people in general do except for the reshaim. But this means that something has to be done to cleanse us of our many evil deeds. This can either be done by the means of hardships that we suffer in this world, or by subjecting us to the tortures of Gehenom or Hell after we die.

As the tortures of Hell are infinitely more painful than any tribulation we might experience in this world, we ought to prefer to complete our purification in this one. So why are we asking God for an easy year? And how could the decree of a good year possibly be considered a favorable judgment?


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The answer lies in understanding what is known as Hashgacha Pratit, or Divine Providence.

This world and what happens in it is not about reward and punishment. As we have explained, reward and punishment become a part of our world due to purely secondary considerations.

This world is a workplace. The Divine policies that apply here are generated primarily by concerns over maximizing production, just as you would expect in any industrial setting. After all, the product of this world is the manufacture of eternal life. Practically speaking, this means that the creation of a place in Olam Haba for all of us is the focus of Hashgacha Pratit.

There are three primary factors involved:


  1. We all must be placed into a situation that will force us to produce. For example, suppose A is sent into the world to correct the character trait of arrogance and cruelty. The extent of the correction achieved will determine A's place in the World to Come. Providence will have determined that A must be born rich or become wealthy early in his adult life. Such a life situation will guarantee that he will always contend with the character traits he was sent to correct. People will constantly ask him for help, and with each instance he will have confront his streak of cruelty. The very fact that everyone will always be asking him for help and attempting to curry favor with him will ensure that he has to confront his trait of arrogance.


    On the other hand, B is sent to the world to correct the trait of self-pity and to demonstrate the cheerful acceptance of one's lot. Providence will arrange for B to be poor, as his poverty will automatically force him to contend with the very problems he was sent into the world to work on. If A were poor and B were rich neither would automatically be forced to do their jobs, and their productivity would be entirely dependant on their inner motivation, a very inefficient policy in terms of assuring maximum productivity. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. No one has ever come up with a better motivator. A's wealth and B's poverty thus have zero relationship with reward and punishment. The determination is based on purely utilitarian considerations.


  2. The second function of Providence is to provide help. As the Talmud states "someone who seeks to make himself spiritually impure, they open the way for him, and if someone desires to purify himself, heaven assists him" (Talmud, Yuma 38b). Providence is always there to provide assistance; how much assistance, and what sort will be available, is again based on considerations of productivity.


    Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto in "Derech Hashem" explains that there are three levels of assistance in either direction. The person who begins on the path towards the World to Come automatically receives some assistance. The person who is firmly set on his way gets more; his assistance comes in the form of redefining his job so that it is easier to complete. The person who has already gone most of the way gets the most assistance; God provides him with whatever it takes to guarantee that he successfully completes his job.


For the rasha who is headed in the opposite direction there are also three levels of "assistance."


    For the rasha who is headed in the opposite direction there are also three levels of "assistance." Someone who has begun on the path away from the World to Come loses the assistance he could have received and is left to his own devices, but Providence doesn't hinder him from turning back to face the right direction either. On the other hand, for the person who is well on his way on the road that leads away from the World to Come is positively hindered from turning back. Providence places him in a situation that makes it difficult for him to change directions, while the confirmed rasha is placed in a life situation that renders a change in direction next to impossible.


    Luzatto provides a practical example to bring this down to earth. Changing one's direction in life requires introspection, self-criticism and thought. These in turn require opportunity and motivation. Thus the rasha may be so loaded down with the trials and cares of poverty and ill health that his daily struggles make it impossible for him to enjoy the peace of mind that is required to really look closely at his life and figure out that he is headed in the wrong direction. Or Providence may decide to bless the rasha with great wealth which will remove his motivation to indulge in searching self-criticism. Why rock the boat when everything is going well? The method selected by the Providence will depend on whether the rasha needs to be rewarded for his good deeds in this world or not.


  1. This determination of Providence, of how much positive help a person deserves, or how many obstacles should be placed in his path, is a function of judgment. This is what the judgment of Rosh Hashana is about.



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Let us return to our examples A and B.

A, the wealthy man who was sent into the world to struggle with arrogance and cruelty has been doing a poor job. He hasn't been at all charitable and he has become unapproachable and haughty. He knows about the workings of Providence that we have just described and stands before God on Rosh Hashana, desperately afraid. His wealth was given to him only to ensure a productive struggle with his negative character traits. As he is losing the struggle and not being productive, if he were God, at this point he would decide to take his wealth away as a means of making the task of reaching his objective more cumbersome and difficult.

What can he do about it? He should say to God that he realizes that until now he has been deficient in his task but from now on he intends to fully engage in the activities for which he was born. If he can persuade God of his sincerity, he will not lose his wealth.

B also stands before God knowing that his poverty is a result of the workings of Providence. But he has done an excellent job and worked on his self-pity and has tried to accept his situation with good cheer. He tells God that he has struggled hard and long and been productive and now he would like some help. He would like his task made easier and therefore there is no more need for him to be poor. Let God consider what he has accomplished as enough and let him contend with other character traits such as arrogance and cruelty. Let Providence place him in a life situation that would make him productive in these new tasks. Let Providence make him rich.

Rosh Hashana is indeed about judgment. The judgment doesn't concern ultimate rewards but is about the availability of Divine assistance. Unlike the ultimate rewards which are the direct results of the inner transformations accomplished by the person himself and therefore cannot be awarded but must be chosen, assistance is a variable commodity whose availability is never absolutely fixed. Like everything else in this world it is relative rather than absolute, and human beings can employ their creative ingenuity to increase it.

We stand before God on Rosh Hashana to present our case for increased Hashgacha Pratit - Divine Providence. May it be His will to judge our worldly task as finally complete and witness the arrival of the Messiah.

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