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Good Deeds and Good People

Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

This week's Torah portion deals with blessings and with curses, with reward and punishment. The topic in its entirety is "broader than the ocean" and it is obviously beyond the scope of this essay to explore all the issues involved. In this essay we shall focus on Maimonides' teachings regarding the factors that are considered by the Heavenly Court in deciding whether to provide "material well-being" or to impose "material want" and explain how this relates to reward and punishment.

Maimonides introduces his discussion of the subject with a key question:


It has been established [in earlier chapters of the Laws of Repentance] that the reward for the observance of the commandments -- and the good that we merit if we are faithful to the ways of God as explained in the Torah -- is everlasting life in the next world ... And that the revenge that will be exacted against the evildoers who leave the paths of righteousness ... is Karet, or "severance," as it is written, that soul shall surely be severed from its roots because its inequity is in it (Numbers 15:31).


How then can we explain the statement of a recurring theme throughout the Torah [and especially emphasized in our Parsha]; that if you will listen, you will attain the following, and if you do not listen these will be the consequences, and both the rewards and punishments listed are matters pertaining to this world? Plenty versus hunger, war versus peace, supremacy versus wretchedness, sitting on our own land versus exile, success and prosperity versus the opposite, and so on through the entire covenant ... (Laws of Repentance 9:1)


In other words, what happened to heaven vs. hell, reward in the next world vs. damnation? Why are spiritual rewards and punishments never mentioned in the Torah, and why does the Torah continually stress the idea that material well-being is the reward for faithful observance of God's commandments?


* * *



Here is Maimonides answer to his question:

In order to merit the world to come, a person has to spend a lot of his time in this world immersed in the study of Torah and the carrying out of the commandments. But he is only able to do this if his energies are not consumed by the daily wear and tear of worrying about the necessities of physical survival. The more time a person is compelled to invest in providing himself with food, clothing, and shelter, the less time he has at his disposal to pursue his spirituality. The more careworn and debilitated he is from the effects of ill health and oppression, the less strength and concentration he has to devote to spiritual pursuits.

If we expand it a bit, here is the essence of the idea:

  • If a person's actions demonstrate that his main interest in the material world is to make use of it to serve God and reach high levels of spiritual merit, God takes this into account and provides Him with the material necessities of life and releases him from the responsibility of worrying about the inputs of physical existence so that he is liberated to engage in higher pursuits.


  • If, on the other hand, a person demonstrates by the focus of his actions that he is interested in the level of his material well-being for its own sake, and physical inputs are the main focus of his interest, then God burdens him with all sorts of physical problems. He becomes so occupied with the concerns of physical survival, of his own and of his family, that he is bereft of the time and the energy to devote to spiritual pursuits. As a consequence, he cannot attain the spiritual level that is required to obtain a desirable portion of the World to Come.

The answer would seem to be that our question was mistaken in its premise. When the Torah discusses the blessings and curses regarding material well being in this world the real subject that is being addressed is the amount of resources that will be available to invest in the next world. Despite appearances, the Torah does not offer material well-being as a reward for spiritual effort.


* * *



Even on the shallowest level, this theory of material well-being is quite revolutionary. It clearly establishes one of the fundamental principles of Judaism; there is no reward or punishment in this world. Material well-being is only to be regarded as a means to an end; it should never be understood as a reward. A reward is something worth having for itself and material well being is not such a commodity. But to uncover the real treasure contained in Maimonedes' presentation we must mine his message on a deeper level

A startling concept concerning the proper orientation to spirituality is contained in these ideas. It seems that spiritual phenomena are essentially identical to the things in the material world with which we are all familiar. The Torah associates spiritual merit with physical well being because spiritual rewards and punishments are related to the investment of physical effort in precisely the same manner that material achievements are related to the energy and toil invested in their pursuit.

The more commandments a person actually performs, the more Torah he learns, the greater his reward in the world to come. Performance takes up time and absorbs physical and mental energy. Consequently the physical ability to observe the commandments can be presented as the reward for good deeds, while the prevention of observance can be regarded as the true punishment of evil.

But Maimonedes also stands our perception of the importance of character in the realm of spirituality on its head in his concluding statement:


[God] promised us in the Torah that if we observe it with happiness and enthusiasm, and stimulate ourselves with its wisdom constantly, then He will eliminate all the obstacles to observance such as sickness ... and shower us with all the benefits that will strengthen our ability to carry out the Torah, such as peace plenty and wealth. And He also informed us that if we willingly abandon its observance and busy ourselves with empty worldly matters ... the true judge will remove all the worldly bounty that encouraged this rejection and usher in all the evils that prevent the engagement in the acquisition of the next world so that they [as he is now speaking about the depressing side of the picture he changes from speaking about ‘us' and starts talking about ‘them'] should become lost in their inequities. (Maimonides, ibid)


In other words, spiritual rewards in the next world are the direct results of deeds; character and goodness has nothing to do with it. On the other hand, material well being in this world is purely a function of attitudes; the application of effort and actions has nothing to do with it. It is not violations or meticulous observance of the commandments that Maimonides identifies as the determinants of material well being--it is the enthusiasm and interest in Torah observance versus enthusiasm and interest in worldly matters.


* * *



But is this not a very strange view of spirituality that is being presented here? Isn't it the diametric opposite of our common conception?

It is our common perception that suffering ennobles. The suffering may be caused by our sins, but it nevertheless ennobles and purifies us. Indeed we regard suffering as spiritually therapeutic; the infliction of suffering is perceived as God practicing spiritual surgery. According to the theory presented by Maimonides, this sort of ennoblement comes at great cost. Physical suffering actually stunts spiritual growth. Even more, physical suffering is actually employed by God as a tool to stunt spiritual growth!

If God really considered us deserving, He would remove our suffering and provide us with well being so that we could learn a lot of Torah and perform a multitude of mitzvot which would provide greater spiritual rewards than the ennoblement that is brought about by the greatest degree of suffering imaginable.

And what about the role assigned to attitudes and actions? Here again, the hypothesis Maimonides presents is the very reverse of common wisdom; we assign actions to the realm of worldly success and perceive attitude and character as the basis of spiritual rewards and punishments. In our common perception spiritual rewards are assigned on the basis of whether one is a ‘good person' and not as a return for actions!

This is all very puzzling at first glance. In order to comprehend Maimonedes' thesis we must think our way through several steps.


* * *



Most of us conceive of the world to come as a sort of real estate development that already exist somewhere. It is desirable beyond our imagination and we are allowed entry or excluded, admitted to a luxury suite or placed in average quarters depending on our spiritual merit. The first step in our journey is to give up this idea.

The Mishna states:


All Jews have a share "to" the next world. (Sanhedrin, 90a)


Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin, the well-known student of the Gaon of Vilna asks a rhetorical question; surely the use of the word ‘to' in this Mishna is a grammatical error. Surely the Mishna meant to state that all Jews have a share 'in' the world to come? He hastens to explain that the Mishna means exactly what it says; the message of the Mishna is that there is no such ‘place' as the World to Come except in so far as each person builds it through his own good works in this world. The Mishna in fact informs us that no one has a share in the world to come, as there is no such place; whoever wants to get there at all had better set about building such a world. 'In' the world to come would be incorrect as it would imply the prior existence of such a place; this would present a false picture.


* * *



How then should we conceive of the world to come? Following in the footsteps of Maimonedes, Rabbi Chaim also sends us back to our physical lives in this world in the search for the next. His suggestion; to visualize the world to come as the spiritual aspect of the world with which we are familiar. As long as we are in our bodies, we are insensitive to the spiritual joy brought about by the performance of the commandments, and the great spiritual anguish that is an inevitable consequence of their violation. When we leave our physical bodies, this joy and this anguish are waiting for us to experience. In the World to Come we relive our lives spiritually.

But you will surely object, " Wait just a minute! The world to come is eternal. If it is nothing more than the spiritual dimension of our mortal lives, how can it last forever?" This objection is easily met. While we are in this world, every experience is limited in duration and intensity, but these limitations are imposed by the nature of physicality. Time is one of the dimensions of the material world. The spiritual aspect of our physical actions has no spatial or temporal limit. When we leave the world of physicality our limited experiences become timeless and eternal and unbounded in their intensity.

If we regard the world to come from this perspective it is self evident that its rewards are entirely dependant on actual good deeds. For example, if in our world, someone bought a spacious piece of land, had plans for a house drawn up by a great architect, hired the contractors, took out the necessary permits, but never built the house, he could never taste the joy of living in it. This consideration turns out to be just as applicable to life in the next world, although it takes place in the realm of spirituality. If a person has every intention of doing great things, has a wonderful character and is truly good, but has no actual good deeds to his credit, he cannot spend eternity basking in the spiritual joy generated by his good works. He never built the spiritual house.

This concept has some far reaching philosophical ramifications;


R' Chanina taught: "Whoever maintains that God overlooks inequities, is actually asking for his entire life to be overlooked." (Bereishis Raba 67:4)


This seems like an outrageous statement to make about God at first glance: is it so terrible to think that God overlooks inequities? Surely, it would be terrible to think that God doesn't! We justly regard the person who always insists on exacting measure for measure for every little slight quite negatively. Generosity is a great virtue, and the practice of the generous is to overlook being slighted or injured. Surely God, Who is perfect, should also practice this virtue.

Rabbi Chaim explains; of course God is generous and overlooks our inequities. Rabbi Chanina's statement applies to the next world, not this one. God put us into this world to get ourselves a life. The one we chose for ourselves is the only life that we have. Since the World to Come is nothing more than the spiritual dimension of this one, it follows that God has nothing to give there. He can help us to build ourselves the best life possible while we are alive; after death, the actions preformed during our lives are the only reality. In the spiritual world there is nothing to be done for the person who doesn't have much of a life. He has nothing to relive.

[Of course this general principle applies to people who chose not to do much with their lives of their own free will. What about people who die as babies, or people who struggled to do good deeds and were forcibly prevented from carrying them out? These questions, as well as many others the reader will no doubt come up with are discussed in Torah sources and all have answers. A detailed discussion of all that is involved would take an entire volume and is beyond our scope here.]


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But these ideas have more implications; they demonstrate the fallacy of the "good Jew in his heart" theory that many modern Jews carry around with them. In our own attitude to each other spirituality is closely linked to character and feelings. We would rather spend time with a warm, loving, generous person than with a cold, judgmental, stingy person. Because we feel this way we automatically project our attitude onto God, and as most of us are nice people we often feel that our place in the Next World is fairly secure despite the paucity of our observance.

But this attitude is a fallacy and it is easy to explain why in the light of the ideas presented in this essay. In God's eyes a human being's spiritual standing depends on deeds, not on character and feelings. To see how this must be so let us begin by looking at creation:


God blessed them (Adam and Eve) and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every living thing that moves on earth.' (Genesis 1:28)


Rabbi Hutner used to say that the ‘every living thing' referred to in this passage includes oneself. Just as man was appointed the ruler over other creatures through the power of his superior mind, the power of the same mind allows him to rule over himself.

No matter what a person's given character traits may be, he is always expected to keep all the commandments even those that go against his grain. So for example, a person who has a very stingy miserly character must still give charity. The Torah outlines a person's charitable obligations and the stingy person is able to carry them out to the letter as well as the most generous. We were given the power of free will and the mental capacity to appreciate the importance of charity and therefore our feelings and attitudes are totally irrelevant.

The cold, judgmental person can live a life full of good works despite his character, whereas the warm, generous person might be too occupied with other interests to devote much time to good works. The former, who was lacking the ‘good Jewish heart' entirely will nevertheless bask in the Joy generated by his deeds of generosity through eternity, whereas the latter, having no deeds to his credit will not derive much benefit from his generous heart. Character is an aid to attaining high spiritual levels, nothing more. Spiritual achievement requires deeds, not feelings or thoughts.


* * *



This explains an aspect of Torah that many people finding their way to observance find distressing and perplexing. Observant Judaism is presented to them as a spiritual lifestyle and yet when they examine it closely, they find it dominated by a Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law] full of endless nit picking detail on every topic under the sun from the proper manner to tie one's shoes all the way to the proper rituals of mourning.

The following argument has often been advanced by people considering the observant life; surely the point of a life conducted according to the dictates of Halacha is to get close to God. How will, for example, not wearing linen and wool together help us to achieve an elevated level of spirituality? Indeed, it seems to accomplish the exact opposite -- the secular person can just go into the store and buy a suit and put the whole thing behind him; the observant person must worry about what sort of suit he can try on, and then he must take it to be checked to make sure that it contains no linen threads. The end result is that he is busy with his suit -- a very non-spiritual item -- for days.

But let us remember the dictum of Maimonides -- buying a suit is a temporal activity. Without a commandment associated with it, one will only consider whether it is stylish and whether it looks good and, in so doing, lose one's self in the worldly pursuit of buying clothes. But if one has to worry about mixing wool and linen and think about what suit conforms to God's dictates, the entire activity becomes transformed into an opportunity to express one's attachment to the commandments and the Torah.


* * *



We can appreciate the phenomenon of Halacha much better if we study the picture from an entirely different perspective.

When it comes to worldly matters, most of us subscribe to the dictum that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Success comes from the investment of time and hard work, not from being a nice guy. People can be full of charm and talent and all sorts of positive qualities, but if they don't work hard and discipline themselves to produce, all their fine qualities will avail them nothing.

But if this is so clear to us regarding this world why should we expect the next world to operate differently? God created both; why would He give away the more precious one for little more than good feelings and a nice character, when this world, which is worth so much less, costs so much to acquire?

Judaism is a religion with a work ethic. Reward is commensurate with performance. In this world at least you can rely on Welfare. In the next world there is no such thing as a free lunch.


* * *



In truth it could not be otherwise. If our eternal reward were dependant on the quality of our characters rather than the abundance of our good deeds, we should have been designed with the ability to alter our characters easily. It is true that we can make some changes in our characters, but only gradually, over a very long period of time and since all such changes of character are accomplished by means of the control we exert over our actions, we are back in the realm of actions in any case.

Maimonides explains in great detail (in Chapter 1 of the "Laws of Character") that all extremes of character, except for humility, are counterproductive. You go about shaping your character in the desired direction -- which he calls the "middle way" -- by performing the actions that your mind tells you are appropriate, until these actions become habitual and you perform them automatically without the need for thought as a matter of habit.

For example, a person should neither be quick to fly into rage at the slightest provocation but nor should he be so indifferent that nothing at all can elicit passionate feelings of anger. He should get angry about what his mind tells him is a just cause for anger so that he does not remain apathetic to acts of injustice that he may witness. That is the "middle way," a balanced approach.

But what if his character is such that he is immediately enraged by the slightest provocation? He must behave as though he was not angry at all. Eventually, over the course of time his feelings will adjust to his actions.

Even if the shape of our character were used as the basis for weighing our just deserts it would still be actions that we would have to be judged on. Reason compels us to conclude that God will regard a person who spent his life successfully controlling his rage as having an even-tempered, mild character; it is his actions that are the relevant manifestation of his character. It is in the spiritual light cast by his deeds towards others that he will bask for eternity. His inner feelings are irrelevant.

Reward and punishment are the consequences of free will decisions. As God designed us so that it is only our actions that are controlled by our wills, it is quite clear that all reward and punishment must be restricted to the area of actions. What we do is who we are, not the other way around.


* * *



The commandments of the Torah amount to a list of spiritual actions that can be performed in the physical world and redefine the purpose of physical existence.

As the Divinely ordered course of a Jew's life is Torah observance and this involves the performance of physical actions, it would be absurd for God to have created the world in such a way that one is kept too busy worrying about physicality and its trappings to devote serious time to what is, after all, the entire reason why one was put here in the first place.

The physical world was designed with Torah observance in mind. Thus a devotion to the true purpose of life inevitably unlocks creation's bounty.

On the other hand, a deal is a deal. If Israel turns away from the purpose of life, the physical world will not function properly. How could it? Its resources are being misused.

As is often the case, the common sense of Judaism dictates the opposite of the common sense of the rest of the world. The world of spirituality is based on deeds, whereas it is the world of physicality that depends on character, attitudes, and beliefs.


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