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Pavlovians No More

Shmini (Leviticus 9-11 )

by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt

In this week's parsha, Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, committed a lethal mistake. The exact nature of the transgression is the subject of much discussion amongst the Sages. Bottom line, though, they did something very wrong. And this is one of the only occasions in Torah where we see immediate consequences; a fire comes from heaven and consumes them on the spot.

The average person might ask why such a thing should happen. After all, Aaron's sons were great and righteous men. But the wise man will ask the real question: Why does this not happen more often? If we are confident that God exists and that He means what He says, then why does He not mete out the punishments that he promises? And for that matter, what about the rewards? For example, we say in the Shema that "if you listen to My words," there will be rain (i.e. material riches), and if you do not, there will not. It seems quite straightforward. And yet, we see that people don't listen to God and are wealthy. Why is there no clear system of reward and punishment?

It's obvious really.

Let's say you were to go into McDonald's and order the Mcbacon Big Mac with extra Mccheese. As you reach out your hand to grasp the offending item, bang - a bolt of Mclightning descends from the clear skies and scorches your hand black. The next day you try the same and, lo and behold, your hand gets a little blacker. Feeling in a repentant mood, you decide to try synagogue instead. On your way, you find a brand new $50 bill. On your way to synagogue the next day, you find $100.

Now imagine that you wake up the next day with a desire for a Big Mac. What do you think you will do?

I think you'll go to synagogue.

Of course, you won't do it because you "want to"; you'll do it because you enjoy money more than lightning. Pavlov would be proud.

This is an extreme case, but it illustrates the point. God does not want to compromise our free will. He does not want robots. He wants us to be thinking, responsible human beings. In order for that to be the case, He has to leave room for doubt, room to question and rationalize. If we cannot make the "wrong choice," then making the right choice becomes meaningless.

God has created a world where the consequences of our actions are not immediate. They are often delayed, and always subtle. Though you may not see justice immediately, if you look deeper, sometimes very deep (though never too deep for us to understand), it always exists.

We may not like the idea of God, so to speak, being hidden from us. But were this not the case, we would be no better than Pavlov's dogs. For the gift of independence, this frustrating lack of clarity is a small price to pay.

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