Rabbi Oury Cherki
Reward and Punishment
Translated שכר ועונש?. Published at the Noahide World Center website.
Can our relationship with the Creator be compared to a grocery accounts list connected to a mechanism for collecting debts? The entire system of reward and punishment in the Torah, which Rabbi Yosef Elbo sees as one of the three principle foundations of Judaism (see his book "Ikarim"), is a source of difficulty for any person who truly wants to cling in an ideal way to G-d. The idea of reward and punishment seems to diminish the Creator and to urge us to perform our labors in order to get a reward. However, by definition this is a way of performing the mitzvot which is not "for its own sake," and is therefore at a relatively low level. Because of this difficulty, Rabeinu Yeshayah Halevi Horwitz discusses the matter. In his book "Shenai Luchot Habrit" (SHELAH), he describes a third principle of clinging to G-d as an alternative to the principle of reward and punishment. He writes that clinging to G-d is the real objective of the system of rewards.
However, we should note that the term the sages used to describe the concept in faith of rewards is not "reward and punishment" but rather "A reward that reflects the good deed" ("mida keneged midah") – [Sanhedrin 90a]. In an expanded version this is, "A man is measured in the same way that he measures others" [Mishna Sotta 1:7]. This means that what we see is not really external punishment or reward for the act, rather our actions include within them the consequences, in the same way that our hand becomes wet when we put it in water or is burned by a flame. This is the in-depth meaning of the declaration: "The reward for a mitzva is a mitzva" [Avot 4:2].
Man himself is a vessel that measures the contents of a life, which can either fill it or leave it lacking. Therefore, even though in general it is good to give in to others, one who says: "The Holy One, Blessed be He, gives in to the people, will be forced to give up on his life" [Bava Kama 50a]. In the end, it is not the Holy One, Blessed be He, who gives a reward to a person – rather, the person provides his own reward. (See Nefesh Hachaim, Section 1, Chapter 12). That is the meaning of the statement in the Mishna: "All your actions are recorded in a book" [Avot 1:2]. The person himself is the book where all of his actions are recorded.
All of this means that the dilemma of evil that happens to a righteous person cannot be solved within the framework of "If you follow My decrees" [Vayikra 26:3]. This is in fact only one of the dimensions of Divine guidance, which the Ramchal calls "guidance of justice" as opposed to "guidance of uniqueness" (see "Da’at Tevunot"). The latter encompasses broad consideration of the goals of human history. It can very well happen that when a righteous person suffers it is not because of a specific sin but rather that he needs to modify his identity in order to be better integrated into historical changes taking place during his time. This is what happened to Job, who was made to suffer in spite of his absolute righteousness when the time came for him to join in Abraham’s righteous style (see Bava Batra 15b). The internal need for change can lead to changing experiences which can cause the person’s character to change. As the sages have written: "Suffering can cleanse a person’s entire body [that is, his identity]" [Berachot 5a].