Shabbat Ki Tavo

August 26, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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Why do we do things in life? Is it to get some kind of reward?

Most people think that this is the function of religion, to ensure that we get rewarded for doing things that God or whoever wants us to do. And this week, reading Chapter  28 of Deuteronomy reinforces this idea. It is the second time in the Torah (after Leviticus 26) that a Chapter is devoted almost entirely to threats if we misbehave, as opposed to a few lines telling us we will be rewarded if we do as we are told.

And indeed, we often get the impression that God rewards and punishes us for our actions even if we have no idea how it works, if not now, then perhaps after death. Some rabbis take it literally, others symbolically, if not now, then perhaps after we die. But the fact is that as many rabbis who tell us we should understand this as indeed reward either in this world or the next, just as many argue that this is a distorted way of looking at the text. Of course, the Torah uses a language appropriate to its times and its audiences. But given it was designed to be a code of practice, it is not surprising that it leaves other abstract matters to be described in symbolic ways because this allows both the simple mind and the intellectual or thoughtful person to make sense of it in their different ways. Even if in practice they will both be doing the same things.

The Mishna in Avot, tells us not to think about getting rewarded, but that we should rather behave well out of a commitment to God or truth, or goodness, regardless of another benefit. Or that the reward of a good deed is another good deed, and the punishment for a bad is to continue bad destructive behaviour. It does not make sense to think of God as a candy man handing them out for being good. Besides, no one knows whether reward means physical or spiritual? But the Torah uses metaphor to tell us that there are always consequences and are warned.

This is why Maimonides says that doing good encourages us to do more good deeds and that enhances our spirituality which is less subject to pain and disintegration than the body. We do not agree with Shakespeare when his character Marc Anthony says, “ the evil that men do  lives after them, the good, is often interred with their bones.” We are witnesses that the fact that good does indeed live on through our survival.

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

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