By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
We shall resume our discussion of the 13 core principles of Jewish belief.
Maimonides writes in his Commentary to the Mishna:
“The 11th principle is that God rewards those who obey the commandments of the Torah, and punishes those who violate its prohibitions. The greatest possible reward is the World to Come, while the greatest possible punishment is being cut from it. … The Torah teaches us this principle in the following account: Moses said to God, ‘If You will, then forgive their sin, but if not, then erase me.’ God answered, ‘The one who has sinned against Me, him will I erase from My book.’ (Exodus 32:32-33). This shows that God knows both the obedient and the sinner, rewarding one and punishing the other.”
This principle is summed up, in short, in the Ani Maamin prayer: “I believe with perfect faith that God rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those who transgress His commandments.”
Maimonides explains further in his “code”: “When either an individual or a nation sins … they deserve punishment and God knows what punishment is fitting. In some cases one is punished though his body, while in others, he is punished though the loss of his possessions. … There are some cases in which a person is punished in the World to Come, and absolutely no harm comes to him in this world at all. In other cases, one may be punished both in this world and in the next. This is only true when one does not repent. When a person repents, his repentance is like a shield protecting him from troubles. And just a as a person can sin though his own free will, so can he repent though his own free will.”
“The main reward of the righteous is in the World to Come. This is a life that is not terminated by death, and a good that is not mixed with any evil. The Torah thus says, ‘You will have good, and your days will be long.’ (Deut. 22:7). Our tradition interprets this to say: ‘You will have a good’ — in a world where all is good — ‘and your days will be long’ — in a world that goes on and on. This is the World to Come.” (Maim. Yad, Teshuva 6:1-2. 8:1).
The principle of reward and punishment, while central to the Torah, is a difficult belief to wrap our arms around. It involves concepts we don’t truly fathom and gives rise to troubling philosophical questions. For example, it is predicated on the belief in the World to Come, something we don’t truly understand while living in this world. Further, why do we sometimes see good people suffering and evil people prospering?
In order to grasp some insight into these questions, we must frame our understanding within the immortality of the soul. The soul, a “spark of Godliness,” lives forever. Our entire lifetimes are merely a short visit for the soul compared to its life of eternity. The “World to Come” is an eternal, spiritual “place,” where the eternal soul spends its days. Whether a person prospers or suffers in the short time he or she spends in this world is not indicative of their soul’s station in eternity. At times, suffering in this world may be a reward; it may be a transitory purging of that individual’s wrongdoings to enable their soul to enjoy a complete, stainless reward for eternity. Another’s prosperity may be, in the case of an evil person, all of their reward for the few good deeds they performed. This could leave their soul to eternal suffering as the fair compensation for the immense suffering that person caused others in this world.
A very crucial final element in the understanding of this principle is found in the works of the Kabbalists. God never “punishes” anyone in the way we imagine one person punishing another. It is, rather, a tikkun for that soul to purge it from its wrongdoings and lack of fulfillment of its purpose, enabling that soul to have some level of eternal bliss through a connection to the Al-mighty.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.