Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
on the weekly parasha by
Meir Levin

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R'eh 5765

Reward and punishment: Automatic or Personal.

Jewish thought contains a variety of positions on almost every theological issue of importance. We often find a particular position or debate expressed in a medieval work or even by a fairly recent thinker and we, therefore, tend to think that the author is the originator of the idea or concept. As we had seen many times in this series, careful reading of midrash often leads us to the discovery of such a position already in the words of Tannaim. Undoubtedly, some such interpretations are forced; each one deserves to be judged solely on its merits and on how well it explicates the passage under consideration. However, and this goes beyond apologetics to methodology, an encounter with a “difficult” midrash should stimulate an erudite reader to search for a theological issue that may explain the “difficulty”. Directed by midrash itself, Scriptural antecedents of the view or contending views may then be discovered, confirming the essential unity of all Torah [1].

Let us look at one such problem – does God cause suffering? The problem of theodicy is, of course, one of central religious issues and one that notoriously lacks a definitive solution. It is obviously desirable to remove God from being the direct cause of human pain; on the other hand, God who does not directly and personally punish evil and rewards good, appears far too distant and irrelevant. It is difficult to worship or pray to such a Deity. There seem to be an irresolvable conundrum and dilemma and there is no satisfactory resolution – either God punishes directly for sin and He is therefore responsible for human pain, or, if reward and punishment are merely natural consequences of obedience and disobedience, He is hardly involved in out lives and not much of a personal God. Much ink has been spilled on trying to resolve and bring closer these two polarities but that is not our focus here.

Much of Jewish liturgy takes the first view. Philosophy [2] and Kabbalah tends to the second. This is how it is stated by R. Chaim Shmulevits in Sichos Mussar: “…we must view the punishment meted out for interpersonal offenses in a different manner. It is not retribution in the sense of reward and punishment, rather it is part and parcel of the reality our existence. As surely as one must be hurt by a collision with another object, so too must one be hurt when one has hurt another's feelings. When one puts his hand into a fire it will be burned, countless good reasons for doing so notwithstanding”. [3]

The Midrash Deteronomy Rabbah 4,1 reports the following view of R. Elazar on this issue.

Another interpretation: Hear and listen and do not rise up (Yirmiah 14). R. Elazar said: The Book and the sword came down wrapped together from heaven. He said to them: If you do what is written in this book, you are saved from this sword. If you do not do it, you will be killed by the sword…

 Hear, I set before you today blessing and curse… R. Elazar said: Once HKBH said this at Sinai, at that time – “from the mouth of the High One will not go forth evils and good [4](Lament. 3). But, evil comes of its own to those who do evil and good comes of its own to those who do good..”

Thus, reward and punishment are on autopilot. One who does evil automatically suffers the effect of his actions and one who does good is automatically rewarded. This is a spiritual law that Hashem has set up in the world; what's more, He has notified and warned us of its existence. He who chooses to disregard this law is responsible for the outcome and Hashem is blameless for the result.

R. Chagi said: Not only did I set before you two paths but went beyond the call of duty and told you, “You shall choose life”.

The issue is aslo discussed in the Sifri ad loc. The passage is obscure. Bringing this theological issue into explicating it provides us with an approach that makes it much more intelligible .

Blessing and Curse. Blessing that you listen and curse if you do not listen…A similar instance, “ If you do well, accrue good and if not, accrue bad (Genesis 4).

Explanation; Do not be misled by the wording to think that obedience is its own reward and blessing; rather, sin leads directly to being punished by G-d as Cain was in the proof-text, and doing good leads to direct reward as stated there.

R. Eliezer the son of R. Yosi Haglili says: Who would whisper such a suggestion? The Torah said: ”The blessing it you listen and the curse if you don't listen”. A similar instance, “Life and death are in the power of tongue and he who loves it eats its fruit (Proverbs 18). He who loves (good) speech eats its fruits; one who loves evil eats its fruits.

R. Eliezer the son of R. Yosi Haglili says: Who would whisper such a suggestion?

Torah said: Watch you tongue from evil (Psalms 34) A similar instance – “For the righteous will be rewarded ( passive form – ishulam) in the land (Proverbs 11).”

These two versions of R. Eliezer advocate the “automatic” theory of reward and punishment and bring proof-texts to support them. R. Yosi, the brother of R. Eleizer disagrees. According to R. Yosi, reward and punishment are direct interventions by the Divine.

R. Yosi, the son of R,. Yosi Haglili says: Who would whisper such a suggestion? The Torah says, “ All that G-d does is by Himself (lmaaneihu) and also the evil one ( is punished) on the day of evil (Ibid 77).”.

I offer this passage as an example of how one can use basic theological issues that are discussed in later Rabbinic literature as tools with which to approach obscure Tannaitic midrash. I do not claim that this particular interpretation is the only possible one or that it is correct. I also admit that application of this technique is subjective and as all chidush in Torah can lead to good and persuasive results or to strained und unappealing interpretations. What I do wish to express is a methodological point that, if utilized carefully and correctly, can open the gates of interpretation a little bit wider and can aid a student of midrash toward better understanding and a more rewarding encounter with obscure midrashic passages. .

1 Finding a ‘late' theological dispute in Tannitic sources and tracing its genesis to different and conflicting verses in Tanach demonstrates continuity of Torah study and argues against the often expressed view(first expressed by A, Geiger) that Rabbinic disputes stem from differing social and political positions. It does raise the question of the ultimate reconciliation of the Scriptural verses. This kind of a question is precisely the concern of Tannaitic midrash and the fact that not all such contradictions have been raised and successfully reconciled by the Tannaim offers no substantive theological difficulty.The work of the Oral Law continues and , “The early ones left us place to innovate (Cullin 7a)”.

2 See Moreh III, 51, heorah.

3 Reb Chaim's Discourses: The Shmuessen of the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz,, ArtScroll, 1989, p. 41

4 The Hetsiv in Herchev Davar explains that evil takes many different forms and is therefore termed ‘evils' but good is single and only one.