On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: B’chukotai: Do We Believe that Good Behavior Brings Rewards, and Bad Behavior Punishment?

Does being a person of faith mean you believe in blessings and curses? Why should we always "do the right thing?" Are we rewarded or punished for what we do in the world? Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discusses the messages in this week's Torah portion, Parashat B'chukotai.

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Welcome to episode 19 of On the Other Hand: Ten minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just ten minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. We want to hear what you think, so talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Like us at facebook.com/reformjudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, digs into Parashat B’chukotai this week and asks if you really believe that being a person of faith means believing in blessings and curses.

This week we read the last parashah of the book of Leviticus, Bechukotai. So in these last verses of this incredibly powerful third book of the Torah, it opens by saying im b’chukotai telechu. "If you walk in my ways,” says God, “you will enjoy blessings." 13 blessings to be very specific. But if you don't walk in the way that God has set before us, there will be 30 curses-- really harsh judgments upon you.

It's what every parent knows, every teacher knows, that there are rewards and punishments. You can give incentives by saying, if you do this, we'll give you a wonderful reward. But if you don't, there will be a punishment. Interestingly, there are more punishments than rewards.

But the question for us is, why would we do the right thing? Is it because we think that we'll get some treat or reward, or that we're afraid of being punished? Isn't it possible that we could do the right thing just because it's the right thing?

Well that's the moral dilemma of contemporary philosophy and contemporary ethics. And of course, we know that in the ancient literature, it says that to do the right thing just because it's the right thing is, of course, the highest motivation. But how is it that we understand a world where people do endure very, very harsh punishments? What it suggests underneath it is a theology where somehow whatever happens to us is a reward or a punishment for what we do.

Well many people have asked the question, is that true? Do the righteous suffer? And why is it that people who seem to not be doing so much good seem to be having so much enjoyment in their lives?

The Talmud says there's another way to look at misfortune. It's not only a moral judgement. And there's a powerful teaching in the Talmud that says olam keminhago noheg.

"The things in the natural world, they sometimes just go their way." And it's not a judgment. If someone gets sick, we don't have to ask, what did they do to deserve this?

So in this teaching of im b’chukotai telechu, we asked the biggest questions about the odyssey. Why is it that good people seem to be going through such painful and difficult things in this life? And I love that we can find other ways to understand that other than to think that God is somehow like the proverbial celestial teacher, punishing and rewarding to see who's been naughty and who's been nice.

It offends, on some level, the religious sensibilities of all of us to imagine a God who operates in a world so simplistically and so predictably.

So why is it that we do the right thing? Well, if you look at people like Moses Maimonides or Lawrence Kohlberg, who was the great moral teacher who taught at Harvard for all those years, there are different categories. There's a ladder of moral discourse and moral practice. And to think that the first level is you do something because you're afraid of being punished or hoping for a reward. And the next level, you actually do the right thing because you know that it is something that leads to a good and whole community.

But the highest level is you simply do the right thing because you understand what is at stake. And you're not afraid. And you're not looking for an external reward. You just live the moral life with such clarity and such intuitiveness that the world is elevated.

So we end the book of Leviticus with this whole very, very exciting set of blessings and these very frightening curses. And we might think that's what it's like to live a religious life-- that we somehow live in this fear and trembling, or the hope that somewhere along the line we will be rewarded. But I hope that we can learn from Moses Maimonides, who predates Kohlberg by many centuries, to know that wherever we are, we are climbing a ladder of moral virtue.

And we may start in the first grade, or in the first decades of our lives, doing things for all kinds of external reasons. But ultimately, when we really learn and live a life of spiritual depth and moral purpose, we can't do otherwise than to do the right thing. It's simply what we understand and what we do.

So let us not be, in any way, distracted by these last verses. Let's not think that that's what it means to be a person of faith. No, to be a person of faith means to think deeply, to analyze all the different choices and the different things we might do with our lives, and to choose wisely over and over again. And sometimes we'll be surrounded by many blessings, and sometimes we will have very difficult times. But that does not indicate automatically how this life is to be measured.

So as we each try to figure out how do we, in our own days, do the right thing, let's continue to think about doing the right thing simply for the right thing. Not because it will make us popular, not that it will necessarily make us rich, but it will make our days full. And that, at the end of the day, is the thing that matters most.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today-- and we hope you did-- you can find new episodes each week at reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit reformjudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.

On the Other Hand: Ten minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot