Sunday, September 09, 2007

Parshat Haazinu (Rabbi Sedley)

"The Rock (G-d), His actions are perfect (whole), for all His ways are justice. He is a G-d of faithfulness and without iniquity, He is just and upright" (Deuteronomy 32; 4). This is one of the opening verses of the song of Ha'azinu, Moshe's final words to the Jewish nation. Moshe is about to describe punishments that will befall the nation for their sins, but he first affirms G-d's justice. The concept of G-d's justice is one of the most fundamental ideas in Judaism, and one which seems particularly appropriate at this time of year. On Rosh Hashanah we proclaim G-d's majesty over the world, and acknowledge that He sits in judgement of creation.
The Rambam lists as the tenth 'principle of faith' (at the end of his introduction to Perek Chelek) that one of the fundamentals of belief is that G-d knows all of our actions, and watches over the world. There is nothing that happens in the world that G-d is not aware of. In the eleventh 'principle' Rambam continues that we must believe that G-d rewards every good deed and punishes each transgression. According to the Rambam the greatest possible reward can only be given in the world-to-come, and the greatest punishment is for a soul to be destroyed and be deprived of the world-to-come. However, other commentators also recognise that there is a certain degree of reward and punishment that takes place in this world.
The Talmud (Ta'anit 11a) explains our verse: 'G-d of faithfulness' teaches us that just as G-d punishes the wicked in the world-to-come for even a minor transgression that they have committed, so too He punishes the righteous in this world for any transgression. 'Without iniquity' for just as G-d rewards the righteous in the world-to-come for even the smallest Mitzvah, so He rewards the wicked in this world for any Mitzvah that they have done.
We see from here that G-d does not just 'balance the books', and allow merits to cancel out sins or vice-versa. Rather every single action must be rewarded or punished appropriately. Rashi explains that G-d rewards the wicked in this world in order that they can be removed in the world-to-come, as the verse states (Deuteronomy 7; 10) "G-d repays His enemies in their lifetime to destroy them". Conversely, by punishing the righteous in this world their sins can be erased, and they receive only reward in the world-to-come.
However, according to this G-d's justice seems very unfair. The world-to-come is a place of boundless goodness and delight. Even the smallest reward there is infinite. By contrast, this world is temporary. The greatest pleasure that a person could receive is by definition finite, both in value and duration. The converse is also true for punishment, any punishment in this world is limited, and any punishment in the world-to-come is forever. The Mishna (Avos 4; 22) states, "Better is one hour of enjoyment in the world-to-come than the whole of the life in this world". How can it be justice for G-d to punish the righteous in this world, and reward them in the world-to-come, yet reward the wicked in this world and punish them in the world-to-come?
The answer is based on the first part of that same Mishna, "Better is one hour spent in repentance and good deeds in this world, than all of the life of the world-to-come." When a person performs a Mitzvah for the right reasons they connect to the infinite spiritual energy which is G-d. Therefore their reward can only be obtained in the world-to-come, which is infinite. Conversely, any sin they perform may be only a temporary lapse of reason, and is only punished in the finite world. However, someone who is 'wicked' may perform many good deeds, but not necessarily because they believe that G-d commanded them. The performance of a Mitzvah 'because it makes sense', or 'because it is a good thing' is by definition only temporary. If a Mitzvah is only done for finite reasons, and not to connect to G-d, then the greatest reward that can be received can only be in this world. An infinite future reward is meaningless to someone who only believes in the reality of the present.
This may seem incomprehensible to us, but the Talmud (ibid.) continues, and explains the end of our verse. "He is just and upright". This teaches us that when a person dies all his deeds come before his soul, and say, 'You did such and such, at this time in this place' and he admits 'Yes'. The soul then agrees to the judgement, and exclaims, 'You have judged me justly'. We are unable to understand how the justice of G-d works from our vantage point in this world, but we know and proclaim that He is just and fair, and that after death we will be able to acknowledge His justice.

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