A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8)Rather than nurturing the good relations between Egypt and the clan of Jacob, this new pharaoh give free rein to his paranoia and us-versus-them worldview. The Israelites are “other” – they are different and hence dangerous. They must be repressed and eliminated. And so Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites and enlists (coerces?) the help of Shifra and Puah, the midwives, in his diabolical plot of annihilation.
The midwives, however, defy Pharaoh and undermine his decree. They deliver babies and lie to Pharaoh. For this, God rewards them:
And [God] established households for the midwives because they feared God. (Exodus 1:21)Because the midwives preserved and enlarged the households of Israel, God established households for them.
A mishnah in tractate Sotah asserts: In the measure with which a person measures, it is meted out to him (Sotah 8b). Not only are the Rabbis claiming that God repays evil with evil and good with good, but that the manner in which evil is perpetrated and good is done determine the punishment or reward. The subsequent mishnah outlines several examples on each side of the ledger and the gemara that follows explicates them in detail. Here they are in brief from the mishnahh on Sotah 9b:
[Examples of those who did evil:] Samson followed his eyes; therefore the Philistines put out his eyes [Judges 16:21]… Absalom gloried in his hair; therefore he was hanged by his hair [II Samuel 15 – 18; the gemara continues with two more examples of how Absalom’s end mirrored his evil]… [Examples of those who did good:] Miriam waited a short while for Moses…therefore Israel was delayed for her seven days in the wilderness [Numbers 12:15 – when Miriam was stricken with leprosy, Israel waited for her to recover] … Joseph earned merit by burying his father… none other than Moses occupied himself with his burial [Exodus 13:19].Could anything be further from our experience in this world? We might wish this sort of divine response, but do we expect it? Do we even believe it possible? And do we find God less accessible and responsive if we neither experience nor expect God’s intervention in the manner the Rabbis describe?
Pirke Avot tells us:
Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] taught: … Be as attentive to a minor mitzvah as to a major one, for you do not know the reward for each of the mitzvot. (Pirke Avot 2:1)R. Yehudah ha-Nasi concedes that what we see in the world is not symmetrical with “measure for measure,” but that the basic system is indeed in place. We shouldn’t second-guess it. Antignos of Sokho goes further:
Antignos of Sokho received (Torah) from Simon the Just. He used to say: Be not like the servants who serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like the servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you. (Pirke Avot 1:3)Perhaps we shouldn’t focus on reward and punishment, but nothing here denies that this is how the world works. Is there an alternative?
Another view is that God, who is present in every aspect of the evolving universe, who is present in our world teeming with life, and who is the divine spark within every soul, is implicitly a part of every human choice for good or for evil. God stands present with us at the moment of choice – holding out to us, metaphorically, the best option – but does not bar us from making the wrong choice because free will is essential not only to our humanity but to our ability to be moral agents. This view of God does not require a balanced response to evil or a quid pro quo on the part of God in order for God's goodness and influence to be felt in the universe, nor does it evoke disappointment and depression when God does not punish and reward in the manner the Rabbis envisioned. Rather, this view exalts our free will and thereby empowers us to reach higher – toward heaven – to reach our potential.
If we can think of God this way, we won’t worry about reward and punishment. We won’t be hung up about payback. We’ll be more involved in paying it forward. And imagination what a difference that will make in our world!
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman