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Rewards, Punishments, and Consequences 8/24/20

David Dirlam

We first looked at the parts of the Sh’ma that Reform Judaism now excludes from the service. Rabbi Edery asked why they were excluded. David Z. mentioned it was because it made God the rewarder and punisher, like the Canaanite gods of Baal and Astarte. Doug suggested that seeing God to be like them made Him look created by men, as they were. Rabbi Edery explained that the Bible was written over a period of 700 years, and the conception of God changed. Mark introduced the idea that the rain that God rewards his people with is a metaphor for prosperity. I added "also for knowledge" and Janet "even for life" to the metaphor. Rabbi Edery summed up with a contrast between the causes of rewards and punishments being God or luck (mazel, a Hebrew word that originally referred to constellations of the stars).

The metaphors led us into the beautiful passage Rabbi Edery found about ripples in water left by tossing a stone. They spread out beyond our perception, like consequences, doing good and evil. So, we need to carefully reflect before tossing them. Don believed this answered the conundrum about making God responsible. Bill added that even praise can negatively affect others. Judy observed that the passage tells us to be responsible to each other.

Rabbi Edery introduced the idea that as opposed to God doing anything that He wants, the ripple story says that it depends on us. I added that memes are like viruses that live because we spread them. So, we need to think about the consequences of spreading them. Linda mentioned her experience starting a group and finding she couldn’t predict what happened to them. Rabbi Edery agreed that many of our actions bring impacts beyond our awareness. Ruth added the idea of how lashon hara (the evil tongue) can have negative impacts. Rabbi Edery reminded us of how rain is not so much of an issue today but asked, "What was the cause of today’s greatest issue?" Rebecca answered animals, while I answered population growth. Rabbi Edery elaborated that we are more in contact with animals of all sorts today, which brings unexpected diseases.

Linda F. mentioned Rabbi Kushner’s view of God being only in control of good things, not the bad. Rabbi Edery replied that Kushner gave God credit for what is good and absolved Him of what is bad. The prophets didn’t think that God didn’t believe everything he did was good. God created light, but it produces darkness…good and evil. You shine a light on anything, it will create a shadow. God in Lamentations became our enemy. Life gives us both good and bad. Blaming God for everything bad is blaming the victim.

Doug introduced the idea that the ripples make a hopelessly complex system. Rabbi Edery gave examples of the ripples due to the slave trade, deregulation, tax policies, and wars? We think that we wake up one day and start anew. We don’t. We are in the middle.

Linda asked how Kushner explained the Holocaust; and Rabbi Edery explained that God can do amazing things, but he can’t make a light that doesn’t make a shadow. Judy mentioned listening to many Holocaust survivors who said, “Where was God?” and lost their faith. Rabbi Edery related the effect to parenting. If our children think we are perfect, we are bound to fail.

Richard reminded us of the one prescription from the missing Sh’ma paragraph. Don’t worship other gods. He told of repeated stories of worshipping others, getting punished, regretting, recovering, and so on. If you abandon your national identity, you inherit the wind. Rabbi Edery replied that we should stick with who we are. God didn’t give us the promised land because we were the greatest, strongest, or best. We had better take care of the land and each other, or we won’t endure. Mark observed, "It’s not about rewards and punishments but loyalty to Judaism." Rabbi Edery explained, ”Don’t do injustice in society. Take responsibility for what you do.” Richard replied that that was not the interpretation in Judges, to which Rabbi Edery countered with, “The book of Judges likes to make a simple point. Good deeds bring reward and bad deeds punishment. That is what the Reform rabbis rejected.”

From there, the discussion turned to the quote from the renowned 17th Century Dutch/Portuguese philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, “We are not punished for our sins, but by them.” Rabbi Edery opened the discussion with the example that the punishment for destroying our environment is a destroyed environment. I added that the punishment for not learning is living in ignorance.

This brought us to the line from the Talmud (Avot): “The reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah; the reward for a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself; and the punishment for a transgression is the transgression itself.” Rabbi Edery reminded us that the writers of the Talmud lived in something like the Shoah. They would not say God caused it. I mentioned that it is much better to see the good that your students do with what you taught them than to receive any other benefit. Rabbi Edery added that many people told him of the good that his father did for them, but he was not alive to hear it. Mark observed that this lesson helps us to focus on what is important. Rabbi Edery added, “One mitzvah brings another mitzvah. That’s the ripple effect.” Don thought this was a very internalizing way to think about reward and punishment. Rebecca added that the reward of a mitzvah is a responsibility to continue.

Rabbi Edery concluded that the reward of mitzvah is the mitzvah—either the same or the next. “Maybe I’ve created a good habit. What’s the reward of spending 90 minutes in Tanakh Study? Either the study itself or some future study.”

Click here to enjoy the whole discussion.


Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784