Eleventh of the Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith laid down by the Rambam in the twelfth century, and the second of the four Principles relating to what we believe regarding G-d’s System of Rewards and Punishments for the individual, the ultimate Redemption of the Jewish People and of Humanity by the arrival of the Mashiach, and the Revival of the Dead.
“I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, rewards those who observe His Commandments, and punishes those who violate His Commandments.”
Many verses in the Torah clearly corroborate this Principle.
On the reward side: In the second paragraph of “Kriat Shema,” incorporated into our prayers as the great testimony of Faith of the Jewish People, we find, “And it will come to pass that if you consistently obey My Commands that I command you today, to love HaShem, your G-d, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early and late rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. I will provide grass in the field for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied…” (Devarim 11:13-15)
On the punishment side: The beginning of the “Tochachah” (the litany of punishments for violation of the Commandments of HaShem) – “But it will be that if you do not obey the voice of HaShem, your G-d, to observe and to perform all of His Commandments and all the decrees that I command you today, then all of the following curses will befall you and overtake you: ‘Accursed will you be in the city and accursed will you be in the field. Accursed will be your fruit basket and your kneading bowl. Accursed will be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your field, the offspring of your cattle and the flocks of your sheep and goats. Accursed will you be when you come in and when you go out…’ ” (Devarim 28:15-19)
Long life is promised by the Torah for fulfillment of the Commandments regarding honoring one’s parents and of not taking the mother bird with her child. Probably the most famous heretic described in the Talmud was Rabbi Elisha ben Avuya, the teacher of Rabbi Meir, known as “Acher,” the “other One,” because of his loss of Faith. He saw a boy fulfilling the two Commandments cited above simultaneously, obeying his father’s command to climb a ladder and send away the mother bird before taking the child – and falling to his death from the ladder. He was not able to deal with the apparent inconsistency.
Judaism long ago recognized the philosophical conundrum of the “Suffering of the Righteous and the Prospering of the Wicked.” In Pirkei Avot (4:19), Rabbi Yanai said, “We have no understanding of the Suffering of the Righteous and the Prospering of the Wicked.” Some say this is the theme of the Book of Iyov, in which the righteous Iyov is made to suffer terribly, albeit temporarily, because of what is portrayed as a “bet” between G-d and Satan as to whether Iyov will maintain his righteousness despite his suffering. He does. G-d “wins the bet” (a terrible synopsis of this profound Book of Scripture), and Iyov is restored to health and prosperity. One answer is that HaShem, the Judge of all the Worlds, knows exactly who was righteous and who was wicked, and evens things up in the after-life.
In his “Peirush HaMishnayot,” “Explanation of the Mishnah,” the Rambam defines the great reward that HaShem promises to those who obey His Commandments as “Olam HaBa,” the “World that is Coming,” and the terrible punishment in store for those who willingly transgress them as “Kares,” being cut off from eternal life in that Spiritual World. After one of the grievous sins of the Children of Israel, HaShem makes a proposition to Moshe (whether or not He really meant it is unclear) that He will make Moshe into the nucleus of an entirely new nation. Moshe responds, “If you forgive the Children of Israel, well and good, but if not, erase me also from the Book that you have written.” Whereupon HaShem says to Moshe, the Faithful Shepherd of His People, “I will erase those who sin against Me” – implying that HaShem knows the Righteous from the Sinner, that He will reward the Righteous by inclusion in His “Book,” and punish the transgressor by erasure of his entry from that “Book,” where the “Book” probably refers to the “Book of Life” that we speak of on “Rosh HaShanah,” the “Day of Judgment,” when we ask HaShem to include us in His “Book of Life” for the Coming Year.
An indication as to what one should “not think” regarding G-d’s System of Reward and Punishment appears in the third Mishnah of “Pirkei Avot,” where we find an example of careless instruction: “Antigonus, the most prominent resident of Socho, received the Tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He used to teach, ‘Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive a reward; rather, be like servants who serve their master not for the purpose of receiving a reward, and let the Fear of Heaven be upon you.’ ” Now Antigonus had two great students: Tzadok and Baitus, and each of them misunderstood the above teaching. They thought that their teacher meant that there would be no reward for good behavior. They didn’t think that was “fair,” and abandoned the Faith. But that was not the intention of the teacher; he was merely referring to the desired motivation, that a good deed should be done “lishmo,” for its own sake.
The poetic rendering of this Principle in “Yigdal” is as follows:
“He rewards the righteous with Kindness, according to his accomplishment;
He gives the wicked punishment, according to his wickedness.”
Notice that in the leading clause of the stanza, the word “accomplishment” is used, because positive behavior is creative; it bears fruit, while in the final
clause that describes the punishment of the wicked, that word is not used, because negative behavior is only destructive, accomplishes nothing and bears