Between the Lines—Reeih

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

דברים רבה (וילנא) פרשה ד
ד"א ראה אנכי א"ר אלעזר משאמר הקב"ה הדבר הזה בסיני באותה שעה (איכה ג) מפי עליון לא תצא הרעות והטוב אלא מאיליה, הרעה באה על עושי הרעה והטובה באה על עושי הטובה, ד"א א"ר חגי ולא עוד שנתתי לכם שני דרכים אלא שנכנסתי לפנים משורת הדין ואמרתי לכם ובחרת בחיים.

 

"See, this day I set before you blessing and curse" (Deut. 11:26). Rabbi Eleazar said: "From the time when God uttered this on Sinai, it has been laid down that 'out of the mouth of the Most High proceeds not evil and good' (Lam. 3:38); but evil comes on its own account to those who do it, and good comes to those who do good." Rabbi Haggai said: "[God said,] 'And what is more, not only have I set two paths before you, but I have not dealt with you according to the strict letter of the law, and I said to you, "Therefore choose life" (Deut. 30:19).'"

Part of the problem with the theology of reward and punishment (or blessings and curses, as it is couched in the parashah this week) is that we know it to not be true. We have all seen good people live and die tragically, and others deserving punishment living long, happy lives. It is difficult, as sophisticated thinkers, to apply the reward-and-punishment idea in any satisfying way to reality as we know it.

This midrash opens up the possibility of an alternate reading. What if the good and bad things that happen to us are not rewards or punishments from an external, judging God but rather the natural consequences of our own actions? Perhaps this midrash hints at what the Hasidim taught many centuries later, that our internal state affects how we see the world, including how we experience the highs and lows of life. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan—who was hardly a Hasid—taught that "if we identify God with that aspect of reality which confers meaning and value on life and elicits from us those ideals that determine the course of human progress, then the failure to live up to the best that is in us means that our souls are not attuned to the divine, that we have betrayed God" (The Meaning of God in Modern Religion, p. 165). Good and evil, according to this philosophy, are not rewards and punishments meted out by God but the ripple effects of our own living up to, or failure to live up to, the best that is within us.

The paths set before us, of blessing and curse, are paths full of compassion. As Rabbi Haggai said, God does not hold us to the strictest letter of the law. As we strive in the coming weeks to turn ourselves inward in the process of teshuvah culminating with the High Holy Day season, the parashah and midrash this week invite us to "choose life" by examining the effects of our actions and the way we have come to walk through and look at the world.