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May 26, 1995 - Image 36

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1995-05-26

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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Reward, Punishment:
An Ancient Doctrine

RABBI RICHARD C. HERTZ SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH NEWS

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he concluding sedrah of
Leviticus strikes a note of
prophetic admonition and
warning. The Torah con-
trasts the blessings of faithful-
ness to God with the dire
calamities if the people prove dis-
loyal to God.
This fundamental religious
philosophy talks of God's re-
warding the righteous and pun-
ishing the wicked. The belief that
right is rewarded and wrong is
punished confirms the thought
that in the long run it will be well
with the good and evil with the
wicked.
The central idea of the holiness
code is that the people of Israel
bear the collective responsibility
to achieve holiness: "You shall be
holy for I the Lord your God am
holy." The holiness code empha-
sizes the interdependence of all
Israelites in every aspect of life.
The Book of Leviticus has been
made up of collections of religious
law and descriptions of ritual cel-
ebrations. Now come the two ma-
jor principles of biblical religion:
the concept of freewill and the
doctrine of reward and punish-
ment. In other words, obedience
to God's will brings reward; dis-
obedience brings dire punish-
ment.
In startling, almost terrifying
fashion, the differences between
righteous and unrighteous con-
duct are described. This funda-
mental thought is not unusual or
surprising. That God rewards the
righteous and punishes the
wicked became a fundamental
doctrine of Judaism.
This sedrah in its epilogue to
the Holiness code is divided into
three parts. First, the blessings
(verses 3-13) where God promis-
es Israel that if His laws and com-
mandments are properly obeyed,
He will bring peace and prosper-
ity to the land, safety from the
wild beasts, and enable the pop-
ulation to increase and be safe
from its enemies. This is the
covenant relationship between
God and the people of Israel.
The second part of the sedrah
is devoted to punishments that
will befall Israel and the land if
Israel violates or disregards God's
commandments. Admonition is
heaped upon admonition if the
Israelites do not return to God.
After one series of tragic punish-
ments, then even more horrible
punishments will ensue.

Dr. Richard C. Hertz is the
distinguished professor of
Judaism at the University of
Detroit- Mercy.

After all of these horrible pun-
ishments and disasters are de-
scribed as the ultimate
punishment, a new theme is sud-
denly introduced. A door is
opened to divine mercy and for-
giveness; if the people'of Israel
are contrite or confess their sins,
God will then remember His
covenant. Verse 46 says at the
conclusion to the entire Holiness
Code that God will remember fa-
vorably His covenant with the
people of Israel.
The custom of pledging one's
valuation in silver to the sanctu-
ary goes back to this ancient time.
The temple must be paid for; it
must be supported by pledges
and tithing, both by the yield of
the land and a tithing of the
flocks and herds.
The grave scenes expressed in
this sedrah about reward and
punishment reflect the prophet-
ic themes especially of Ezekiel
and to a lesser extend Jeremiah.
The epilogue to the holiness code

Shabbat Bechukotai:
Leviticus 26:3-27:34
Jeremiah
16:29-17:14.

grapples with the question of the
destines of the people of Israel in
the face of the destruction, the ul-
timate, and later destruction of
Jerusalem and Judea.
Why, ask the commentators,
does scripture enter into such
dreadful consequences of disobe-
dience? Why does it paint the
punishments of sin in such lurid,
graphic and terrifying colors?
Moses, good psychologist of his
people's feelings, must have
known that it is easy to portray
the joys of happiness in a few
short phrases, but to the primi-
tive Hebrews just out of Egypt-
ian slavery who had to be taught
the responsibilities of freedom,
the consequences of lapses and
violations had to be pictured in
words of dreadful devastation,
like "a hammer blow that spliteth
the rock." The people had to be
taught to serve God and be right-
eous for the sake of righteousness
alone.
As Antigonos of Socho said, "Be
not like servants who serve their
master to receive a reward, but
he like servants who serve the
master without purpose of re-
ceiving a reward, and let the rev-
erence of Heaven be upon you.' ❑

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