From a cursory review of this week’s Torah reading, one can easily come to the conclusion that God’s method for dealing with us is with earthly rewards and punishments. The blessings that appear in the reading are all physical, emotional and sometimes psychological. There is no mention of eternal life, the survival of the soul, and/or of the rewards in the World to Come.
And the same is true relative to the punishments and disasters, which are predicted to happen to the Jewish people when they stray from the path of God and righteousness. All of those punishments and tragedies, described in great and graphic detail, are events of this world and of its physical nature. Again, there is no mention of an afterlife judgment or of the concept of the punishment of the soul in a different sphere of existence.
All of this creates a great philosophical and theological conundrum of why good people oftentimes suffer greatly in their lifetime and why, in the reverse, evil people many times seem to prosper and are never held accountable for their nefarious deeds. Though there is a biblical book – Iyov – that deals almost exclusively with this issue, in its conclusion it really affords no answer to the great question that it has raised.
It is only in the development of the Oral Law in Jewish tradition that the concept of the afterlife and of heavenly judgment of the soul is introduced. At the very least, this basic idea of Jewish faith is presented as a partial answer to the nagging question of why the righteous suffer in this world. Yet, it must be admitted that the literal written Torah speaks of reward and punishment as a purely physical matter that takes place in our actual physical world.
All of the great scholars of Israel throughout the ages have grappled with this issue and followed varied paths in attempting to deal with the matter. There are many factors, known and unknown, which determine the fate of an individual and of the nation. In effect, that is really the answer that the Lord, so to speak, addresses to Iyov regarding his complaints pertaining to the unfairness of life.
Heaven operates in this world on so many different levels that it is impossible for human beings to comprehend them all. The Torah presents reward and punishment in its simplest form and with the lowest common denominator possible. But it does not limit itself to our understanding of righteousness and evil. It simply sets forth that in this world, just as in the world of the afterlife and the spirit, the concept of reward and punishment governs.
We pray thrice daily to the kingdom of judgment. We live our lives based on the fact that we know that we are constantly being assessed and judged. Our ignorance of the details as to how this system functions, does not in any way belie our knowledge that it exists. It must be taken into account continually during our lives.
Rabbi Berel Wein