Torah Knowledge For Non-Jews Vol. 1
Noahide Nations has an extraordinarily high level of confidence in the content of the Torah teachings provided by our Rabbis and Instructors. However, any views and opinions expressed in these teachings do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Noahide Nations, the Academy of Shem or the International Torah Fellowship.
7. Man, Reward and Punishment
The Purpose of Creation
“Why did God create the world?” is perhaps the hardest question ever asked. To answer it, we have to presuppose an understanding of God’s exact will and innermost thoughts before creation. If you studied the prior lesson on God carefully, then you will realize that this is impossible.
To further complicate things, consider that God is an absolute perfection, without lack or needs. He didn’t need to create us. Therefore, his ultimate reasons for doing so are unfathomable.
Any discussion of God’s purpose is only possible from our perspective as the beneficiary of creation.
The Greatest Act of Love
Taking into consideration all that we cannot know, it informs us as to what we do know. If G-d is perfect and had no need to create us, then the act of creation must stand as the ultimate act of altruism. The Psalms speak of creation as such, describing it as an act of love:
The world is built of love.
It is also an act of the ultimate goodness:
God saw all that He made and – behold! It was very good!
Since God is perpetually creating all reality, it means that His goodness and love is constantly sustaining all creation:
God is good to all; His love is upon all his works.
At every instant God’s pure desire for us flows throughout every atom of creation.
Partaking of True Good
You let me know the path of life; in your presence is the fullness of joy. In your right hand is eternal bliss.
I am The Lord your God who instructs you for your own reward…
This first verse tells us that God is the ultimate goodness9. The second verse tells us both that Man is capable of partaking of that ultimate goodness and that God instructs us as to how we should do so.
However, in order to be aware of divine goodness, we must know its absence. This is another reason for tzimtzum, the restriction of God’s presence in the physical creation. By reducing the everyday immanent experience of God, true experiences of His goodness can be fully recognized.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…
This verse alludes to man’s free will – his ability to choose whether to partake of God’s goodness or to turn away from it.
If man had no free will, then enjoyment of God’s goodness would not be true enjoyment. It would be a compulsory, rote experience devoid of greater meaning. Once he has the ability to desire and choose God’s goodness, only then does the experience becomes valuable.
Therefore, God created man with free will. Besides God, man is the only being who can act upon his free choice. In this sense, man resembles God. This is the fundamental understanding of man having been created “in the image of God.”
Free will, however, requires both an internal and external mechanism in order to function.
Internal Aspects: Yetzer Tov vs. Yetzer Hara
Internally, man is imbued with two opposing forces:
The yetzer tov – the desire for good, altruism, self-betterment, and mitzvos.
The yetzer hara – the desire for evil, selfishness, self-destruction, and transgression.
This dual nature of man explains the apparent contradiction between these two verses:
And God created man in his image; in the image of G-d he created him.
The desire of man’s heart is evil from his youth.
The first verse refers to man’s divine potential – the yetzer tov, the desire for good. The second refers to man’s base desires – his yetzer hara, the desire for evil.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Nachman bar Rav Chisda sees an allusion to both aspects in the verse:
And God formed [רצייו] man…
Rabbi Nachman points out that the word רצייו is spelled with and extra yud. He sees the two yuds in the word as an allusion to God’s having formed man with two desires (also, the word yotzer, formed, is a cognate of the word yetzer, desire).
In Torah thought all of man’s actions and choices are the result of a struggle between these two inclinations. One seeks the holy, the other the profane - one desires knowledge, the other wants only physical pleasure.
One might think that the goal of man is to entirely ignore his evil desire. This is not so. The ideal for man is to subdue his bad desire to his good desire, thus making it a tool of divine service.
External Aspects: Man vs. the World
In order for Man to have free will, he must be placed in an environment that allows him to exercise his power of choice. Therefore, God created a world filled with opportunities for both good and evil in which all things speak to his ultimate purpose:
God has made everything for his own purpose, even the wicked…
I form light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I am God – I do all these things.
In this environment, any and every decision a person makes is the direct result of a nuanced struggle between these opposite inclinations.
How man decides to use or pervert the opportunities God offers is man’s choice alone and one for which he bears 100% of the responsibility:
If a person sins… he bears full responsibility for his action.
Since the potential for evil resides within man and is evenly matched with his capacity for good, the Torah rejects any concept of an all-evil being or devil who temps people into sin. To iterate: people are 100% responsible for their own sins.
Reward & Punishment
We tend to think that we are rewarded for our good deeds and punished for our transgressions. This view is true only of laws created and administered by man. Spiritual reward and punishment operate according to a different mechanic. Just as God created the natural world with its own principles of cause and effect, He did the
same with the spiritual world.21 Within this system reward and punishment are direst results of one’s actions rather than things meted out for one’s actions.
This idea runs throughout Tanakh:
A wicked man’s sins shall entrap him; he will be bound in the binds of his own transgression.
God is known by the judgment he carries out when the wicked man is ensnared in the work of his own hands.
He who digs a pit shall fall into it.
These verses make clear that God’s justice is programmed into the spiritual law of the universe and operates as a direct result of one’s own actions. The same applies to reward.27 However, there is a difference: while punishment is precisely meted out, reward is given liberally.28 Furthermore, the ultimate reward for good lasts for eternity while the punishment for evil is only temporary. Because the nature of reward and punishment differ, good deeds cannot cancel out evil and vice versa. This is learned from a verse in the Torah:
God does not give special consideration or take bribes.
Summary of the Lesson
- God’s innermost reasons for wanting to create the world are mysterious and cannot be understood. We can only understand His reasons from our perspective as the beneficiaries of creation.
- Creation was the greatest, truest, and purest act of love and altruism. Since God is constantly creating, His love and goodness are constantly being sustaining the world.
- It is possible for man to partake of and experience the underlying goodness that sustains creation. He does so by keeping the mitzvos and serving and clinging to God.
- In order to know this good, we much know its absence. This is another reason for the idea of tzimtzum.
- Man must voluntarily earn this good; otherwise his benefit would not be true benefit. Only by choosing it voluntarily does man truly enjoy it. Therefore God gave man free will.
- In this aspect of free will man, in a very small way, resembles his Creator. This is the idea of man having been made in God’s image.
- To enable free will, man was given two conflicting internal drives: a desire to do good and a desire to do bad. Man was also placed in an environment which provides him with choices and contexts in which to exercise his will.
- Reward and punishments are best conceived as the effects of our choices rather than judgments that are meted out. Reward and punishment are the effects of a “spiritual law” established by God and similar to natural law.
- One’s mitzvos cannot cancel out his transgressions. A person is rewarded for all of his mitzvos and punished for all of his sins. However, sincere repentance can convert ones sins into merits.
- The primary place for reward and punishment is not in this world. Nevertheless, some reward and punishment is possible in this world depending on the circumstances.
- Occasionally the relationship between the mitzvah/reward and the sin/punishment is obvious. Sometimes it is not.