Maybe two years ago, Tyler Levan, who’s now nine years old, walked into his parents’ bedroom shortly after they’d tucked him and said, “I’m afraid of the monsters and bears.” Don, Tyler’s dad, then did what his father had done for him when he was little and afraid of monsters in the dark. He took out his “monster spray” and shpritzed Tyler’s door, his windows, his closet and his bed. Don and Judy then hugged Tyler goodnight, thinking that should do the trick, but he stopped them and asked, “How will the spray work if monsters aren’t real?”
And with that deeply philosophical question which confronts our awareness that something may not be true and yet we cling to the possibility that perhaps it is, Tyler Levan touched upon a debate that has dogged humankind since our brains brought us out of the trees. Religion used to make excellent and effective use of fear to get people to live morally upright lives. The formula was a simple one: do God’s mitzvot and receive God’s reward; stray from God’s mitzvot and prepare to meet thy doom. Such “understanding” of how the world works used to go unquestioned, and many behaved better because of it. Today, we may have great difficulty believing in the doctrine of reward and punishment, but we sure wish it were real.
Judaism used to believe that reward and punishment are meted out in this lifetime. In this week’s parashah, Bekhukotai, which encompasses the final chapters of Leviticus, it’s still the first year following the Exodus with the forty years of wandering still ahead (although they won’t know that until chapter 13 in Numbers). In Leviticus 26, God tells the Israelites that if they follow the mitzvot, the rains will fall in their season, the land will yield its produce, the trees their fruit, wild beasts will not pursue them, and their enemies will flee before them. But God warns without so much as taking a breath, if you choose not to follow the mitzvot, “I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle. I will bring a sword against you. And if you withdraw into your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into enemy hands. Ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven; and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied.”
This strategy worked for a while, I suppose. And in fact, there are still plenty of people today who fear God’s retribution for lying, stealing, and worse. But most of us have seen how this works. Lots of bad guys get away with everything – crooks, liars, murderers – so many going unpunished, enjoying their stolen riches that, when it comes to being the good guy, we might conclude, “Well, someone’s gotta be stolen from, lied to, and rubbed out.”
Where’s the justice in that? Judaism’s response came about twenty-five hundred years ago, sometime after our Torah narrative was born, in the book of Job. The story describes a protagonist who has it all but, one by one, he watches his business, his health, and his family be taken away from him. Comforters arrives and interrogate Job to determine what sins he had committed to earn such ill treatment from God. The book is a powerful critique of Torah, challenging the reward-punishment doctrine and echoing what must have been rampant doubt about God’s reliability in matters of just desserts. Twenty-five hundred years later, Rabbi Harold Kushner articulated similar ideas in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He seeks not to explain why bad things happen – that ship sailed when Job’s author upended our sense of God watching over the world and sending home report cards assessing our moral behavior. Kushner shrugs his shoulders when questioned about God’s intentions; instead, he tries only to be helpful to those who want responses and strategies – not answers – for surviving crisis and tragedy.
By the middle ages, Maimonides listed the doctrine of reward and punishment in his famed Yigdal – the 13 Attributes of Faith – but he moved it from bodily consequences to the fate of the soul, and so did Jewish tradition. Reward and punishment are no believed to necessarily be part of this lifetime but are meted out in the world-to-come. In other words, if we’re good, traditional Judaism teaches that eternal fun and sunshine await us; and if we’re bad, we’re consigned to something akin to the flames of eternal damnation.
You may be saying to yourself, “I didn’t know Judaism believes in heaven and hell?” The short answer is yes, we do. What those two things look like, nobody pretends to know. Jewish thinkers and writers throughout the ages have toyed with these concepts, but the rabbis only settle upon this admonition, “Just observe the mitzvot. Be careful how you live your life in this world and the world-to-come will take care of itself.”
In spite of Judaism’s clarity of faith on the question of reward and punishment, it’s simply not good enough for me. I’m way too impatient to shout at the guy who just cut me off on 287, “You’ll get yours in the world-to-come!” I need something more instantaneous to satisfy the Angry God-complex inside me. Ellen is frequently horrified by the things I say behind the safety of our windshield to drivers who do stupid, rude and dangerous things. Driving while texting, tailgating, turning right from the left-hand lane, people who throw their garbage out the window, all of these drive me insane.
But my own feelings about the need for instant retribution aside, is there any real payback in the here-and-now for a person’s behavior?
To some extent, I believe – or at least I want to believe – that karma is real, that the universe reacts to how we behave. That “the Force” in Star Wars really can be with you. Back when I was into Transcendental Meditation, we used to refer to this as “the support of nature.” And sometimes I feel like there might be something to that. Dr. King taught us that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” And Steven Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, asserts that violence throughout the world – including military conflict, homicide, genocide, torture, treatment of children, of animals, and of minorities – such violence has declined. In other words, life has gotten better for all of us. Admittedly, that’s a very general statement, and life for any given individual may be horrid and cruel, but overall human existence has grown more secure across the generations. Which means, I would imagine, that more bad guys have been brought to justice and more good guys have felt the sun shining at their backs.
Besides looking for evidence in the daily news of increasing fairness and justice, I suggest that equally as important is what we see in our everyday lives around us – the people with whom we have regular contact, whom we watch day in and day out, how they treat others around them, and the effect this has on how others view – and subsequently regard – them.
I think that perhaps the greatest joy, and honor, of serving as a rabbi at Woodlands is observing how you live your lives. I see how you spend time with your families – with your partners, your children and grandchildren, your parents and grandparents – and I’m endlessly touched by the generous love you give to each other. I see how you spend time with other members of this congregation, how a simple greeting can lift another person’s day, how a shared opinion can be respectfully welcomed during a discussion, and how a visit to a congregant in need – and I’m thinking especially of your visits to Irene Gurdin at the Sarah Neumann Nursing Home and to Gloria Falk at Care One in New Jersey – and I’m simply bowled over by the love that you’re willing to bring to others. And then I see how you roll up your sleeves and distribute food and clothing on the Midnight Run, how you prepare meals and engage in conversation with the elderly folks from Project Ezra. I witnessed your incredible desire to help families whose homes had been damaged along the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina and then right nearby during Superstorm Sandy. And I watched as you built a Jubilee Tablecloth and presented nearly $4000 in donations to my friend, Rabbi Jonathan Stein, and the organization Mazon which seeks to reduce hunger worldwide.
And then I watch as the leaders of this congregation – from committees that prepare scavenger hunts, barbecues and college mailings right on up to our Board of Trustees and Executive Committee – how you treat one another, listening respectfully, disagreeing lovingly, and acting to create something of beauty here at Woodlands that goes way beyond any particular program or project, but blossoms in the relationships that reflect Judaism’s admittedly idealistic hope that when we look into each other’s eyes, we see God’s face, and we treat one another accordingly. It doesn’t always happen, and when it doesn’t it feels awful, but so very much of the time, it does happen. And that makes my spirit soar.
These kindnesses that we bestow upon each other, they are very much their own rewards. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. For some there are more pieces. For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble. Some seem to be born with nearly a completed puzzle. And so it goes. Souls going this way and that trying to assemble the myriad parts. But know this. No one has within themselves all the pieces to their puzzle. Like before the days when they used to seal jigsaw puzzles in cellophane, insuring that all the pieces were there. Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else’s puzzle. Sometimes they know it. Sometimes they don’t. And when you present your piece, which is worthless to you, to another, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are a messenger from the Most High.”
We carry one another’s puzzle pieces. Our tasks – perhaps assigned to us by God, maybe comprising one or more of the universal sparks which our mystical tradition describes as our role in tikkun olam, making the world whole – these tasks invite us to increase goodness wherever we can. And in so doing, welcome others to increase goodness for us.
It may just be my greatest statement of faith, but I absolutely believe that goodness abounds, that while temptation and perhaps fear can drive us to act contrary to what we know is right, most of us try to do the right thing. And not just because it’s right, but because we like doing good. And I suppose my other great statement of faith is that I believe these things come back to us. They come back in the respect we engender within ourselves. They come back in the admiration and love we receive from others who observe our kindnesses. And maybe they even come back in a loving universe that appreciates the good we’ve done and tries to offer some good in return.
A number of years ago, I found myself sitting in the dentist chair, with the hygienist describing in great detail events that had brought her to the conclusion that she is definitely being watched over by a guardian angel. My mouth, at the time, was filled with dental instruments and so I was unable to react. I might have told her I don’t believe in guardian angels and that we run the course of our lives within the very logical (‘though not always kind) forces of nature. But perhaps it was better that my mouth was otherwise occupied and that I lived another decade or so before responding to her here tonight. A little older and, I don’t know, wiser? Humbler? Kinder? Now I think, who am I to tell anyone that their life is anything less than a blessing? And that the forces of the universe don’t love someone who values gentleness and caring.
The number of our years is far too few to spend them on anything other than being good to each other. Maybe that makes me her guardian angel. I can’t swoop down and make sure that she and her family are always safe, but I can put in a good word with her boss that I think she’s a great hygienist, and I can tell you how wonderful she is, how she models the kind of behavior and approach to life from which I think we’d all benefit. Which maybe makes me your guardian angel. And later, when you share your story of someone’s not-extraordinary kindness (because “extraordinary” is the last thing that kindness ought to be), perhaps you’ll be my guardian angel.
Tyler Levan quite likely wanted his parents and their “monster spray” to look out for him. But that big brain of his understood that reality might be otherwise. There may be no monsters in the night. But if that’s the case, how do we manage the fear that we feel nonetheless?
The answer may be in our mitzvot. Whether it’s the 613 that are denoted in Torah, or some other collection that we learned from our parents, from our teachers, in our books, or just by watching how life works … regardless, our actions may very well trigger re-actions that reflect back some of what we’ve put out into the universe. And while the reward or punishment may or may not be felt by us in our lifetimes, it’s out there somewhere.
I choose to believe it is. And try to live accordingly. It was good enough for my ancestors, and that’s plenty good that’s left for me.
Hazak hazak v’nitkhazek! With these thoughts, we end this year’s cycle of learning from the book of Leviticus, and we wish one another strength of body, strength of spirit, and strength of faith that goodness is indeed, in some way known or not, a source of personal and universal reward.
Ken y’hee ratzon.