Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 21 February 2015 / 2 Adar I 5775

Reward of Punishment

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Laura

Dear Rabbi,

There’s something that’s bothering me that I hope you can clarify. I’m uncomfortable with the strong emphasis on punishment and Divine retribution in the Torah. Does the reason for doing G-d’s will have to be so based on fear? Can’t we serve G-d out of love?

Dear Laura,

This is a very important question; thanks for asking it.

For starters, please recall that the “Shema” which we recite twice daily as a testimony to our belief in G-d and commitment to do His will begins with the injunction, “You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”. This clearly defines love for G-d as the basis for believing in and serving Him.

However, love is not always enough to ensure fidelity. Sometimes a person may not feel love, or might not feel it enough, or might not be motivated to action or to refrain from action because of it, or might be attracted in other directions despite of it, etc. For these reasons and more, the incentive to serve G-d out of love is qualified with a reminder that service is not contingent on feeling but is rather a requirement.

Therefore the Torah is replete with promises of reward and warnings for punishment as a result of either fulfilling or transgressing G-d’s commandments.

That being said, there are two clarifications which might make punishment more “palatable” to you.

First, the Jewish notion of punishment is not punitive but rather to purify. G-d does not desire retribution for our misdeeds but rather that we become aware of them, repent them and restore our latent purity. This is the meaning of such verses as, “He who G-d loves, He chastises” (Prov. 3:11), and “G-d does not desire the death of the wicked but rather that he repent and live” (Ez. 33:11).

Accordingly, the purpose of punishment is not to cause suffering per se, but to point one toward the path of repentance, purity and reconciliation.

Second, on a deeper level, punishment is not brought upon us from a spiteful G-d, but rather we construct the matrix of our own suffering. G-d created the world such that the positive energy we create through Torah and mitzvot is preserved for us to enjoy, while the harmful energy we create through transgression encompasses us in negativity. Simply put: we punish ourselves.

According to this understanding, the Torah’s warnings of punishment are really the Loving G-d’s imploring us not to harm ourselves.

This perception provides a unique insight into the quintessential example of punishment – the prohibition and repercussion of Adam’s prematurely experiencing the knowledge of good and evil.

When G-d warned, “But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17), He was not frightening them with death for transgressing, but rather foretelling the result of polluting themselves with impurity. Since G-d desired their self-perfection, rebellious sin would require effecting that perfection through the more circuitous route of death and resurrection.

And this explains on a deeper level the connection of their subsequent expulsion from Eden to the Tree of Life: “Behold, Man has become like one of us, having the ability of knowing good and evil, and now, lest he stretch forth his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever” (Gen. 3:22). G-d was not banishing them in His fury, but rather compassionately ensuring that, after sinning, immortality would not preclude the perfection which, post-sin, could only be achieved through the purification of body and soul through death and rebirth.

So the warning of mortality was not in order to torment, but rather to protect Man from himself. Similarly, the result of exile was not to spite, but rather to enable Man to perfect himself despite himself.

This explanation of the prototype of transgression and punishment thus provides a basis for comprehending it in all its future manifestations.


  • Tomer Devora, Ch. 1, attribute 2
  • Nefesh HaChaim, Gate 1, in glosses to Ch. 6

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