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8 - Reward and Punishment

8 - Reward and Punishment



Stuart Fickler, Ph.D. 

Chapter 8 – Reward and Punishment

And the Lord God sent him out of the Garden of Eden, to till the soil, whence he had been taken. (Genesis 3:23)


We now come to the final scene of the drama of the Garden of Eden. In the language of the movies, was there an alternative ending available? This is exactly what some of our sages asked. What if Adam and Eve (humanity) had responded differently when they encountered God? What if they did not hide when God called, but responded, “Here we are”? What if they had answered differently when God saw them dressed in fig leaves, and God asked, “What have you done?” What if they had said: “We were tempted by the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. We wanted the wisdom it offered. So we ate of it. Now we are prepared to accept any judgment that you choose to place upon us.”   Would the outcome have been different?  Would it have been different for all of humanity to follow?

Considering the alternative, we may arrive at an entirely different view of the “sin”. It was not merely their disobedience. It had nothing to do with sex as the original sin. The sin was in their refusal to accept the responsibility for their choice. Remember, they blamed everyone and everything around them. Their ability to fulfill the demands of the Prime Directive depended on their ability to take responsibility for their choices.

Their “punishment” was that they had to learn to take responsibility for their choices. Maimonides says that their punishment was measure for measure. They had rejected responsibility, so they had to learn to take responsibility. This could not be achieved in the idyllic, undemanding environment of Eden. So, God sent them out of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve and all of their descendants must now set out on a journey of discovery and growth.

Now we can respond to Maimonides “objector” who said, It thus appears strange that the punishment for rebelliousness should be the means of elevating man to a pinnacle of perfection to which he had not attained previously."   The answer: this is the beginning of a process of growth. At the end of chapter 3, God says: "Behold man has become like one of us, having the ability of knowing good and evil…” (Gen. 3:22). Note that God does not say that they now know good and evil, but they have the ability to know good and evil. By eating the fruit, they have acquired the ability to know about good and evil. Now they must learn to apply that ability. That is, humanity has not yet been elevated, but now it has the potential to become God-like (holy). Punishment (expulsion from Eden) and reward (holiness) are now directed toward a single outcome: “…Have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

To illustrate this, let’s consider a young person who is told by a championship coach that s/he has the capacity to be a great athlete. The temptation is overwhelming, and s/he bites. The coach starts a punishing program of training. To make things worse, the coach insists on strict adherence to the training rules. Each day the athlete’s body is wracked with pain. Then comes the day when the athlete stands on the highest platform and receives an Olympic gold medal.  Is this punishment and/or elevation?

There is another, possibly more important, lesson to learn from this drama. When God tells Adam and Eve what will happen to them as a result of their actions (Gen. 3:16-19), the tone of the text is not punishing anger. It is, again, conversational. God is simply telling them that these are the consequences of your choice. With this, a thundering lesson comes through: You, now, have complete freedom of choice, but I, God, determine the consequences. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote, “Similarly, with regard to Divine retribution as a whole, it is written: "Your evil will chastise you," (Jeremiah 2:19) i.e., the suffering visited upon man is a natural consequence of sin.” (Likkutei Sichos, Metzora).

At this stage in their development humanity has acquired a characteristic that makes it unique among the creatures of the earth – the ability to know good and evil. God is still the unique possessor of the true knowledge of good and evil. However, this has the potential for a partnership of cosmic proportion. (Based on a commentary in Targum Jonathan, Gen. Rabbah 21:5.)

Judaism is not a religion that demands perfection of humanity, but it does demand that humanity strive toward a perfection defined by God. This is what Maimonides meant when he concluded the Guide with “… that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired-as far as this is possible for man-the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence.” Then humanity will have acquired the means to govern God’s earthly domain with justice and righteousness. This provides the context of the Torah and everything that follows from the Torah.

Now we know the purpose and direction of our journey. We are aware of what to look for along the way. We will discover how each segment of the trip will contribute to achieving our goal. We are blessed with the guidebook and the Guide. Let us begin the journey!

With God’s help, to be continued. Next time: “The Journey Begins”

Emet v’chaim.