The torah portion begins with Moshe describing to the people the rewards
they'll receive for following in God's ways -- people and flocks will
be fruitful, crops will be bountiful, none will be barren, there'll be
no sickness or plagues, and they'll be victorious over the other nations.
This is one of several places where the torah describes rewards for
doing mitzvot. This is hard to understand, though, because the world
doesn't work this way -- we do have people who want children and are
barren, we do have sickness, crops aren't always bountiful, and so on.
The good sometimes suffer and the wicked sometimes flourish. So how are
we supposed to understand this?
(Spoiler warning: I don't have deep answers to this age-old problem.
I have some thoughts.)
One approach we could take is to place it in context. Moshe is speaking
to the Israelites at the end of their 40-year trek to the promised land.
They're standing on the shore of the Yarden, about to cross over and
conquer the land after this speech. Perhaps Moshe is speaking to these
people in this time. There's even an ambiguously-placed "in the land
that He will give you" (in 7:13), so maybe this promise isn't for everybody
That's not very satisfying, though. The torah is supposed to be eternal,
for us and not just for them.
Another approach was taken by the rabbis at least as early as the
mishna (in Pirke Avot): Olam HaBa, the world to come. If we aren't
rewarded in this world, Olam HaZeh, then we will be later. There are
even mitzvot for which we get rewarded in both; we list some of them
in eilu d'varim in the morning service. We should still focus on
this world, not obsess about an afterlife like some other religions do,
but an afterlife gives another opportunity for reward. I'm not sure
how satisfying this is to most people, either.
I'd like to propose two additional dimensions to what the torah says
about rewards, two additional axes to consider.
The first is communal versus individual actions and rewards. Sometimes
the torah addresses us in the singular and sometimes in the plural.
Some rewards, like bountiful crops, are clearly communal -- it's pretty
hard for me to have a good harvest with rain in its proper season and
so on while my immediate neighbor has the opposite. Some rewards could
be individual, like health. Obligations, too, come in individual and
communal varieties; we all have individual obligations in the mitzvot,
but the whole community together has some too, like setting up courts,
bringing communal offerings, and conducting wars in particular ways.
And sometimes individual obligations can bring communal rewards --
there's a rabbinic tradition that if every Jew in the world were to keep
(the same) Shabbat once, we'd get the moshiach. Quite aside from the
individual rewards for keeping Shabbat -- you get Shabbat, a day of
rest -- there can be a big communal reward.
When looking for rewards for our actions, therefore, we should look
to both our individual and our communal benefits. Even if you're not
feeling personally rewarded for following torah, maybe you're helping
your whole community live in safety, health, and comfort. That counts,
The second dimension is the question of whom we do mitzvot for.
The Reform movement is not a halachic movement. Ok, technically we
do say that the ethical mitzvot are binding and it's only the ritual
ones that are optional, but those ethical mitzvot align pretty well with
values we already have anyway like not stealing, being honest in business,
caring for the poor, and many others. Among the others, we choose --
sometimes as a community and sometimes individually -- which mitzvot
have meaning to us and we do those. Many of us find meaning in Shabbat,
in communal worship like our morning minyan, in study, in many
social-justice pursuits, and more.
If our progressive values and halacha conflict, however, we reinterpret
(occasionally) or set aside (usually) halacha. By and large, we
do the mitzvot that we do for ourselves, for the good feelings they
produce and the values they align with.
When we do mitzvot for ourselves, maybe that good feeling that we
get is the reward for doing the mitzvah. That's fair -- we're rewarded
here and now, in Olam HaZeh, for doing mitzvot. Isn't that what we
So we tend to do mitzvot for ourselves, but there's an alternative.
If we believe that torah is mi Sinai, from God, then we should
do mitzvot not for ourselves but for God. Even the goofy ones,
the ones we don't understand and don't find personal meaning in. (I
struggle with this, to be clear.) I don't know too many people who find
spiritual fulfillment in sha'atnez, the law against combining linen and
wool, but it's something God cares about. Last week a friend and I were
talking about kitniyot, the additional foods that Ashkenazim don't eat
during Pesach even though they're not chametz, forbidden grains. (A
bunch of other foods got implicated by association.) My friend is a
thoughtful, intelligent person who wrestles with torah and seeks to
understand; he's not one to just say "tell me what to do and I'll do it".
He told me that some of these decisions about kitniyot are clearly
wrong -- but nonetheless the halachic system that God gave us
produced this result, so he follows it. For God, not for himself.
The name of our portion, Eikev, comes from the same root as Ya'akov,
heel-grabber. I don't remember where I heard this idea, but perhaps this
word is meant to remind us not to trample on mitzvot just because we
think they're minor or goofy. Who's to say which ones God most cares
What's the reward for doing mitzvot for God and not for us? Is there
a reward for putting up with ridiculous-seeming food restrictions for
Pesach, for waving greenery around on Sukkot, for checking fiber contents
on our clothing, for separating meat and milk dishes, and many other
things? When we're not doing mitzvot for our own benefit the rewards
can be less clear, but if we have faith that God gave us the torah at
all, why shouldn't we also have faith that God will deliver on His
promises in some way at some time?
When looking at rewards for torah, either individual or communal,
perhaps we should have less focus on specific rewards for specific
deeds. Instead, let us do right and trust God to respond.