The beginning of Parashat BeChukotay has a lengthy description of the rewards one receives for doing the Mitzvot. However, all of the rewards are of a physical nature. Given that the spiritual rewards that result from Shemirat HaMitzvot would certainly seem to be the primary ones, their absence is striking.
Abarbanel quotes many approaches to help resolve this difficulty. He quotes Rambam, who writes that our Parashah is not actually discussing rewards and punishments. Rather, it is discussing things that enable further Avodat Hashem, such as getting rain and having an abundance of produce. It is far easier to focus on one’s spiritual life if one does not need to share that focus as much on one’s physical needs. By the same token, not receiving a physical reward for doing Mitzvot serves as an impediment to further spiritual growth. This approach maintains that the Torah specifically did not want to mention reward and punishment in the context of doing what is right. The reason for this is that one’s Avodat Hashem should be motivated by wanting to do what is right, not just because one wants to receive some form of payback later on.
Alternatively, Abarbanel quotes the Ibn Ezra’s opinion, which claims that spiritual rewards are too esoteric of an idea for the average person to comprehend, and therefore would not be an appropriate incentive to do what is right. The Torah was forced to use physical descriptions in order for it to be accessible to the common man.
Rav Se’adyah Gaon has a different perspective on the issue. He believes that the Torah was trying to counter the claims of idolaters. It was often during the times of the Tanach that idolaters promised all kinds of lavish physical rewards for those who subscribed to their beliefs. The Torah therefore had to reassure the people that they would not be losing out for being monotheists. Rav Se’adyah Gaon quotes a Passuk in Yirmiyahu (44:18) that seems to show that this fear was justified. That Passuk references the Jews having gone to Egypt after Gedaliah’s assassination, even though Yirmiyahu warned them not to do so, because they believed they were better off when they served Avodah Zarah. It is exactly this type of attitude that the Torah is attempting to prevent by promising physical rewards. In order to buttress this approach, Rav Se’adyah Gaon quotes several instances in Chumash where an admonition not to serve Avodah Zarah is followed by a promise of physical rewards. Such a linkage suggests that the need to list physical rewards is a reaction to the promises of the idolaters.
The final opinion quoted by Abarbanel is that of Ramban, who differentiates between individual and communal rewards. For individual rewards, spiritual rewards are the ultimate goal. However, a group can be rewarded together only in a physical way. Furthermore, when a community does well economically, everyone in the group benefits, not just the righteous people. On the flip side, physical punishments are communal as well. If there is a drought or an invasion by a foreign army, everyone is adversely affected, even those who are not evil. This approach believes that there are two types of descriptions of rewards in the Torah. Many times, such as in our Parashah, rewards are directed to the Jewish people as a whole and are therefore of a physical nature. However, sometimes rewards are directed to individuals, such as the promise of long life for honoring one’s parents and Shiluach HaKan. Working with the understanding that the promise of long life is actually referring to long life in Olam HaBa, these rewards are meant to be spiritual.
While all of Abarbanel’s approaches are meant to discuss keeping the Mitzvot in general, perhaps, we can apply them, somewhat homiletically, to Chinuch specifically. For the first approach, it is critical for teachers and parents to set up their Talmidim and children for success. So many seemingly extraneous factors can have a large impact on how they grow, and we must strive to give them every chance to flourish. The second approach reminds us to be cognizant of what stage our Talmidim and children are up to and what they are prepared to hear. Pushing things before they are ready can be quite damaging, and slow and steady growth is the healthiest approach. For the third approach, we must also keep in mind the attractions of a less Ruchani lifestyle and be vigilant that our Talmidim and children not be swayed. The last approach reminds us that there is always a balance between individual and communal needs, and both must be considered and taken into account. By applying all of these approaches over a lifetime of Chinuch, we will be Zocheh both as individuals and as a community to see our children flourish.
As we conclude Sefer VaYikra this Shabbat, Kol Torah presents this article which addresses some of the issues regarding Korbanot, a central idea throughout the Sefer.