“Behold, I place before you a blessing and a curse; a blessing if you heed the commandments of the Eternal your God that I command you today, and a curse if you do not heed the commandments of the Eternal your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today, going after other gods who you have not known.” (Devarim 11:26-28)

This is a theme that we saw in last week’s parashah. There, it was taught in the second paragraph of the Shma that if we follow the commandments, God will give us the proper rain in its time, and we will reap a good harvest and eat well. If we turn to idols, God will stop the sky from giving us its rain, and we will starve.

A very clear model of reward and punishment is laid before us. We do as God wants, we do well. We’re disloyal to God, God punishes us. But it is not only modern Jews who find this problematic. Bad things do happen to good people, and sometimes people who have done evil things prosper. Christian, Muslim, and Jewish theologians have wrestled with this question for centuries, and called it “theodicy.” If God is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful, then why do seemingly unjust things happen in the world?

The Gemara (Brachot 7a) shows us a conversation between Moshe and God on this question:

He said before God: ‘Master of the Universe, why does it happen that there may be a righteous person and things go well for him, and there is a righteous person and things go badly for him; there is a bad person and things go well for him, and there is a bad person and things go badly for him?’ God answered him: ‘Moshe, a righteous person for whom things go well is a righteous person who is the son of a righteous person….’ etc.” The Gemara understands that this is a problematic answer. After all, we have a verse from the Torah (Shmot 34:7) “… visits the sin of the fathers upon the children….” and another verse (Devarim 24:16)  “Fathers shall not be killed for the deeds of their children and children shall not be killed for the deeds of their fathers….” The Gemara’s resolution is that a child who continues in the sinful ways of their parents will be punished.

Of course, all this simply goes back to Moshe’s question: Why do good things happen to bad people, or good things to bad people? The question is not answered!

The question of theodicy is never answered. What matters is not that whether God is just, but that we are just. What matters is not whether God follows mitzvot, but that we follow mitzvot. God created the world and brought life into being. Our job is to honor and protect that. Our religious life does not consist of putting God on trial, but of living in a way that expresses gratitude for existence itself, and treats existence as precious and holy.

Whether or not we treat existence as precious and holy has an effect upon us. If we act justly and altruistically, we are less prone to greed and to feeling that we deserve more than we actually do. We act in ways that engender trust from others, and we are treated accordingly. If we see the world as radiant with beauty and sacredness, we will act accordingly, and be treated accordingly. Our attitudes also, of course, have effects on our happiness and health. It is in this sense that if we live a life of mitzvot that things will go well for us.

This Shabbat and Sunday are the beginning of the month of Elul, our time of introspection and self-evaluation leading into the High Holidays. May this month of Elul be one in which we take an honest look at our strengths and shortcomings, to find ways to improve or make amends, and to strengthen our dedication to mitzvot.

Shabbat Shalom!

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