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Have Your Cake and Eat it Too!

Friday, 23 July, 2010 - 9:00 am

Yesterday the campers at Camp Gan Israel of Boise went on a trip to Wahooz Family Fun Center. Amongst the many activities and attractions are various arcade games, which seem to be a highlight for children (and adults) of all ages.  The most popular games provide tickets – redeemable for prizes – in return of a good score.

The first time my son was old enough to grasp what these games were, he had a great complaint against the machines. “Why is it,” he questioned, “that sometimes the machine gives a lot of tickets and sometimes just a few, or none at all?!”

I explained that the machines produce tickets based on performance. If you do well, you’ll get a lot of tickets. “But,” my son challenged, “some games always give the same amount and others just ‘decide on their own’ how much to give!”

Now, at this point I was stumped. Indeed, some games seemed to have a rhyme and a reason to their production, while others didn’t seem to provide guaranteed results.

***

At the end of this week’s portion of Va’etchanan, we are instructed, “You shall therefore, observe the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances, which I command you this day to do.”

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the famed commentator known by his acronym Rashi, comments on the words, “This day to do them,” and elucidates, “But tomorrow, in the World to Come, you will take their reward.”

One word in that phrase sticks out. Why does Rashi say that in the World to Come we will take our reward, as if it’s sitting on a mystical supermarket shelf, waiting for us to scoop it into our virtual shopping cart? Why not state simply, we will receive our reward?

***

Let’s have a deeper look at this statement originating in the Talmud. It teaches that during our lifetimes (today) we are obligated to fulfill the commandments of the Torah and in the Afterlife (tomorrow) we will receive the appropriate spiritual reward. Taken simply, it addresses the skeptic who is troubled that all the effort of serving G-d here on earth goes unrewarded.

Truthfully, however, the Torah is replete with assurances that we will be rewarded with material goodness if we follow in G-d’s ways. So the skeptic has already been addressed by the Torah itself.

Rather, Rashi is suggesting that there are two types of reward. One is a guaranteed reward and one is subject to external conditions and – therefore – considerable ambiguity and debate.

The material ‘good times’ that the Torah promises to the pious are rewards that are received. The recipient has no control on how it might play out. Yes, you have done your duty, but there may be other factors that influence whether you win the lottery, whether the sick are healed and whether your home is safe. It’s not to say that the deed can go unrewarded, but the material disbursement of reward is complex beyond our grasp and is solely in the hands of G-d.

In the Afterlife the reward will be free for the taking. If you’ve earned it, go take it. No one can stop you.

Why, is the earthly reward contingent on many unknowns, while the heavenly reward is available on demand?

Let’s use another child’s example. When I tell my children to clean their bedrooms, they often ask what they will receive in return. Usually, my response is, “A clean room.”

Sometimes parents offer treats and prizes to their children. These rewards have no intrinsic relation to the deed, and cannot be guaranteed. But a clean room is a guaranteed result of following the instructions.

When we do a mitzvah there is an instinctive spiritual reaction to the deed. It’s preprogrammed into the mystical DNA of the act. That very effect is the spiritual reward of the mitzvah, just as the clean room is the natural consequence of cleaning the room.

This aspect of a mitzvah is created the moment we perform the good deed. In Heaven, we’ll see the spirit we’ve created and take it for ourselves. In this world, we depend on the benevolence of He Who Knows Best.

***

I can be sure that the otherworldly outcomes of my mitzvos are failsafe, but I can only pray that G-d allow me to have my cake (in this world) and eat it too (in the World to Come).

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