5759 - #15

Responsibility and Control

Presentations of reward and punishment ultimately represent the most powerful statements of the Torah's 1.  fundamental principle of human responsibility.  While the exact workings of reward and punishment are 2.definitively most complex and inherently beyond human comprehension, the Torah text is straightforward: the 3.consequences that one encounters are deemed to be the direct result of one's actions. Through these texts we are confronted with a most basic statement of cause and effect - with the human being as the prime instrument in this equation.

This awareness is immense. The function of existence shifts onto the shoulders of the human being. Our confrontation, even with this concept, is a challenge; it is a realization that is not easily accepted or even desired. With the declaration of reward and punishment the spotlight shifts onto ourselves, and it is difficult to be in the spotlight. There is an uncomfortable self-consciousness with the recognition that all our actions are scrutinized. There is awkwardness as the centre of attention. There is also the potential for haughtiness with the contemplation of this focus. The very concept of reward and punishment, itself, yields turmoil as we attempt to properly respond to its very reality.

The Will of G-d still guides our world and the Attribute of Rachamim, Mercy, still mitigates against strict human cause and effect,4. thus there are arguments for us to recognize the Divine control of existence, to praise the virtue of human passivity and to devoutly accept that fate is in the hands of the Divine. Yet, overstated, this devout argument can also serve to avoid or limit the acceptance of our own onus, duty and accountability. The focus of the religious human being, as distinct from the secularist, is G-d. Reward and punishment, though, transforms the focus back to the human being. There is devotion and value when we speak in terms of the Divine and ignore our own ability or involvement in what occurs. But what we do not recognize is that we can, through these arguments, negate our own responsibility. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik5. explains that teshuva is only possible in one who believes he has the ability to achieve this goal. "If man looks upon himself as an impotent creature then the position of sinner is helpless." There is a call for religious man to ignore his being and self in the Presence of the Divine. Reward and punishment, though, calls upon man to assert his being and self in His Presence.6.

Haughtiness is clearly a potential pitfall. Balance is necessary. One must be wary of praising one's ability when success is achieved; the Hand of G-d must always be recognized. Yet, one must also recognize one's ability and accept his/her role in the accomplishment for otherwise reward and punishment have no meaning. Similarly, while the question of tzaddik v'ra lo, of evil befalling the righteous, is inherently problematic, we cannot use this question to protect our egos. We must also look into ourselves to accept the challenge of any potential lesson. Yet, we must also recognize our limitations and that the Will of G-d exists beyond our control. It is for control, though, to which reward and punishment forces us to aspire.

The challenge of balance lies not only in how we perceive the world but also in how we approach the world and perceive ourselves. Control can be exhilarating and control can be frightening. The recognition of G-d in control alleviates the fear as we trust in the absolute competence of the Divine. The loss is the excitement of exercising judgement, carrying the decision and the test of achieving success. To the generic religious man, as these are feelings of the ego, the loss can be discounted. Yet, what is also lost is responsibility. Non-control, in itself, can be comforting and

frightening. To forego oneself in order to rely upon the other's decision or action may include aspects of humility but may also allow the individual to breathe a "sigh of relief" that the test, and potential for failure, is not his. There, though, may be fear for precisely the same reason, that the test, control and responsibility for success, is not his. Reward and punishment passes us the ball - the question is whether we want it.

Ultimately how cause and effect work within this world is beyond us. Even as we read statements of reward and punishment, we recognize that what is presented with simplicity, is not a full description of how the world actually operates. The question is how we approach the world. Statements of reward and punishment present us with the possibility that we may take control of the matter. There is a level of responsibility for existence that human beings must accept. As we approach life, within our own personal consciousness, do we wish to limit this level or expand it? Do we wish to attempt to see the mechanics of the world as our responsibility or do we wish to limit our involvement? Do we attempt to explain what occurs in terms of ourselves or do we attempt to explain what occurs in terms of another or the Other?

I do not know how the world works. I know that there are factors that are beyond my comprehension. But I also know that I am a factor. I have no control over those factors that are beyond me, but I have control over me. I can, thus, see the world in terms of all the other factors of existence or I can see the world in terms of my responsibilities. Focusing on another accomplishes nothing, except to allow us to remain comfortable in our present state. Focusing on oneself transfers control and yields the potential to accomplish something. Torah statements of reward and punishment further tell us to want to have the ball.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1. As found, for example, in Vayikra 26:3-46.

2. See, further, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva c. 5.

3. Essentially the question of tzaddik v'ra lo, "why bad things happen to good people?", is the opening query in the investigation of how reward and punishment actually works. The Divine system of reward and punishment is, thus, so complex that even Moshe Rabbeinu could not understand it. See T.B. Berachot 7a.

4. See, further, Ramchal, Da'at Tevunot.

5. See "Shechorah Ani V'navah" in Shiurei HaRav, A Conspectus of the Public Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. by Joseph Epstein.

6. See, further, Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5.

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