The Story of Planet Earth, Part II
Chapter 9, Law 1(b)
"We have established thus far (lit., 'being that it is known") that the
reward for good deeds and the good we will merit if we observe G-d's ways as
written in the Torah is the World to Come, as it is stated, 'In order that
He will do good to you and you will lengthen days' (Deut. 22:7).
[Conversely,] the revenge which is exacted from the wicked who have forsaken
the paths of righteousness written in the Torah is excision, as it is
stated, 'That soul shall be utterly cut off; its sin is in it' (Numbers 15:31).
"If so, what is [the meaning of] that which is written in the entire Torah,
'If you will obey you will receive such and such, and if you do not listen
such and such will occur to you?' And all such matters (discussed in all
such verses) relate to this world, such as plenty versus famine, war versus
peace, sovereignty versus lowliness, dwelling in the land [of Israel] versus
exile, success in matters versus losses, and all the other words of the
covenant [of Deuteronomy 28]."
In the last class we began discussing an important auxiliary issue to the
Rambam's discussion. The Rambam here discusses the issue of the temporal
reward the Torah promises us for our good deeds. Being that the true reward
we will receive is the eternal bliss of the World to Come, what role do
these much more temporary blessings fulfill? Will a portion of our reward be
granted to us in this world -- detracting from the much greater reward in
store for us in the next one?
This law of the Rambam is quite long, so I will translate his answer G-d
willing next time. Last time, however, we raised an entirely different
issue, which too requires serious study. Our tradition teaches us that the
true reward for all our actions will be in the World to Come. As the Talmud
puts it, "There is no reward in this world" (Chullin 142a). The physical
comforts and pleasures of this world are all fleeting and inconsequential.
They are not even "reward" per se. At least according to our religion, they
have no part in the ultimate bliss of Heaven.
If so, something is enormously bothersome. Why does the Torah -- the Written
Torah that is -- make virtually no mention of the World to Come? If it's so
basic to Judaism, why can't Scripture be more explicit about it? Why is it
only discussed in the Oral Law -- the part of our tradition handed down
orally from Sinai, only much later recorded (in part) in the Mishna and
Talmud? The Written Torah seems to promise only reward in this world for our
good behavior -- timely rains, bountiful harvests, good health, peace and
prosperity. How can it possibly leave out something so fundamental to Jewish
We answered this question in part last week, establishing the basic
principle. This time we will expand on it and examine a very telling
The written and oral parts of the Torah serve entirely different purposes.
The Oral Torah contains the bulk of the Torah's wisdom, providing Judaism's
philosophical underpinnings and serving as a detailed guide for how to live
in this world. The Written Torah is not so much an instruction book, and it
is certainly not a philosophical work discussing religion. It is the story
of the world.
The Written Torah tells us the story the world -- how it was created near
perfection, how it fell, and the origins and development of plan to restore
it to its previous glory and ultimately bring it to its perfection.
In the Garden of Eden the world was almost perfect. Adam and Eve had only to
pass a single challenge and the world would have immediately reached its
perfected state. They fell and the world fell with them. In outline form,
the Torah continues with the story of Abraham and his descendants -- how
they discovered G-d once again and began creating a nation which would bring
back His message to mankind. They were granted the Torah and brought to the
Holy Land -- where they were to create a utopian society, in which they
would teach man -- primarily through example -- how the world may once again
be brought to perfection.
Based on this, our basic question falls away immediately. The Written Torah
is not a work of theology. Its purpose is not to discuss G-d or matters
metaphysical. It does not even *mention* topics so basic as the World to
Come, the Resurrection, or man's fate after he dies. It left all of that in
the Oral Law's capable hands. Rather, the Written Torah is the story of the
Further, when we think about it, the Torah's presentation of the mitzvos
(commandments) is also entirely different based on this.
Now if I were writing a book trying to convince people to obey my
commandments (I like imagining I'm G-d every once in a while -- sometimes I
even act like it), I would probably write along these lines: "Observe
mitzvah X and you will receive the eternal bliss of the World to Come."
"Refrain from doing Y but it's worth it, because you will be abstaining from
a few moments of pleasure in return for infinite eternal reward."
The Written Torah, however, does nothing of the sort. It much more
prosaically promises rains and good harvests. Why not something loftier? The
reason is again because the Torah is the story of this world -- and so, it
presents the mitzvos as the means through which this world may be improved.
It instructs us in mitzvah observance not in order to earn reward in a world
*after* this one, but as a means of bringing *this* world back to its
perfected state. If we obey G-d's will, the physical world will be "fixed";
it will operate in harmony with the spiritual. The rains will come, peace
will prevail, disease will not strike. Every aspect of creation will work
together. The world fell because of sin; through the mitzvos of the Torah we
can fix it anew.
Based on this, we can understand another basic distinction between the
Written and Oral Law. The Written Torah discusses the mitzvos only very
broadly, leaving the vast majority of the details for the Oral Law. Why is
that? Why leave so much out?
The answer is that the Written Torah discusses only general values -- the
basic types of behavior required to perfect the world. They outline the
basic direction the world must take in order to fix its problems. And when
we think about it, including too many details would obscure that overall
This is a perfect illustration of the devil being in the details. Once we
get into the many details of observance, the Torah's overall value system
might easily be missed. As a simple example, the Torah teaches us to rest on
the Sabbath. Once we get into the nitty-gritty, how one specific act of
separating a food from its inedible portions is more "restful" than another
similar act will hardly be evident. It is not, of course, that the details
of the Oral Law are less binding or significant, but that they will quickly
and of necessity obscure the overall goal and message of the mitzvos -- as
in the case with any complex legal system. As just and meaningful as the
Torah's laws are, on the atomic level the overall message will be difficult
to discern. The Written Torah therefore had to de-emphasize the details to
accurately convey the big picture.
This topic is very broad and could easily go well beyond the scope of this
article. What I'll therefore do is provide one brief but telling example and
The Torah provides us with one excellent illustration of this principle -- a
case in which the overall value system as expressed by the Written Torah is
actually at odds with the practical law of the Oral. We are all familiar
with the verse "an eye for an eye" (Exodus 21:24 & Levit. 24:20). The
Written Torah writes explicitly that if you knock out your fellow's eye,
your eye will be taken as expiation. The Oral Law (Talmud Bava Kama 84a),
however, makes it quite clear that this is not the intended punishment.
Rather, the assaulter pays financial restitution. If so, why does the
Written Torah state "an eye for an eye?"
The answer is that the Written Torah is conveying a message -- what G-d's
values truly are in such a situation. When you damage your fellow, it is not
just the financial loss. Paying him money will never truly make up his loss.
The only true compensation is for you to suffer the same loss you inflicted
on your fellow. That is the only justice which would "fix up" this world
again, returning the world to its pristine state prior to your sin.
Practically, we cannot do that -- as the Oral Law quickly steps in to
explain. Perhaps knocking out your eye will kill you too, or perhaps your
eye is worth more or less than that of your fellow. As always, the details
cannot always reflect the Torah's true values. But if you want to know the
Torah's true opinion of a person who physically assaults another human
being, the Written Torah tells us. To perfect the physical world -- as the
Written Law intends to convey -- wrongs ought to be fully redressed, not
paid off with money. (Based in part on an approach heard from my teacher R.
Next time, G-d willing, we will finally get to the Rambam's answer to his
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org