Re: Reward and Punishment Is It Justified??

Daniel J. Pearson (dpears2@umbc.edu)
Sun, 9 Feb 1997 15:42:36 -0500 (EST)

In Torah Forum V3 #23 Bernard Laufer <seeker1@gte.net> wrote:
> Let's assume that we have an evil individual that we shall call E,
> and a good individual that we shall call G.
> E dies and he says to Hashem (G-d) that he doesn't deserve any
> punishment in the World to Come for his evil deeds because He gave
> him an inferior soul, and if he was given a soul identical to G then
> he would not have become an evil person.
> Likewise, Hashem can say to G when he passes away that he dosn't
> deserve any reward in the World to Come for his good deeds because he
> was bestowed a superior soul, and if he was given a soul identical to
> E then he would not have become a good person.
> Hence, in view of the above predicament, one may ask if Reward and
> Punishment Is Really Justified.

Oh, how I love a good enigma.

The justification for Reward and Punishment is rooted in the fact that we
are not judged in comparison to our fellows, but in comparison to our own
individual potential. Circumstances and inherent deficiencies may prevent
us from being as good or as evil as our fellow, but that is not what
matters.

I once heard a story (please excuse me I mess up on any of the details):

R' Zusha lay on his deathbed. He awoke from sleeping and looked terribly
frightened. His students asked him what was wrong. He told them that he
had had a nightmare. In this dream R' Zusha stood before the Heavenly
Court.

He was asked, "Zusha, why were you not like Avraham, Our Father?"

R' Zusha easily answered this, "Avraham, Our Father, was an incredibly
holy man: his tent was open on all sides, he argued for the sake of even
the unworthy cities of Sodom and its neighbors, he even was willing to
sacrifice his beloved son for what he belived in! I could never be
expected to reach those heights."

The Heavenly Court continued to ask questions, "Why could you not live
like Yitzchak? Why were you not more like Yaakov?" But for every great
figure that was named, R' Zusha deftly gave ample reason why he could not
live up to those exacting standards.

But then the Court asked R' Zusha, "Why were not more like Zusha?"

And with that, R' Zusha became very frightened, because he had no answer.

So in Bernard's question, G would deserve reward, not because he acted
better than E, but because his actions were a closer approximation to his
full potential.

I also find it useful to envision a ladder that represents closeness to
perfection. People may be born on different points on the ladder. The
merit we have when we die is measured by how far we move up the ladder,
not where we end up. Imagine person 'A', who is born with every spiritual
advantage, but moves only a short distance up the ladder. Now imagine
person 'B', who is the child of thieves and murderers, but eventually
rises above his upbringing to be an unexceptional, but law-abiding person.
Person 'B' would have more merit even though person 'A' performed more
good deeds, because 'A' could have been so much more had he made the same
effort 'B' had.

Now, please: I am dying to know what this other question of yours is,
Bernard!

Daniel J. Pearson <dpears2@umbc.edu>
"The goal is not to have what you want,
but to want what you have."