Parshat Aharei Mot–Kedoshim
April 24, 2010
10 Iyar 5770
Amos, a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel, did not mince words and for a certain segment of his audience his message was likely to prove quite disturbing. The northern kingdom, in his eyes, was religiously and morally corrupt. Amos attributed this malfeasance to a particular religious worldview: \”All the sinners of My people shall perish by the sword, who boast: \’Never shall the evil overtake us or come near us.\’\” (Verse 10)
Sinners sin, according to Amos, because they think that sins are without consequences. God, in their eyes, is either unconcerned with their actions or is unable to bring justice to His world. Consequently, they can act with impunity. This attitude was unacceptable to Amos and he saw in it the unraveling of the fabric of the nation. These people, said the prophet, needed to be punished.
The idea that human behavior must be conditioned by reward and punishment is preeminent in the biblical tradition, in particular, but it also has a prominent place in the rabbinic tradition. It is, however, not the only voice in the tradition. One of the earliest voices in Mishnah Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), expressed a different attitude: \”He (Antigonus of Sokho – 2nd century BCE) used to say: Be not like slaves who serve the master (God) in order to receive a reward, but be like slaves who serve the master not in order to receive a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.\” (Avot 1:3) Antigonus is not discussing here reward and punishment. He is interested in human attitude. Human actions should not be colored by thoughts of reward and punishment but rather by thoughts of service and love of God and doing what is right.
Maimonides wove both of these seemingly contradictory attitudes into his picture of human actions. He notes that children require reward and punishment in order to shape their actions, but with maturity they hopefully reach a point where they act simply to do what is right. (See Maimonides\’ Commentary to the Mishnah, Intro. To Perek Helek)
Ultimately, each of us is an admixture of these attitudes. Sometimes, we do what is right because it is the right thing to do, but at other times we do what is right for the sake of reward or out of fear of punishment. Such is human nature. Hopefully, though, no matter which state of mind we are in, our actions will be directed by our consciousness of God.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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