Rebuke and Reward in this World

The fate of the individual is often determined by the behavior of the community as a whole.

Print this page Print this page

What interests me in this theological evolution is how the earlier biblical strata are salvaged. Creative exegesis allows for reconciliation. The master of this preservative technique is Maimonides, who devoted his life to rereading the Tanakh in light of Aristotelian philosophy. Hebrew Scripture and Greek philosophy served as two media for the expression of the same truths.

The material blessings stipulated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, for Maimonides, represent an intermediary stage in the path to individual salvation. By providing for our collective physical needs--fertility and food, law and order and domestic tranquility and national security--they generate the conditions within which we can indulge our love of Torah full time.

Reconsidering these blessings after more than a millennium of national exile, Maimonides understood them to be a depiction of the messianic era, when a scion of David will have restored the Jewish people to its land, rebuilt the Temple and achieved a lasting state of peace. None of this will be effected through divine intervention, but solely through enlightened leadership. Though "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the kid," the nature of the world will remain unchanged. The Messiah is but a warrior steeped in Torah, a mortal combining the prowess of Bar Kochba with the piety and profundity of Rabbi Akiva.

Maimonides draws a sharp distinction between the messianic era and the world-to-come. The former is natural and collectively experienced; the latter supernatural and individually attained. The messianic era creates an ideal set of circumstances in which each of us can pursue what the harsh reality of daily life denies us: the undistracted study of Torah. According to Maimonides, "neither the prophets nor the rabbis yearned for the messianic era in order to rule the world or oppress the gentiles or enter into matrimony with them or wine and dine, but solely to be free to engage in Torah and philosophy." A world at peace becomes the springboard for individual salvation.

In this vision of the world-to-come, the love of God expressed in the ceaseless endeavor to fathom the nature of God leads to the immortality of the soul. As our understanding expands, our love intensifies and rationality gives way to mysticism. Union with God is the ultimate blessing for those solitary individuals who have extended themselves intellectually to serve the Almighty without desire of reward (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, chapters 8-10; Hilkhot Melakhim, chapter 12).

For all his elitism and intellectualism, Maimonides has caught the spirit of Leviticus' litany of reward and rebuke. Coming at the end of the Holiness Code (chapters 17-26) the composition reaches for a level of morality that would transform our brutish existence into a paradigm of the good life.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.