Excerpted from With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai by Senator Joe Lieberman with Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books
The biblical laws are not merely precatory invocations for good behavior. They include a system of rewards and punishments that lend internal force to the specific laws and commandments. The Ten Commandments themselves contain several mentions of rewards and punishments, including the broad promise of the Second Commandment that God will show kindness to thousands of generations of those who love and obey Him. This indeed is a strong incentive to live according to the Law.
This concept of reward and punishment established a standard for all systems of law that followed. Both biblical and secular laws since then include specific penalties to dissuade people from violating them.
But when it comes to rewards for obeying the laws, the biblical and secular systems are very different. The rewards for not violating secular laws are indirect: you avoid the penalties that result from illegal behavior, and you have the satisfaction of knowing you did the right thing. In the biblical legal system, there are significant rewards for following the commandments and the law. They range from the earthly and agricultural to the messianic and eternal.
These rewards are enumerated in the Bible, with some repeated in our daily prayers. For example, twice daily, we follow the recitation of the Shema Yisrael declaration of monotheism from Deuteronomy chapter 6, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (v. 4), with a paragraph from Deuteronomy chapter 11, which delineates the biblical rewards for following the law and living by the values of the commandments:
If you indeed heed My commandments with which I charge you today, to love the Lord your God and worship Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give you rain in your land in its season…and you shall gather in your grain, wine, and oil. I will give grass in your field for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. (Vv. 13–15)
The most basic rewards for loving God and heeding His commandments are agricultural. From the time the Torah was given through the period of the two Temples in Jerusalem (and again today in modern Israel), agricultural blessings were existential blessings.
The Shema continues with the penalty for failing to obey God’s commandments:
Be careful lest your heart be tempted and you go astray and worship other gods…then the Lord’s anger will flare against you and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain…and you will perish [or, be banished] from the good land that the Lord is giving you. (Vv. 16–17)
But the Torah, and the Keriat Shema which quotes it, also teach how to avoid this terrible fate: by instilling the word of God in our hearts and souls, binding them on our arms and foreheads (tefillin), teaching them to our children, and writing them on our doorposts (mezuzot). The general reward for upholding God’s laws in these ways is “that you and your children may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, for as long as the heavens are above the earth” (Deut. 11:21).
The prophets describe additional otherworldly rewards for following the commandments. These are embedded in the traditional prayer service in the prayer “U’Va LeTziyon Go’el,” “A Redeemer Will Come to Zion,” recited both in the daily service and on the Sabbath and holidays:
Blessed is our God who gave us the Torah of truth, planting within us eternal life. May it be Your will that we keep Your laws in this world, and thus be worthy to live, and inherit goodness and blessing in the Messianic Age, and in the life of the World to Come.
This uplifting vision of the rewards that will accrue to the followers of God’s Law compellingly speaks to some of our most profound and perplexing questions: How should I behave? Does anyone care? What are the consequences of good and bad behavior? Is there anything after life on earth?
This dream of heavenly and eternal blessing is the Jewish people’s destiny, toward which the entire Bible narrative is directed. Realizing it, however, depends on the way we behave. The kabbalists suggested that the etymology of the word “mitzva,” usually translated as “commandment,” is actually from the word betzavta, which means “together.” The secret of the commandments is having a relationship with God, of walking together with God, by observing His law and doing good deeds.