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Israel-Hamas War 5784: Reward and punishment

God's promised blessings and curses have come to pass throughout Jewish history, but they apply to all people, not just the Jews (Bechukotai)
Humanitarian aid is lifted by a crane operated by soldiers assigned to the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) from a Navy causeway at the Port of Ashdod, May 14, 2024. (Staff Sgt. Malcolm Cohens-Ashley/US Army via AP)
Humanitarian aid is lifted by a crane operated by soldiers assigned to the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) from a Navy causeway at the Port of Ashdod, May 14, 2024. (Staff Sgt. Malcolm Cohens-Ashley/US Army via AP)

It is a central doctrine of Judaism that G-d rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, spells out in detail the rewards and punishments for Israel according to their behavior.

The Torah spends 10 verses on generalized rewards, such as good harvests and overcoming numerically superior enemies. The punishments, by contrast, stretch out over thirty excruciatingly detailed verses describing illness, famine, defeat in war, desolation of the land, and exile. Why this imbalance?

It seems that people respond more to fear of punishment than the prospect of reward. We don’t give drivers rewards for obeying speed limits and stop signs; we penalize them for speeding and red light running. Most of us don’t bring gifts to neighbors for being quiet and sticking to their side of the fence, but we are quick to respond to loud noises and too-bright porch lights. We are more inclined to punish bad behavior than to reward good behavior. If we were not, there would be no need for child psychologists to urge us to do the latter with our children rather than the former.

After the lengthy list of punishments, traditionally called “curses,” the Torah says the Israelites will confess their sins and repent. G-d in turn promises to remember the covenant and not utterly destroy them.

A reading of the history of ancient Israel and the Jews after the exile shows that every one of the listed curses came to pass: defeat in war, famine, desolation of the land, and exile. What about modern-day Israel?

Since its rebirth, Israel has seen the promised reward of agricultural bounty. The early Zionist immigrants found desert and malarial swampland, which through backbreaking labor and devotion they turned into productive farmland and green forests. In the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, they miraculously defeated multiple Arab armies amassed against them.

Israelis enjoy a high standard of living and, even following the October 7th attack, were ranked fifth on the 2024 happiness index of the world’s countries. The World Happiness Report lists factors contributing to self-reported happiness, including freedom, a high GDP, a strong social support system, absence of government corruption, and charitable giving. Israel does well on all these measurements.

While like every country it still has room for improvement, Israel exemplifies the factors for happiness. Democracy, tolerance of minority ethnicities and religions, and sharing its medical, technological, and emergency response expertise with the world seem to have brought reward. Where Israel has persisted in working for peace, they have mostly seen treaties with numerous Arab countries that were once enemies and threats. Unfortunately, many efforts to achieve a peace settlement with the Palestinians have not borne fruit.

Neither Gaza nor the West Bank was included in the World Happiness Report. However, we know that these territories lack both freedom and a high GDP. Their governing bodies, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, are highly corrupt, and the people suffer immensely because of this. Freedom of speech and of the press are nonexistent. Dissenters are jailed, tortured, and even killed. Women’s rights are severely curtailed, and gays have none. Unemployment and poverty are rampant. There have been no elections in either territory since 2006.

Happy people do not rape and murder. Taught through state media and their educational system to hate Jews and blame Israel for their problems, powerless to change their circumstances, Palestinians feel embittered and humiliated. Out of shame and bitterness come hatred manifesting in violence and terrorism, with Israelis as the designated scapegoats. When Israel then cracks down with arrests and, as now, military incursions, the suffering of the Palestinians increases.

Israel has tried to use rewards, but to no avail. The Palestinian territories received water and electricity from Israel, even though that should be their government’s job. Numerous nations gave them aid. They received free medical care in Israeli hospitals and thousands of permits to work in Israel, enabling many to earn a living wage.

A great evil was committed on October 7th, and now Gaza is a wasteland full of hunger, terror, and despair. Indeed, many of the punishments listed in Bechukotai have come true for Gazans: plague, famine, terror, death and destruction. Civilians as well as fighters have reaped what was sowed by both on October 7th. Reward and punishment apply to all people, not just the Jews.

We can only hope for a quick end to Hamas resistance that will allow Gaza, under another authority, to rebuild. And, perhaps, to become a completely different society, one that repents and turns from evil ways to reap just rewards, flourishing and living in peace with its neighbor Israel.

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can be found at https://kosherkitty.wordpress.com/about/ and @KosherKitty1.
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