“Ludicrous” Parashat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 5777

The 2001 movie “The Man who Sued G-d” stars Billy Connolly as a disillusioned lawyer turned fisherman whose boat is destroyed by a bolt of lightning during a freak storm. When the insurance company refuses to pay up, calling the storm an “Act of G-d”,  Connolly goes ahead and sues G-d. G-d is “defended” by His representatives: a number of priests and a rabbi. The premise is kind of cute, but (spoiler alert) the end is kind of disappointing.

The Torah includes an assortment of laws that defend the labourer from a land-owner. These laws were ground-breaking when they were given and they still form the basis of modern labour law in most western democratic countries. One of these laws is found in Parashat Kedoshim [19:13]: “A hired worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning”. This means that a hired worker is entitled to payment at the end of an agreed-upon period of time[1]. The Torah in the Book of Devarim [24:15] expounds upon this law: “On that day you shall pay his wages before sunset, because he depends upon you for his subsistence, so that you shall not be called out before Hashem and you should not sin”. Hashem is the defender of the downtrodden, such that when you withhold their wages there is a spiritual impact along with the obvious physical-economic impact.

A famous question results from this law. One of the basic tenets of Jewish philosophy is the concept of punishment and reward. Man has been blessed with freedom of choice to do as he wishes. He will be rewarded if he does good and punished if he does evil. The question of theodicy – why good things happen to  bad people – does not pose a threat to Jewish philosophy because we believe that the ultimate punishment and reward will be given only after our deaths, in the World to Come. In fact, the Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin [39b] tells us “There is no reward for mitzvot in this world”. In light of what we have just learned, the delay of reward to the World to Come should strike us as problematic: Shouldn’t Hashem be bound by the same rules that He gives to man, specifically, by the prohibition of withholding wages? Obviously we do not expect Hashem to shower us with exotic cars[2] the moment we do a mitzvah and to strike us down with lightning bolts the moment we sin. If the cause and effect is immediate then we lose our freedom of choice – only a fool would sin. But don’t we deserve to reap the rewards for our deeds in this world, perhaps at some later date? Further, if we were to be rewarded for our deeds in this world, the reward would provide a sort of reinforcement learning feedback loop, strengthening the cause and effect relationship.

This question is addressed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe[3]. The Rebbe explains[4] that there is no conflict and that Hashem is not withholding our reward. He asserts that Hashem is investing the reward on our behalf for the future, because our job – to refine the world and to reveal the Divine light within creation – is not yet complete. Despite the fact that we cannot yet access our reward, the ownership has been handed over to us. It’s like getting a new Tesla S Model P100D (with “Ludicrous Mode”) but it has to stay in the garage.

The Rebbe’s answer is difficult because it assumes that all of the mitzvot that we perform are part of a greater mission that is only completed after we leave this world. Doesn’t the Mishna in Pirkei Avot [2:16] tell us that we do not have to “finish the work”? Even if we perform but one mitzvah in our entire lifetime we still deserve our reward, even though we have seemingly failed in our mission. A better answer, perhaps, would be that the reward for a mitzvah is so great that it can only be appreciated in the next world, a world unbounded by the physical and spiritual constraints of this world. Imagine a Jew who left Egypt with Moshe who performed a mitzvah and Hashem decided to reward him, there and then, by giving him a red Tesla S Model P100D (with Ludicrous Mode). As there are no roads and no supercharging stations in the Sinai desert three thousand years ago, the reward would be worthless. The recipient must wait three thousand years until the required infrastructure exists for him to properly use his gift. Until then, the car waits for him in the garage.

But wait a minute – this person doesn’t need a Tesla. All he needs is a camel or whatever the going form of transportation at that time happens to be. Why can’t Hashem just give him a camel? In the same vein, why can’t Hashem forget about the next world and just give me the Tesla S Model P100D (with Ludicrous Mode) today? The story is told of a simple wagon-driver who performed an act of kindness to an old man who happened to be the prophet Elijah in disguise. Elijah offered him anything he wanted in reward. The wagon-driver told Elijah that his wagon was broken and his horses were old, and that all he needed to be happy was a new wagon and a new team of horses. Elijah reluctantly granted his wish and for all eternity the wagon-driver sits in his new wagon pulled by the most mighty horses in Poland. He is very happy. We who read the story, however, are overcome by pathos. What a fool! What a simpleton! The driver could have asked for anything, and yet he was content a wagon and a few horses. Or a Tesla S Model P100D (with Ludicrous Mode).

Not so fast. We have explained why our reward must wait for the next world but we should still get some sort of advance payment on planet earth. The answer is that we do receive a reward but not in the form of physical wealth or pleasure[5]. Let’s return to the verse that prohibits withholding of wages: “You shall not oppress your friend. You shall not rob. A hired worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning.” Two verses earlier the Torah commands us [Vayikra 19:11] “You shall not steal.” What is the difference between “stealing (geneiva)” and “robbing (gezeila)”? The Talmud in Tractate Bava Kama [79b] teaches that geneiva is when something is taken without the owner’s knowledge and gezeila is when the object is forcefully ripped from the owner’s hands. The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh uses these definitions to explain why the Torah uses the term “our friend” specifically in connection with robbery. He explains that a person takes certain liberties with a close friend that he does not take with a person that he does not know. This includes saying “Quick, I need the keys to your Tesla S Model P100D (with Ludicrous Mode)” and then ripping them from his hands. He knows I’ll return the car as soon as I get back from the mikvah. We are forbidden to take something forcefully, even from our closest friend. The Ohr HaChayim then offers another idea based on a verse in Parables [27:10]: that the “friend” that the Torah is referring to is really Hashem. The Torah is telling us not to take something forcefully from Hashem by eating something without making the proper blessing. Let’s reinterpret the verse by combining the two comments of the Ohr HaChayim: [1] We cannot take something forcefully, [2] even from our closest friend, Hashem, and [3] a hired worker’s wage shall not remain with anyone – even with Hashem – overnight until morning. So where is our reward in this world? The answer is written clearly in the verse: Hashem rewards us for our good deeds by enabling us to relate to Him not only as our King, not only as our father, but as our friend: a friend we can confide in, a friend with whom we can share our greatest victories and also our greatest defeats. A friend who is always there for us, rain or shine. I can think of no greater reward.

A close relationship with the Infinite? Sounds completely ludicrous.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] See Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat [339:5].

[2] I’m thinking of the Tesla S Model P100D (with Ludicrous Mode), red, please.

[3] You guessed it. I’m overseas this week, and the only sefer I had access to was the Torat Menachem chumash.

[4] Sichat Shabbat Parashat Devarim 5744

[5] The Rambam, writing in Hilchot Teshuva [9:1], states that the purpose of the blessing of physical wealth in this world is to endow us with a climate that facilitates the learning of Torah and the performance of  mitzvot. It is not an end in itself.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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