Parashat Ekev- Reward – Now or Later
This week’s Parasha, Parashat Ekev, teaches that God will reward those who keep the Torah. "And if you do obey these rules (mishpatim), and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers (Devarim 7:12). The Torah (ibid. 13-15) continues to describe the reward which those who keep the Torah will receive. This reward includes fertility (human and agricultural), good health, prosperity, and safety.
This promise is somewhat troubling, as last weeks parasha concluded with the following verse "Therefore, observe faithfully the Instruction—the laws and the rules—with which I charge you today" (ibid. 6). Rashi explained, based upon the gemara (Eruvin 22), that one performs the mitzvot "today," but receives his reward in the World to Come. Today is the world of action, but the reward is given tomorrow. How are we to reconcile these two, apparently contradictory verses?
Also, this week’s parasha refers to one who keeps the "mishpatim." We know that there are two types of mitzvot- those whose reason is apparent which we probably would have performed even without being commanded (mishpatim), and those whose reason is not known to us and we only perform because the Torah commands them. This parasha promises an immediate reward for those who fulfill the "mishpatim." Why? I would like to suggest two approaches to this question.
I once heard the following insight, which may shed light on our parasha. Towards the end of Parashat Vayera, the Torah relates how God tells Avraham Avinu to sacrifice his son (Bereshit 22). This story is known as the Akedat Yitzhak, and is recited each morning before Pesukei D’Zimra. Before slaughtering his son, an angel calls out to Avraham and says, "Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me." The Torah then relates how after Avraham sacrificed a ram, an angel called to him a second time, and said: "Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore." Why does the angel only bless Avraham the second time?
The commentators answer by distinguishing between two types of mitzvot. One type does not afford us any physical pleasure, such as tefillin. The other type, however, offers us physical pleasure and enjoyment, such as simchat Yom Tov and oneg Shabbat. Similarly, at times a person sacrifices personal pleasure in order not to sin, such as one who does not eat non-kosher food, and sometimes a person doesn’t gain anything from not sinning, such as a person who refrains from wearing shaatnez. The commentators explain that if a person fulfills a commandment, or refrains from a prohibition, to fulfill the will of God, he receives his reward in the world to come. If, however, a person benefits from a mitzvah, or from not sinning, he receives his reward in this world.
Therefore, when Avraham Avinu showed his willingness to slaughter his son, an act which gave him no pleasure, the first angel simply congratulated him for following God’s commandment, as he will receive his reward in the World to Come. However, when God tells Avraham to take Yitzhak off of the altar, an act from which Avraham derives great pleasure, Avraham’s intended only to fulfill God’s commandment, whatever it would be. In that case, as a reward for suppressing his pleasure, the angel promised him his reward in this World as well.
Similarly, R. Saadia Gaon, in his Emunot V’De’ot, distinguishes between two types of mitzvot- mitzvot shim’iot and mitzvot sichliot. The first type is what we often call "chukim," and the second type is what we call "mishpatim." While one who observes the mitzvot shim’iot receives his reward in the next World, regarding the second type of mitzvot, which are rational and intellectually sound, it depends how and why a person fulfills these mitzvot. One who fulfills these mitzvot because they are correct and proper receives his reward in the next World. Only one who performs these mitzvot because they are God’s will, even if they are logical and make a lot of sense, receives his reward in this World.
Let us return to our original question. Last week’s parasha ended with one who will "observe faithfully the Instruction—the laws and the rules—with which I charge you today" – one who observes the mitzvot, understands them and derives benefit from them- will receive his reward in the World to Come. However, this week’s parasha describes one who observes the mitzvot simply because God commanded him, "and if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully," this person will receive reward in this World as well, "the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers." This is one way of understanding the difference between the two parshiot.
There is, however, another way to understand this apparent contradiction. The mishna (Avot 1:3) cites Antignos Ish Socho, who said: "Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward." Seemingly Antignos is merely saying that one’s motivation when performing the mitzvot should be leshem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, and not to receive a reward. However, there is another, deeper interpretation. The Hatam Sofer writes that the reward for mitzvot is the privilege of serving God. Zadikim receive their satisfaction immediately, for serving God. The Talmud teaches us that Zadikim prefer even an hour in this World, as in this World, they can perform mitzvot.
As we see in next week’s parasha, Moshe Rabbeinu tells the Jewish people: "See, this day I set before you blessing and curse." He then describes the blessing and the curse. The blessing is "if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God." And the curse is "if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God." This is the highest level of religious behavior. As the Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva, Chapter 10) teaches, there are those who perform mitzvot out of Ahavat Hashem, and those who perform mitzvot because they fear God and wish to receive reward.
Returning to this week’s parasha, the Torah refers to the two religious levels. The beginning of one’s religious service should be to serve God today in order to receive reward tomorrow. However, this week’s parasha teaches us the higher level, "ekev," at the heal or end of the process, at which point one should observe the commandments because he heard them and because he is commanded. At that point, the reward will be in this World as well. The goal is to reach a level at which point we enjoy the mitzvot, and feel that observing them is itself gratifying.