There's a section of the Jewish prayer book that our congregation doesn't read very often. Or at least, not in the original form. It's the v'haya-im shmo-a
paragraph. Basically, it says that if the people listen to G-d's commandments and do them, then life will be good. There will be rain, good harvests and abundant food. If the people turn away and live profane lives, then life will be bad -- there won't be enough rain or food. Rather threatening stuff for an agricultural society of three thousand years ago.
But today, it's more complicated. Or, perhaps better, our understanding of G-d has changed. We're less likely to believe in a "gumball machine" G-d, who dispenses good for good and evil for evil. We've seen evil-doers prosper and the righteous suffer. The reward and punishment mechanism isn't that finely tuned, we think.
Our rabbi has written a rendering of the paragraph that talks about doing and being good so that we may have the reward of knowing we are good people. Is that enough?
Do we still want some tangible reward for our good behavior? And if so, what? A lollipop after sitting still for a shot was perfect; what is the parallel reward for consoling the bereaved, visiting the sick, paying fair wages, seeing the image of the Eternal in all people?
And do we still want tangible punishment for those - always someone else -- who do wrong? Is it "closure" that victims' families want, or knowledge that there will be punishment for the perpetrator? And is wanting the criminal to punished an evil thought, a punishable offense in and of itself?
Perhaps another perspective is helpful. Is it enough to know the effect our actions have on those around us, and on the Earth itself? If we persist in abusing the land, the water and the air, then the produce of the earth will truly dry up. Our actions -- individual and collective -- will have brought about ruin.
Punishment and reward, or simply consequences?