The Torah reading of Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-2:34) opens with G‑d's promise of material prosperity for those who adhere to His commandments. "If you walk in My statutes," the Parshah begins, "and keep My commandments and do them; I will give your rain in due season, the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit..." — and goes on to list the multiple blessing that will flow when we faithfully carry out the Divine plan for life on earth.

Many of the commentaries struggle to explain this emphasis on material reward for the observance of the mitzvot. Did not our sages (in Ethics of the Fathers 1:3) state the ideal, "Do not be as servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward; but rather be as servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward"? Are we not enjoined, as Maimonides puts it, to "do the truth because it is true"? And if the Torah does have its reasons to promise to reward a righteous life, why does it speak of material rewards, awarded in our physical lifetimes upon earth? Wouldn't spiritual blessings, awarded to the soul after it is freed from the confines and limitations of the body, more aptly reciprocate a G‑dly life? Indeed, the Talmud states so in so many words: "Today (i.e., in this world) — to do them (the mitzvot); Tomorow (i.e., in the World To Come) — to receive reward." The Talmud cites one authority who categorically states: "There is no reward for mitzvot in this world" (Talmud, Eruvin 22a, derived from Deuteronomy 7:11).

As we said, numerous commentaries and scholars discuss this contradiction, seeking to reconcile the Torah's promises in Bechukotai (and other places) with the principles cited above, which are also rooted in Torah. In one of his talks, the Lubavitcher Rebbe approaches the issue from an interesting angle — the legal angle. Using Torah law as our criterion, what would G‑d's obligations toward us be when we fulfill the tasks He demands of us? Is there any legal basis to our petitions to G‑d in our daily prayers for material life, health and sustenance?

(For although G‑d invented these laws, He too, by choice, is bound by them. In the words of the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 30:6): "G‑d's way is not like the way of flesh and blood. The way of flesh and blood is that he instructs others to do, but does not do himself; G‑d, however, what He Himself does, that is what He tells Israel to do and observe.")

To define G‑d's legal obligations to us, we first need to define our legal relationship with Him. There are, in fact, three models for this relationship: the slave, the employee, and the partner.

Which of these models our individual life fits into is entirely up to us. The Talmud (Megillah 12b) states: "In the manner in which man measures himself, so is meted out to him." As we have elaborated in an earlier essay, G‑d leaves it to us to define our vision of life and our relationship with Him, and then relates to us accordingly. So it is up to us whether to perceive — and thus define — the labor of life via the mentality of the "slave", the attitude of the "employee", or the perspective of the "partner".

Some apt to see themselves as slaves of an autocratic master. I didn’t ask to be born — goes this line of thinking — nor was I consulted when the laws of life were formulated. All this was imposed on me. As the Ethics puts it, "Against your will you are born, and against your will you die." My master is all-powerful, so I had best carry out His commands.

Others adopt the less apathetic attitude of the employee. I have a job to do, is their approach, and I’ll give it my best effort. And has G‑d not promised to reward my toil? True, our sages have established that "There is no reward for mitzvot in this world"; but certainly the eventual rewards of the World To Come will more than compensate for my present-day labors.

This vision of life — life as a job — is expressed by the talmudic sage Rabbi Tarfon in the closing words of the second chapter of Ethics of the Fathers:

The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great and the Master is pressing... It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your Employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward of your labors. Know, that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.

Finally, there are those who experience life as a partnership. They, too, are "slaves" in the sense that they acknowledge G‑d’s absolute mastery over their lives; they, too are "employees" in the sense that He has defined their life's assignment and has promised to reward them for their labor. But they also believe that man has been granted the ability to elevate life into a partnership with G‑d. As G‑d’s partners, they develop their selves and their world in accordance with the Divine will not only because they must, nor merely to "do their job," but as an intensely personal enterprise. Life is their joint venture with G‑d — a venture conceived and enabled by Him, but fueled by their own initiative and ambition.

The Initial Verdict

So what does Torah law legislate in regard to these three models of the G‑d-man relationship?

At first glance, it would seem that however we define our relationship with G‑d, our life’s toil on His behalf does not obligate Him toward us in any way, at least not regarding our material needs and wants.

If we are His slaves, G‑d already owns the product of our toil. On the other extreme, if we are His partners, we are laboring for ourselves as well as for Him: for the "partner" — to again quote the Ethics — "The reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself." When the perfect world that is the aim of G‑d and man’s "joint venture" is complete, this will itself yield the ultimate spiritual and material reward for man. "At that time," writes Maimonides in the closing words of his Mishneh Torah, "there will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry. For the good will be plentiful, and all delicacies available as dust... ‘For the world shall be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters submerge the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9)."

The only one who might seem to have any legal claim is the "employee." Indeed, the Torah commands an employer, "Do not delay the wages of your employee overnight" (Leviticus 19:13). But this law applies only to a day-laborer, not to one who is hired for a longer period or to accomplish a specific task. In such cases, the law is that "wages must be paid only at the conclusion of the employment" (Talmud, Eruvin 22a). So when G‑d tells us, "Today, is the time to do; tomorrow, to receive reward," this is fully in keeping with the laws He instituted to govern the employer-employee relationship: He owes us our wages only upon the completion of the collective task for which He has "hired" us.

Get a Better Lawyer

This is what a cursory look at the law yields. But a more thorough examination reveals a series of laws that G‑d commanded in His Torah which would obligate Him to provide us with our daily needs in all three cases — whether we define our duties toward Him as those of the slave, the employee or the partner.

The slave: "A master is obligated to make his Hebrew slave or Hebrew maid equal to himself in food, drink, clothing and dwelling. This is derived from the verse 'for it is beneficial to him together with you' (Deuteronomy 15:16.) — i.e., you cannot eat fine bread and feed him coarse bread; drink aged wine and have him drink new wine; sleep on soft fibers and have him sleep on straw... Thus it has been said: one who acquires a Hebrew slave, acquires for himself a master..." (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Slaves 1:9; Talmud, Kiddushin 20a.).

The employee: In Deuteronomy 23:24-25 we read: "When you enter your fellow’s vineyard (as an employee), you may eat your fill of grapes, at your desire... When you enter the standing crop of your fellow, you may pluck grain with your hands..." These verses are interpreted by our sages to mean: "Workers who are employed in processing produce of the earth that has not yet reached its final desired state... the employer is commanded to allow them to eat from the produce they are working with." This is quite apart from the wages owed to the employee upon completion of the term of his employment. This law applies to work-animals as well; as the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:4) commands, "Do not muzzle an ox while it is threshing." (Rashi on verse; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Hire 12:1.)

The partner: A law dealing with a partnership that parallels our own joint endeavor with the Almighty, reads: "If a person gives eggs to a chicken-farmer so that he seat his chickens on them until they hatch and raise the chicks, with the understanding that the profit is to be divided between them, he is obligated to also pay him his labor and feeding costs" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Agents and Partners 8:1; Talmud, Bava Metzia 68b. To have the chicken-farmer hatch the eggs and raise the chicks solely for the promise of profit would be a violation of the prohibition against usury — see Rashi on Talmud, ibid.). So when G‑d gives us a world to develop and perfect as a "profit-sharing" venture, Torah law mandates that He also provide us with the daily expenses our work entails.

This is the basis for Maimonides explanation of the material, this-wordily rewards promised by the Torah when the people of Israel fulfill the commandments of the Torah (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 9:1):

Since we know that the reward for the mitzvot is... the life of the World To Come... why does it say throughout the Torah, "If you obey, you will receive such and such; if you do not obey, it shall happen to you such and such" — all this, things that are of the present world, such as plenty and hunger, war and peace, sovereignty and subjugation, inhabitancy of the land and exile, success and failure, etc.? ... The explanation of this [apparent contradiction] is: G‑d gave us this Torah, it is a tree of life, and whoever observes all that is written in it and knows it with a complete knowledge merits thereby the life of the World To come... Yet G‑d also promised us in the Torah that if we observe it with joy... He will remove from us all things that may prevent us from fulfilling it, such as illness, war, hunger, etc., and He will bestow upon us all blessings that bolster our hand to observe the Torah such as abundant food, peace, and much gold and silver, so that we need not preoccupy ourselves all our days with our material needs but be free to lean the wisdom and observe the commandments by which we shall merit the life of the World To come...

So when we approach G‑d in prayer — concludes the Rebbe — we can do so with the confidence that no matter what level we have attained in identifying with our life’s mission — whether we have achieved the commitment of a partner, or only the responsibility of an employee, or merely the resignation of a slave or beast-of-burden — He will surely heed our requests and bless us with a health, sustenance and tranquility.