A basic principle of Jewish belief is that G‑d rewards us when we carry out His commands. This week’s Torah reading, Ki Teitzei,1 tells us that G‑d will “do good to you, and give you length of days” if we perform one of the commands. But does it always work like this?

The command in question is the law of sending away the mother bird when taking eggs from her nest.2 We are allowed to take the eggs for our own use, but rather than cause pain to the mother bird by taking them in front of her, we are commanded to send her away.3

“Honor your father and mother” is another command in the Torah about which we are told that through keeping it we will be rewarded with length of days.4

However, the Talmud tells us of an occasion when someone carried out both these commands at once, and instead of being rewarded, he came to grief. A father told his son to climb a tree or a building and get eggs from a nest. The son did so, and also carried out the command of sending away the mother bird. The boy then fell and was killed.

This event was seen by Elisha ben Avuyah, a scholar who lived after the destruction of the Temple. He was horrified, and the effect of this experience, together with other factors,5 was that he abandoned Jewish observance.

Elisha’s daughters were cared for by the community, and his grandson Rabbi Jacob became a noted scholar. He too also saw a similar event. However, he had a quite different response. He said: “Where is this person’s length of days, and where is the good promised him? In the World to Come . . .” He interpreted tragedy in this world as signifying an emphasis on the importance of belief in the world to come and the revival of the dead. There we receive the reward for our service of G‑d, not in this world.6

But the Torah tells us in many places that if we obey its laws, then, as it says in the second paragraph of the Shema: “I will give you rain in its season . . . and you will gather in your crops.”7 Isn’t this telling us that we should expect a reward in this world?

One way of understanding this is to see the difference between physical benefits and a reward. G‑d grants each person the wherewithal to keep the Torah, just as a master gives his servant the tools with which to carry out his job. Peace, good health and material comfort help in the study and observance of Torah, and in maintaining a Jewish lifestyle. Yet sometimes, too, G‑d wants the person to keep Torah in the face of great difficulty or oppression, in order to bring out a deeper quality of dedication to Judaism. Why should this person be picked for this tremendous task? We do not know. Why should that person’s soul leave the world at that particular moment? We do not know the divine plan, and what each person was intended to achieve in life, and how and when.

At this stage of history, what happens in this finite and confusing world often remains a riddle. By contrast, the reward for our efforts is without limit: it cannot be squeezed into the limitations of our physical world. The reward for the commandments, and for the pain and self-sacrifice for Judaism, is in the world to come.8 There the infinite radiance of the divine is revealed to the soul, with boundless joy.