We’ve already told the story about the weekly get-together in the chassidic townlet of Dokshitz. A samovar of pannes—a hot drink made with boiling water, vodka and sugar—was set up, and Reb Areh, the mashpia (chassidic teacher) of Dokshitz, would teach a class in Torah Ohr (a collection of discourses by Chabad Chassidism’s founder Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi).

Their Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch (1834–1882), didn’t like the idea. “Torah Ohr with pannes?” he asked Reb Areh when he heard how the sublime soul of Torah was perused in Dokshitz. “Tell me, what is the connection between a discourse of chassidic teaching and a glass of pannes?”

The next time that Reb Areh was in Lubavitch and the Rebbe inquired how things were going in Dokshitz, the mashpia was forced to report that participation in the weekly study group had dwindled ever since the samovar had been eliminated from the program. “Nu,” said the Rebbe, “so bring back the pannes. As long as they study Torah Ohr . . .”

The Torah is replete with descriptions of the rewards that G‑d will bestow upon us if we follow His commandments, and the punishments that shall befall us, G‑d forbid, should we forsake them. “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments and do them, I will give your rain in its due season, the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” Etc., etc.

Surely we’re more sophisticated than that. Are we not capable, as Maimonides puts it, of “doing the truth because it is true”?

A hundred generations of Talmudic sages, medieval commentaries, Kabbalists and chassidic masters have expounded on the Torah’s concept of reward and punishment. The explanations they give are varied, but if you examine them in depth you’ll see that these are not alternative or parallel reasons, but rather they inhabit each other like the membranes of an onion, expressing different layers of the same truth.

Here’s a sampling of things they’ve said:

  1. It’s a phase we’re going through. When a parent gives a child a candy for good behavior, he or she does not intend to continue this practice for the child’s entire lifetime. The child is being trained. Later in life, when he or she attains the intellectual and moral maturity to “do the truth because it is true,” positive behavior patterns will already be ingrained in his or her nature, making it far easier a task to act as they know and feel they should.
  2. It’s an empowerment thing. When G‑d repays good with material goodness, He’s not “rewarding” us—He’s enabling us to do more good. In the words of Maimonides: “G‑d is promising us that if we observe [His Torah] with joy . . . He will remove from us all things that may prevent us from fulfilling it, such as illness, war, hunger, and the like, and He will bestow upon us all blessings that strengthen our hand to observe the Torah, such as abundant food, peace, and much gold and silver, in order that we should not need to preoccupy ourselves all our days with our material needs, but be free to learn the wisdom and observe the commandments by which we shall merit the life of the World to Come . . .”
  3. It’s the (spiritual) nature of things. Is a broken leg G‑d’s “punishment” for jumping out a second-storey window? Are clean arteries G‑d’s “reward” for a low-cholesterol diet? Ultimately it is, since everything that happens in our lives happens because G‑d wants it to happen. But it’s more than a matter of Someone sitting up there, tabulating deeds and misdeeds and dispensing prizes and fines. G‑d established certain “laws of nature” that describe the patterns of His actions upon our existence. There are the physical laws of nature, which scientists measure and hypothesize, and there are the spiritual laws of nature described by the Torah—the mitzvot—which dictate that spiritually beneficial deeds bring spiritual benefit and spiritually detrimental deeds cause spiritual harm. And since our physical existence derives from the spiritual reality and mirrors it, a person’s spiritual and moral behavior ultimately affects his physical life as well.
  4. Life is what you make it. Our behavioral self is our “interface” with the big world out there, the medium and filter through which we affect and are affected by others. Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people, because good people experience what happens to them as good, and bad people experience what happens to them as bad. Contemplate your own life and experiences, and the lives and experiences of people you know well, and you’ll see that that’s not as incredible as it sounds.
  5. Truth is in the externalities. The nature of truth is that it is consistent and unequivocal. If something is truly true, it retains its truth in every context and under all circumstances. Since the Torah and its mitzvot—that is, a life of connection with G‑d—is truly good, its goodness finds expression on all levels of reality, including the material realm. Indeed, the fact that its goodness is actualized on this most external plane of reality is the ultimate mark of its truth.
  6. It works.