Beshalach 2

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


Reward and Punishment 

Contact Rabbi Spero at 862-9546 or


After the ten plagues, Pharaoh finally acquiesced to the Jews leaving Egypt.

When the Jews left Egypt they traveled in the desert until they hit the sea. When they hit the sea, the Egyptians were closing in on them, and the people worried and complained to Moshe. G-d told Moshe that the Children of Israel should not worry, as G-d proceeded to split the sea. As the Israelites were crossing the sea, the Egyptian army was drowning in it.

After the Children of Israel reached the other side, they sang a song of gratitude towards G-d. This song of gratitude was not only sung with thanks to G-d for providing them with this amazing miracle, it was also sung with thanks for punishing the Egyptian people: “the sea enshrouded them; the mighty sank like lead in the water” (Exodus 15:19).

As we mentioned last week, punishment is not merely carried out to punish the wrongdoer, but to make a statement (in the case of the plagues, it was to show the Jewish people the Omnipotence of G-d). Why do the Children of Israel find it necessary to explicitly mention the extermination of the Egyptians in their song of gratitude?

The Sefer HaIkrim (Book of Principles written by Rabbi Yosef Albo in the 15th century) states there are three beliefs which are incumbent upon every Jew: 1. The belief in G-d 2. The belief in reward and punishment 3. The belief that G-d gave us the Torah.

Why is reward and punishment so important that it is one of the three principle beliefs?

The concept of reward and punishment is one of the most logical and fundamental ideas known to man.

The concept involves knowing that for good deeds one will be rewarded and will be punished for bad deeds. This does not mean “good deeds”, within our limited perspective; rather it means on the cosmic level, for that which we were created: are the actions performed helping or hurting the world? Are they bringing us closer to G-d, or driving us further away?

Reward and punishment provides a structure within which man can function. Rav Chaim from Volozhin explains in his commentary to Ethics of the Fathers (3:1) that the idea of reward and punishment provides a balance for the world. And while the good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished, it does not necessarily mean in a physical way.  It often means in a spiritual way, i.e., a person will have forged a better relationship, and become closer, or sadly more distant from G-d. 

If we did not have this concept, life would have no meaning, as our actions would be truly arbitrary.

So when the Children of Israel expressed their thanks to G-d, their intent was to glorify Him. One of the ways they did so was by mentioning this “attribute” (G-d does not really have attributes as He and His will are One; “attributes” is used here for lack of a better word) of reward and punishment they had experienced firsthand. Seeing G-d’s work at such close range provided them with the proper vantage point to see the beauty and structure reward and punishment provides for the world.

Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.

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