This week’s parashah opens with Joseph spreading bad reports on his brothers.
What did he say?
Rabbinic invention two guesses
Sons of Leah insult the sons of Bilha and Zilpah and call them slaves.
And because of his tale-telling, the Rabbis say, so Joseph was sold as a slave to the Midianites.
His half-brothers were accused of eyeing up the local ladies.
And because of his tale-telling, the Rabbis say, so Joseph was beset by Potiphar’s wife, who cast her eyes upon him, eventually accusing him of rape.
These responses raise, for me, the question of the relationship of reward and punishment.
Do the things we do have direct consequence in terms of how we fare before the cosmologic whole?
Getting right to the heart of religion.
Clearly important doctrine Maimonedes
As in Yidgal
Gomel Lish Hesed CMifalo – notein lerasha ra crishato
And clearly, at least in the Bible sense that works in the here and now – in this world
Second paragraph of the Shema – do good, get a good rainy season and good crops.
Do wickedly, drought, famine.
But there is a problem –
When we look out at the world we don’t see it.
Rabbis shunt time of reward back, into the afterlife.
Faithful is the taskmaster [meaning God] who will pay the reward of your labour but know the recompense of the righteous will be in the world to come. (Avot 2:16)
What do we do about reward and punishment in this world?
Are we prepared to give up on the notion completely?
Incredibly radical – Gemorah in Kiddushin – ‘there is no reward for the Mitzvot in this world.’
Decides that it’s OK, Jewishly to believe either there is, or there is not material reward in this world.
He prefers the notion that there is reward in this world – but he can’t say that the opposite position is heretical.
No surprise what the problem is.
One the one hand – Experience - Tzaddik vra lo, rasha v’tov lo.
If there is a simple process of reward and punishment, why is it so easy to find decent people suffering – babies even, and so easy to see crooks and thugs seemingly blessed.
But if there isn’t a system of reward and punishment then we live in a material universe without a material connection between doing something materially good and some kind of material reward.
And that feels anarchistic, chaotic, amoral.
It’s certainly dangerous, creates a bully’s charter .
Clifford Geertz –
The rain falls on the just and unjust fella, but larger on the just, coz the unjust has his ‘brella.
Who would want to live in such a world?
And if we did ive in such a world, what would that say about its Creator. If the world is indeed unjust and nothing other than a dog-eat-dog place of cruelty and violence, then ... God forbid, that reflects poorly even on God.
Pages of Mediaeval philosophy attempt to reconcile our this world sense of the anarchic, amoral chaos with an other-worldly sense of Divine order.
I’ll be honest, most of it leaves me utterly cold.
Not only do I not believe it, I don’t even believe that its authors believe it.
Prefer the take of some of the greats of the Mussar tradition where we are called to live lives of decency and propriety without suggesting that there will be this-world direct reward. My favourite attempt comes from Luzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim where he suggests that since righteous people are righteous they couldn’t be bribed with the offer of this world reward. That’s smart; we are counselled not to aspire to the morality of a puppy doing what they should just for the sake of a treat, or to avoid a telling off. We need to develop our commitment to decency without reference to reward and punishment.
I wonder if a Midrash like the one opened with presents a way round.
The technical terms is
Middah kneged Middah
It translates, as Shakespeare put it, as Measure For Measure.
Or as another Rabbincic text puts it
BaMidah she adam moded bah, moddedim lo
With the measure a person measures, they shall mete to him.
Commonly game in Rabbinic tradition to connect things back and forth across, partic, Biblical narratives using this Middah KNeged Middah thread.
Samson – who dies with his eyes gouged out – is held to have sinned by eyeing up women in general – and Delilah in particular. He gets his comeuppance – Midah Keneged Midah.
Jacob, who deceives his blind father by dressing as Esau gets his comeuppance when he is deceived and doesn’t realise he is marrying the sister with weak eyes and not his beloved. Midah Keneged Midah
Pharaoh who drowns Israelite boys in the Nile suffers the first plague of a bloody Nile, the tenth plague - the death of his first born, and then the ultimate defeat in the waters of a previously split Red Sea. Don’t mess with God or God will come after you Middah Keneged Niddah.
I suggested that Measure for Measure could serve as an idiomatic translation for Midah Kneged Middah.
But I think a better term is ‘poetic justice.’
It’s poetic in the sense of not being literal. In fact Middah Kneged Middah is meant to be slightly tongue in cheek.
The connection between action and reaction is post-hoc.
First something happens, and then the connection is made.
A bit like the story of the prince who, riding through the forest, comes across a target drawn on a tree, and an arrow right through the very bullseye.
And then another target – arrow through the bullseye, and another and another.
I must be, the prince feels, in the vicinity of the greatest archer in the world.
Eventually he spies a man with a bow on his back and asks him if he truly shot all these arrows.
Yes, said the man.
Then you must be the greatest archer in the world.
Oh no, said the man. I just shot arrows into trees and then drawn on the targets afterwards.
George Foot Moore – perhaps the greatest historian of the Rabbinic period - urged us not to read these equations of cause and effect more seriously than they are meant.
Middah Keneged Middah isn’t meant seriously, it’s not about logic, it’s not supposed to tell you what will happen in the future. It’s about finding some way to join up the dots that result in us living in a world not entirely undone by chaos.
Middah Keneged Middah is a kind of game, where connections that might otherwise be invisible are made. They serve to join the dots, to create a veneer of order where without one the apparent randomness of life might get too much to bear. They provide enough of a reminder to behave decently, I hope, to keep up on the path of goodness, without suggesting an overly simplistic relationship between reward and punishment.
The hope, if we understand and embrace the vaguely poetic, vaguely humorous ebb and flow of Midah Kneged Midah, is that things won’t hurt so because they won’t deprive us of any sense making mechanism. We won’t understand them any better.
We won’t often, feel that the response is justifiable, and indeed they Middah Keneged Middah is a dangerous tool, too easily used, as even the Rabbis do on occasion, to explain away that which humans should not try and tritely solve.
But I think that there is something to be gained by having a response that is poetic, humorous even.
Even if it can’t always take the pain of suffering away.
The notion that there is some explanation, that in some way fits,
even if it can’t justify, even if it still feels so unfair
is better than the pious, but ultimately unsustainable notion that reward and punishment do really play out in this world in some direct measurable, logical way.
It makes us feel that it is still worth questing for the decent and the good.
And even if it doesn’t it can still help us smile - sometimes the only thing left is to laugh - and this too is worth a great deal, especially when nothing else seems to make sense.
Max Gelberg was seventy years old when his wife died. After six months of mourning, Max decided life must go on, so he began a strict program of physical fitness.
After a few months of regular workouts, Max felt and looked wonderful. Friends would stop him on the street and ask him, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look sixty!’
With this encouragement, Max continued on the exercise program, he went on a vegetarian diet and arranged some minor plastic surgery. His friends, seeing him on the street would stop and say, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look fifty!’
Max was delighted and decided to move to Florida so he could take advantage of the sun. He took up a permanent spot on the local muscle beach. The following winter he met up with an old group of friends, ‘Max,’ said one, ‘I didn’t recognise you! You look forty!’
That was all Max needed to hear, he started dating and soon won the heart of young woman in her thirties. They both glowed in a shared love and arranged to be married.
Standing under the Huppah, Max’s old Rabbi peered out at the groom with astonishment, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look thirty!’
Max was ecstatic, but as bride and groom were preparing to leave for their honeymoon – wham – Max is struck by a passing car and killed instantly.
Reaching the gates of heaven Max is furious and demands to know who is responsible for this tragedy. Eventually, he muscles his way into the office of the Almighty.
‘I don’t believe this,’ Max shouted, ‘I finally get my life together and poof! Tell me, what have you got against Max Goldberg.’
‘Max Gelberg?’ The Almighty replies, ‘Is that you? I didn’t recognise you!’
Middah Keneged Middah,