The sedra this week famously begins, “If you follow my decrees, and observe my commandments and perform them, then I will produce your rains in their time, the earth will give its produce and the tree its fruit… You will eat your bread to satiety and dwell securely in the land. I will provide peace in the land… You will eat old grain, and have to remove old grain to make room for the new…”
The pasuk speaks of the bountiful blessings that will ensue if Klal Yisrael obeys the words of HaShem.
But is this the true reward of doing mitzvos?
The Rambam writes in Hilchos Teshuvah 9:1 that the true reward of performing mitzvos is to be experienced in olam haba; and so, too, punishment for aveiros is really a “cutting off’ of the eternal soul from its Source, Hakadosh Baruch Hu. And when the Torah states that obeying d’var HaShem will bring blessings in its wake, in other words, the blessings of olam hazeh (see the pesukim quoted at the beginning of this article), and the opposite for violations (see the tochacha of our sedrah), that is not to be construed as reward or punishment for the mitzvos themselves. Rather, HaShem is promising us that if we adhere to the Torah, HaShem will remove obstacles which prevent us from keeping the Torah or make it much more difficult, e.g., parnassah, health, peace, sovereignty. HaShem will bless us with the ability to fully live a life of Torah and mitzvos, and opportunities to study Torah, be involved in chessed, all without distractions. And through this we will merit an even greater share in olam habah, as our ma’asim tovim will have presumably increased exponentially. And the converse is true regarding aveiros and punishment; in this world, we will experience obstacles that make it even harder to fulfill our obligations. That is our “punishment” in this world.
This can be understood as a fulfillment of the statement in Pirkei Avos, “S’char mitzvah, mitzvah” — that the reward of a mitzvah is (the ability to do) another mitzvah. But it can be understood on a deeper level as well.
The Ramban (Vayikra 26:6) on the pasuk in our sedra stating that HaShem will cause wild beasts to cease from the land of Israel (as one of the rewards to the nation when they conform to the will of G-d), says: In the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah, who says that the pasuk means that G-d will completely remove the beasts (literally), it means that by virtue of there being satiety in the land, an abundance of goodness, and the cities being full of people, beasts will simply not come into inhabited areas. But in the opinion of Rabbi Shimon, who says that the pasuk means that G-d will cause them to cease in the sense that they will cause no harm, the pasuk means that HaShem will cause the evilness of beasts to cease from the land. And, the Ramban continues, that is the more correct interpretation. For when the mitzvos are properly fulfilled, Eretz Yisrael is as the world was at its beginning, before the sin of the first man, Adam — when no beast or creature would kill a person. This corresponds to what the rabbis teach (Berachos 33a): “It is not the serpent that kills, but man’s sin that kills.” And this is why it is written regarding the Messianic age that the trait of preying came about in wild beasts only because of the sin of Man. And preying then became ingrained nature for beasts of prey, and they began to prey on each other as well. Now, at the time of the creation of the world, it is stated that G-d gave the beasts vegetation for food (Bereishis 1:30). When the pasuk there states, “And it was so,” it means that the permanent nature ingrained in all animals at creation was to be herbivorous, and they learned to prey only afterwards because of man’s sin. And after the Flood, they continued to prey as they had become accustomed. When the Land of Israel is in a state of perfection, when the Jews are completely righteous, the animals’ harmful behavior ceases, and they return to their original nature that was placed in them at the time of Creation. And so, too, in the Messianic era, peace will return to the world, and the predatory vicious nature of all beasts will cease and they will be as they were in their nature from the beginning.
What this teaches us is that the physical world that we occupy was created in “perfect mode,” with everything functioning and behaving with perfect wholeness and stability, with no evil or destructiveness or imperfection. It is man, through his sin, who has spoiled and ruined nature so that it acts with destructiveness, disorder, imperfection and shortcomings.
But if “you follow My decrees…” then Eretz Yisrael will return to the original nature of things, and as a result, all of nature, the animals, the heavens, the rains, the crops, and so on will function at full, perfect capacity to bestow goodness upon mankind. Everything will happen in its proper time and in the best possible way — the rains, the seasons, the yield in the field — and all without “resorting” to any open miracles. Rather, the world itself would be operating at top capacity, in a way that allows ovdei HaShem to do so without distractions or troubles or predicaments.
This, then, is the deeper way to understand the Ramban’s point. Not as a reward, not even as s’char mitzvah, mitzvah, but rather as having the world return to its original state, with impeccable excellence, quality, and perfection.