Parsha Eikev continues with the record of Moses’ teachings to the Children of Israel. In a broad and far ranging address, Moses reviews the history of the Israelites from the time of the Exodus and posits direct and dire warnings, as well as benefits and boons that will be delivered by God, should the Israelites disobey the commands of the Torah or conversely, heed and act according to God’s laws. At its basic level, much like a parent once would have disciplined a child, a system based on reward and punishment.
The generation that had left Egypt never quite grasped the essence of that bargain. The record of the trials and tribulations of the generations that left Egypt is replete with failure; they were complainers and exhibited an almost constant doubt in God. Rather than building on their redemption they often were ungrateful, demeaning and, especially recalcitrant: “Remember, never forget, how you angered the Lord your God in the wilderness: from the day that you left the land of Egypt until you reached this place, you have continued defiant toward the Lord”. They were an obstinate and stiff-necked people, whose actions attracted the wrath of God, and who, but for Moses, would have been destroyed by God and their existence would forever have been forgotten.
Reward too could have serious consequences. Moses did not fear that the Israelites would continue to defy the word of God, but would in time come to forget God. That they would become blinded by their success such that would come to believe that their successes, their wealth, and their great prosperity, were by their own hands, and were not given to them as rewards from God. “Beware lest your heart grows haughty and you forget the Lord your God… and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me’“. His warning was stern: “If you forget the Lord your God and follow other gods… I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish”. Reward would then lead to punishment.
Success breeds arrogance; but it may also lead to complacency. Moses feared that the Israelites would eventually live their lives by rote; that their observance of God’s laws would be Pavlovian. He saw the real possibility that the Children of Israel would become too comfortable in life, confident with the expectation that their loyalty to God and His laws would guarantee their successes. He warned the people: “When the Lord your God has thrust them from your path, say not to yourselves, ‘The Lord has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues’”. Rather, they should forever fear the precariousness of their perch: “It is not because of your virtues and rectitude that you will be able to possess their country; but it is because of their wickedness that the Lord your God is dispossessing those nations before you, and in order to fulfill the oath that the Lord made to your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The idea of reward and punishment is riddled with its own set of discrepancies and has spawned an entire corpus of literature devoted to discussing the doctrine. Yet it is certain that reward may lead to arrogance and may also instil a sense of complacency. Hubris and self satisfaction will eventually lead to downfall.