A king had many sons and he loved the youngest the most. He also had many possessions but he loved his orchard best of all. The king said “I’ll give the orchard I love to the son that I love.” Similarly Hashem says “Of all the nations I created I love Yisrael the most. And from everything I’ve created what I love most is ______. I will give what I love best to the nation I love best.” (Devarim Rabbah parshas Shoftim)

Can you guess the missing word in this midrash? Which creation does Hashem love best? What is this exclusive gift? Torah? Shabbos? Eretz Yisrael?

Wrong. The missing word is din — judgment.

Surprised? You’re in good company. Most of us don’t view judgment as a gift; the average person tries to avoid thinking about it. We wonder why the Av HaRachaman our Merciful Father can’t just overlook our shortcomings and grant amnesty to the sinner. How do we understand the startling perspective of this Midrash?

The Eleventh Principle of the Rambam’s Thirteen Articles of Faith states: I believe with complete faith that Hashem rewards those who observe His commandments and punishes those who transgress His commandments.

In order to understand the function of sechar v’onesh reward and punishment we need to reflect upon the purpose of mitzvos and the ultimate purpose of our creation. In Daas Tevunos the Ramchal explains that Hashem is the very essence of good and He created the world to bestow good upon people. In His wisdom He knew that in order for this good to be complete it must be earned and deserved. A handout may sound inviting but ultimately it’s shaming. Therefore Hashem set up the system of free will and obligation mitzvos and aveiros reward and punishment. We are created as imperfect human beings who are charged with mitzvos to enable us to reach completion and earn our place in Olam Haba.

Two Accounts

When the Rambam elaborates on the principle of sechar v’onesh he quotes an enlightening interchange between Hashem and Moshe Rabbeinu that took place after Cheit Ha’eigel. As Moshe pleads for his people he declares “If You won’t forgive them erase me from Your book” (Shemos 32:32). According to Seforno Moshe is referring to his personal ledger of mitzvos and aveiros. “Deduct some merits from my account ” he offers “and credit them to Klal Yisrael so their judgment will be more favorable.”

Hashem’s response to this proposal is key to understanding the dynamics of din: “Who is the sinner from whose account I ever erased merits in order to exonerate his sins?” If I never even allowed a mitzvah to cancel out an aveirah for the very same person Hashem tells Moshe surely I wouldn’t transfer merits from one party to another!

Mitzvos and aveiros create merits and demerits but these are stored in two independent accounts. Unlike a bank where credit in one place can wipe out a debit elsewhere a mitzvah does not erase an aveirah.

The rationale behind this fact is the guiding principle of reward and punishment: mitzvos and aveiros are not abstract concepts; they affect the intrinsic essence of a person. A mitzvah elevates and purifies; a sin diminishes and defiles. We build ourselves and our future existence as we make our choices. The results cannot be transferred whisked away or ignored.

Thus the merit of a mitzvah is a natural consequence not an external prize. This can be compared to someone who eats healthy food. He is nourishing only his own body; the most generous person in the world cannot share that benefit with another.

The same can be said for the result of sin. As Rav Chaim Volozhin puts it when the king’s best friend commits a crime the king may choose to pardon him because of their close relationship. But if he drinks poison all the good will and love of the king cannot save him from the consequences for the toxin has entered the friend’s system and damaged him internally. Similarly Hashem does not disregard sin because it has poisoned the sinner’s soul.