There is an inherent tension in the Jewish tradition between forgiveness and karma. On the one hand, we are taught from a young age that if we wholeheartedly repent we will be purified of our sins. In one famous text we learn, “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Elijah, “Behold, the precious gift which I have bestowed on my world: though a man sins again and again, but returns in penitence, I will receive him” (Talmud Yerushalmi San 28b). In fact, Maimonides, Judaism’s most influential legalist and philosopher, famously taught that if we repent on our deathbed, all our misdeeds will be forgiven (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2).
Yet, the inverse is just as strongly felt in our tradition. Our sins our always recounted, never forgotten. There is an important theological tenet in Jewish thought called “Midah K’neged Midah” which literally translates to “ measure for measure” but can be understood colloquially as “what goes around comes around.” In essence, there is a strong karmic thread inherent in the Jewish understanding of reward and punishment. Though you might work hard to purge yourself of your sins, they are always there and justice will find you.
Though the forgiveness tenant is much stronger in our tradition, it is important not to ignore to the presence of karma. Perhaps it developed for a reason: one will always seek a more full life of goodness if he believes and behaves like every action matters, that there is no clean slate, that life has no “get out of jail free" cards.
One of the best illustrations of karmic retribution in our tradition appears, funny enough, in the way our ancient Rabbis understand the punishment of Job. To summarize the story, Job is an incredibly righteous individual who lives “wholehearted and upright.” One day God begins bragging to Satan about Job’s virtues. Satan and God agree to put Job to the text; Satan can do whatever he wants to Job as long as he does not harm his physical body. If Job can remain faithful under stress this would prove his goodness. Soon, Satan gets to work and Job loses everything: his family, his wealth, his dignity. However, despite these challenges, Job does not lose faith.
Satan approaches God and asks for permission to harm Job directly. God acquiesces and Job is stricken with boils. Soon, Job’s spirit breaks and he becomes angry and resentful toward God. The rest of the book is the script of Job's conversation with four of his friends as they struggle to comfort him and try to make meaning out of his suffering. At the end of the work, Job meets God and asks why he was punished when he had been living a good life. God is little help, explaining that Job has no right to question the Divine plan, but rewarding Job, nonetheless, for his struggle by giving him back double of everything that was taken.
One of the reasons the book of Job is so famous is because it makes no sense. Why should a righteous person suffer? How could losing faith, in the end, yield reward? Why would God cede power to Satan at Job’s expense?
To make meaning out of these contradictions, our Rabbis fill in a few details of Job’s life that are missing from the story. In fact, in their eyes, Job was not as innocent as the Biblical tale makes him out to be. Midrash after midrash paints Job’s early years in a harsh light. According to legend, Job was one of Pharaoh's advisers. When Pharaoh came to him to inform him that he was going to throw all the Jewish boys into the Nile River, Job remained silent (San 106a). This is actually the tamer of Rabbinic accounts. In one lesser known tale, Job is actually the architect of the genocidal plan to eradicate these male children (Sefer HaYashar).
Though Job would eventually leave Pharaoh's court and become a God-fearing man, his sins stuck to him like filth. No amount of repentance could cleanse him of his misdeeds. Yes, Job acted righteous, but his soul was tainted.
Then, the Jews left Egypt (the focus of this week’s Torah portion) and God feared that Satan, known also by the name Samael, would attempt to foil his plan. Looking for a distraction, God called in the debt that Job owed for his wicked past. Our Rabbis write:
It can be compared to a shepherd who was leading his sheep across a river when a wolf came to attack the sheep...He took a large he-goat and threw it to the wolf, saying to himself, “Let him struggle with this until we cross the river, and then I will return and bring him back.” So when Israel departed from Egypt, the angel Samael rose to accuse them, pleading before God, “Lord of the universe! Until now they have been worshiping idols and now You divide the sea for them?”...God delivered into Samael’s hands Job, one of the counselors of Pharaoh, of whom it is written, “And that man was whole-hearted and upright” (Job 1:1) and said, “Behold, he is in your hands” (Job 2:6). While Samael is busily occupied with Job, Israel will go through the sea! Afterwards, I will deliver Job.” This is why Job said, “I was at ease and he broke me asunder.” (Job 16:22). (Exodus Rabbah 21:7)
In essence, God needed someone to occupy Satan’s energy so he would not intrude on God’s master vision of Israelite freedom. Job also had to pay for his previous sins since one can’t whitewash the past with a positive present. Sending Satan after Job killed two birds with one stone.
Theologically, I am bothered by this story. There is something comforting about the statement quoted above by Maimonides that one can always repent and find forgiveness. The idea that our past is a ticking time bomb that we must always face breeds anxiety and discomfort. Yet, there is also something powerful about God’s karmic retribution upon Job.
First, it reminds us that our actions matter. If we know we cannot paint over our misdeeds we will be less likely to commit them in the first place. However, perhaps more importantly, Job’s story challenges us to understand Teshuvah (repentance) in a different light. Justice must be served when we err. If we don’t seek it out ourselves, it will find us. Facing our past is critical to growth. One can’t just change his ways and expect everything to be fine. Instead, we need to pay for our sins. But we don’t have to wait for God to dispense justice. If we do the hard work of showing those around us we are sorry, of finding retribution through our actions, of beating Karma to the punch, then we remain in control. If we proclaim our faults and face the consequences, if we allow guilt in no matter how painful, if we give of ourselves to make our past right even if it weakens our spirit, then our fortune is in our hands.
Job thought that seeking virtue would erase his sinful history. Little did he know that the way to deal with our past is face it, seeking to make good rather than act good.