The beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Re’eh starts off “Behold I give before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing is if you listen to the mitzvos of Hashem your G-D that I have commanded you today. And the curse is if you do not listen to the mitzvos of Hashem your G-d and you stray from the path that I command of you today to go after other gods which you do not know” (Devarim 1:26-28). The classic explanation for these verses is that Moshe is telling the Jewish people that fulfilling the mitzvos are a blessing and that not fulfilling them is a curse.
However the Medrish Tanchuma (parasha Re’eh, paragraph 3)
presents a fascinating twist to Moshe’s message to the Jewish people: “Another interpretation to ‘Behold I…’ This is what the verse in Eichah chapter 3 refers when it says ‘Good and bad will not come out of the mouth On High.’ Rebbe Avin said: ‘At the time the Jews stood at Har Sinai, Hashem gave them the Torah, and from that time anyone who sinned, Hashem will exact punishment from them. But in the past whoever sinned, the generation would pay for their sin. By the generation of the flood, our Rabbis have said, there were many kosher people like Noach and they were wiped out with the generation. By the generation of the Tower of Babel there were sinners and even the children were punished. When the Jews stood at Har Sinai and Hashem gave them the mitzvos, He said, in the past the generation would exact punishment for the sin of one of them. For now on the generation will not be punished for one. This is what the verse ‘Good and bad will not come out of the mouth On High means.’ Rebbe Avin further said that this verse does not make any sense if taken on face value!? Rather it must mean there are no decrees from On High coming out, neither bad for the righteous or good for the evil. So too Moshe arranged before them two paths, the good and the bad, the path of life and the path of death, blessing and curse, in order that the wicked cannot say that Hashem just created the world and did not explain to us which way is good and which way is bad in order that we can abandon it (the bad) and come to the good. This is why Moshe said to them that the blessing is if you listen… and the curse is if you do not listen… This is comparable to a parable of an old man sitting at a fork in the road one path is thorny in the beginning and smooth in the end, and one is smooth in the beginning and thorny in the end. He sat at the head of both of them and warned the passersby and would tell them, even though you see the beginning of this way is thorny, go on it because the end is smooth. Anyone who was wise would listen to him and they would walk through it and would only have to work their way through a little bit. But those who did not listen to him would go and stumble in the end. So too, Moshe explained to the Jews and said ‘Here is the path of life and the path of death and you should choose life so that you and your offspring shall live.’”
The Etz Yosef points out that originally Rebbe Avin was explaining himself and said you cannot understand the pasuk (verse) in Eichah according to its simple meaning because how is it possible to even think that good and bad does not come from the mouth of Hashem, for who does declare it and make it happen; rather it must be as Rebbe Avin was explaining, that G-D will no longer decree bad on the righteous and good on the wicked. Not like it was in the past that everything was judged according to the generation and if the generation was not guilty there was good even for the wicked, so too the opposite, if most of the generation was guilty there was bad for the righteous as well. However after the giving of the Torah, where life clung with good and death clung with bad, then good did not happen to those who did evil and vice-versa. (Click here for Hebrew text)
It would seem, according to this medrish, that before the giving of the Torah reward and punishment were not exacted on the individual but were handed out to the generation as a whole. So if the generation as a whole was found mostly guilty then the whole generation suffered punishment.In fact, it would seem that there were other righteous people in the times of Noach and for some reason Hashem only chose Noach and his family to be saved but the rest of the generation was wiped out. On the other hand Chazal teach us that in the generation of Avraham they also deserved to be wiped out but Avraham’s merits outweighed all the evil and the whole world merited to continue to exist. This would also appear to be true for Avraham’s descendants; their merits qualitatively outweighed the evil in the world and the wicked merited continuing to exist all through Yitzchak, Yaakov, his 12 sons, and the generations of Jews in Egypt, until they came to Har Sinai. Hashem then said that if the Jewish people would not accept the Torah then the world would cease to exist, apparently because rejecting the Torah would make the generation guilty and there would be no point in the world existing.
However, once the Torah was accepted by the Jews at Har Sinai,everything changed. Reward and punishment were no longer handed out to the generation but were exacted on the individual. What changed? Moshe categorized and arranged life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse, but why wasn’t it done beforehand? The Torah was there in existence the entire time, Hashem having created the world using the Torah as its blueprint, something which was done 2000 years before the creation of the world! All one had to do was look around and figure out how to observe the Torah, as Avraham did. There were schools of thought regarding what was right and what was wrong, like the Yeshiva of Shem vi’Ever. Avraham not only taught his son Torah, and his son taught his son, passing it down from generation to generation, but Avraham also had many disciples who followed him. So why only by the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai did everything change, withreward and punishment became an individualized system rather than a generational system?
It would seem from here that without an organization an individual cannot be held liable for his behavior. Only once there is an official entity, a specific group of people, an organized religion, and an organized nation, can the expectation on the individual become greater. Until that point, an individual cannot reasonably be held responsible for his or her actions, because the highest degree of efficiency is not in effect. The giving of the Torah was a turning point in the world, where the Torah was finally recognized in an organized way as the official handbook for life. That is how it became the specific authority of reward and punishment. Before that point there was always a moral sense of good and evil in the world because the Torah always existed, and the generations could be judged as a whole, receiving reward for good morals and punished for bad morals. Majority is always a means to make decisions, in this case to exact reward and punishment, when there is no individual expectation. Judging qualitatively, in addition to quantitatively, the actions of mankind is a fare way to Judge, for Hashem can read into the hearts of every living being.
Organizations set the standard for the individual, and without them individual expectations are just thrown into the pot with everyone else.