The book of D'varim is Moshe's last speech to the people of Israel, in which he retells much of the history of the last 40 years. In the first parsha of the book, Moshe recounts the incident with the spies, the people's refusal to go into the land, and God's pronouncement that that generation will die in the wilderness. The people then have a change of heart -- they are ready to follow God's command to take the land, but God will not relent. Even when the people admit that they have sinned against God, the torah tells us that God did not hear their voices.
This seems in contrast to the idea that the gates of repentance are always open. This week we recognize the destruction of the temple on Tisha b'Av, but even then, while the prophets rebuke Israel, they always end with a nechemta, a comfort. God will take us back, they say. Can we believe that while reading about how God punished the first generation to come out of Egypt?
But did God punish that generation? To many of us, punishment is inherently retaliatory -- you did something bad, so now something bad happens to you in payment. It's the same model whether we're talking about taking away a misbehaving child's TV privileges or sentencing a criminal to jail. A response, ideally in proportion to the offense, is meted out.
That punishment is a negative response does not mean that all negative responses are punishment. It's not punishment when you touch a hot stove and get burned. It's not punishment when you build below sea level and get flooded. It's not punishment when you neglect your health and fall ill. These are consequences, ones that logically follow, but consequences are not always punishment.
The traditional recitation of the Sh'ma includes a paragraph that our movement leaves out, telling us that if we follow God's commandments there will be rain in its proper season and so on, and if not, not. Many are uncomfortable with this apparent divine tit-for-tat; we don't believe that God micromanages, nor that God is petty. But maybe that's not what's going on.
The Rambam tried to be a rationalist. He argued that God set the world in motion and then stepped back from it to let it play out. According to the Rambam all of the miracles recorded in the torah were built into the original programming -- the burning bush, the plagues, the splitting of the sea, and all the rest. There are no miracles of intervention; the world operates according to a set of rules, and God stands back and watches it happen.
Perhaps, then, we can look at these passages in a different light. Maybe mitzvot are just part of the world machinery that also causes the land of Israel to flourish. Maybe not going into the land was a natural consequence of being initially unwilling to take it. Maybe the destruction of the temple was a natural consequence of wrongdoing.
There is a midrash that at the Yam Suf, when the angels rejoiced with Israel, God rebuked the angels, saying "my creations are drowning and you celebrate?". An all-powerful God could have intervened so that no one had to die at the sea, but a God who chose to be limited by the rules he had put in place might not. God can weep with us over the consequences of our poor decisions while declining to suspend the rules of the world and let us off the hook.
When we call something a punishment we ascribe a negative motive and assume a willful act. We might be able to get out of a punishment, maybe without correcting the original problem. May we instead be able to see consequences as just that, consequences, and may we then be able to change the actions that inevitably led to those consequences. In this change, this teshuva, God stands ready to help if we take the first step.