What a difference a word makes!
Parshas R’ei opens on an intense note: There will be blessing for following Hashem’s mitzvos, and a curse for defying them. But there is a discrepancy in how these consequences are presented. While the good things will happen “when” we listen to Hashem, the bad things will only occur “if” we disobey (D’varim 11:27-28).
The difference between these two words may not seem significant, but Rav Shlomo Ganzfried zt”l (author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) has a beautiful explanation in his commentary on the parshah, Apiryon.
In a professional setting, there is no difference between good and bad consequences – both come only after the behavior (“consequently”). “If” an employee does his job, then he will be paid, and “if” he slacks off, then he will be reprimanded. It would not make sense to promote a worker before he earns it, nor fire him until it is warranted.
However, parents do not deal with their children in such strict terms – at least not for good behavior. Consider parents who are about to go out for dinner, leaving their young children with a babysitter. “We are ordering pizza and letting you stay up later than usual,” they say as they put on their coats. “We expect to hear that you behaved well and went to sleep nicely.” They don’t wait for the kids to first prove themselves, and only then reward them the following night. They give the “consequences” before the good behavior to show that they are confident that their children will behave appropriately and live up to expectations.
Does the same structure make sense when anticipating bad conduct? “We expect that you will be uncooperative and a general disaster tonight, so before we go, we are confiscating your iPad and sending you to your room.” That would never happen. Punishments only come “if” and after undesired behavior occurs.
Rav Ganzfried explained that, out of fatherly love, Hashem rewards and punishes us the way a parent – and not an employer – would. Now we can understand why He only gives negative consequences “if” the Jewish people disobey His mitzvos but ensures blessing will already be present “when” we act as expected. Hashem works with the assumption that we will follow the Torah, and so He first gives us lives full of blessing – and then expects us to use those resources to earn the gifts that He has already given us!
As we complete the month of Av (lit. father), it is important to remember the high expectations to which our Heavenly Parent holds us. By examining all the goodness in our lives, we can get a sense of how confident He is that we will reciprocate the love and earn the blessings that we already have!