After Moshe saw that Hashem was prepared to forgive the Israelites for the son of the golden calf (Rashi on Exodus 33:18), he reasoned that it was a propitious time to inquire about the glory of Hashem (ibid.). The Talmud Berachot 7a understands this inquiry as the time old question, “Why do the righteous suffer צדיק ורע לו and the wicked prosper רשע וטוב לו in this world?” This enigma flies in the face of a just and caring creator and has led many astray. Much has been written on this subject, for example the book of Job with its commentaries, Rambam Moreh Nevuchim (3:16, 17, 22-24, 51), and Ramban Shaar HaGemul. Additional sources are listed in Artscroll Talmud Berachot 7a note 50. The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with some insights to this question based on Berachot 7a.
The question of divine judgement is especially difficult to answer (Avot 4:16) because of the doubled enigma:
- Why do some righteous suffer and some wicked prosper?
- But why do some righteous prosper and some wicked suffer?
The application of divine judgement to our understanding appears random. This question has been analyzed by Torah commentaries over the ages without a definitive answer. However one should not despair, but on the contrary, consider the following points:
- Hashem is just (Deut 32:4) even though we do not always understand his ways. As the verse says (Isaiah 55:9), “My (divine) ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts are higher than your thoughts”.
- The ultimate reward is in the world to come (עולם הבא) (Eruvin 22a, Kiddushin 40b, and Avodah Zarah 3b). Hence it is possible to receive less reward in this world but a full reward is guaranteed in the world to come (Avot 2:21).
Some have argued that the reward promised by the Torah does not necessarily imply material reward. However the Torah, throughout the book of Deuteronomy, does promise material reward for observance of mitzvoth. Of course material reward is not an end of itself but an enabler to perform the mitzvoth without undue interference from material matters. Another point is that we as humans cannot judge who is truly righteous and who is not. We only see the externals but Hashem judges according to a person’s potential, upbringing, and environment.
The Talmud Berachot 7a provides partial answers to this enigma while acknowledging that each one is not definitive. This article will group the answers in time sequence to attempt an understanding of this matter.
The Talmud’s first answer is that a person’s reward or punishment in this world is dependent upon his father or ancestors. Therefore a righteous person who suffers is the son of a wicked person. By extension a righteous person who prospers is the son of a righteous person. Similarly a wicked person who prospers is the son of a righteous person. By extension a wicked person who suffers is the son of a wicked person. This answer explains all four possibilities of reward and punishment for the righteous and the wicked. However, as mentioned in the enigma section, this answer is not sufficient because we see also apparent contradictions to this rule, for example a righteous person who is the son of a righteous person may suffer and a wicked the son of the wicked who prospers.
In addition the Talmud challenges this answer since one cannot be punished for an action that one did not commit (Deut. 24:16). The Talmud quotes Exodus 20:5 that Hashem does visit the sins of the parents upon children but only if they follow their parents’ sinful ways. Hence this would not explain the case of the righteous who suffer who do not follow their father’s way and the wicked that prosper even though they follow their father’s path. In light of the above objections, the Talmudic commentaries explain what the Talmud initially assumed and how to resolve the challenges. One explanation is that reward in the world to come is primarily dependent on one’s own actions, with some merit derived from one’s children. However in this world the primary reward is related to the father. The Torah alludes to this “inherited reward” in verses Exodus 20:6 and 34:7, which promise reward in this material world for thousands of generations. According to this explanation the term “father” means ancestors which can span many generations. In effect Hashem acts as a trust fund administrator carefully distributing the material reward accrued by one’s ancestors.
The Talmud’s next answer relates to one’s actions in this world. A righteous person who suffers in this world is not completely righteousצדיק שאינו גמור. Therefore he suffers in this world to be cleansed and receives his full reward in the world to come. A completely righteous person צדיק גמור does not require cleansing is rewarded in both worlds. A similar analysis applies to a partially wicked person who is rewarded for his positive actions in this world but at the expense of the world to come. A completely wicked person suffers in both worlds. This answer deals with all four possibilities and is directly related to one’s own actions overcoming the challenges of the previous answer. However the enigma still remains because to our understanding there appear to be contradictions to this rule. Although as mentioned above we cannot judge who is truly righteous or truly wicked. In addition Hashem judges a person not solely by his actions, rather according to one’s potential, which only Hashem knows. As the Talmud states (Ketubot 67a), “According to the camel the load.”
(Note: According to this analysis the terms righteous and wicked are with respect to this judgement, Maharsha on Berachot 7a and Taanit 11a. These same terms are used in Berachot 61b in reference to control of one’s desires but not necessarily this judgement meaning that the righteous are totally controlled by their spiritual side leaving no room for sin. By contrast the evil are totally controlled by the physical side. Those in the middle are controlled by both. For additional understanding on this subject the reader is encouraged to study Chapter 1 of Likutei Amarim – Tanya.)
The Talmud records Rabbi Meir as a dissenting view that Hashem did not explain his system of judgement to Moses. In effect he holds that the previous answers are not sufficient. Rather the enigma remains and he quotes Exodus 33:19 which states that Hashem will grant favour and mercy to the person He chooses. The commentaries ask, “On what basis does Hashem grant favour to some and not to others?” It is inconceivable that this granting is arbitrary or random. Interestingly, the Talmud does not debate Rabbi Meir’s opinion and in fact ends the discussion at this point, leaving the matter unresolved.
In the opinion of this author, an important clue to this mystery is use of the future tense in verse 33:19. In fact the verse uses both forms of the future tense, the biblical conversive future וחנתי and the conventional future conjugation אחן. This implies that Hashem’s judgement takes the future into account, for the individual or his offspring. Since we cannot see the future the judgement appears random, however over time Hashem’s actions appear clearer. Some commentators explain verse 33:23 referring to Hashem’s conversation with Moses, “You will see my back, but my face may not be seen”, meaning we only understand Hashem’s actions after the fact.
There are many examples throughout the bible where Hashem’s judgement in this world is conditional upon the future. For example Breishit Rabbah 29:5 states that Noah was saved from the flood on account of his descendants especially Abraham but not his own merits. Even though Noah was righteous (Genesis 6:9) he was held somewhat responsible for his generation (Sanhedrin 108a).
Similarly Moses was commanded by Hashem to wage war against Midian (Numbers 31:2) for ensnaring the Israelite men in harlotry and idol worship. According to Talmud (Baba Kamma 38a, b) Moses reasoned that if the Israelites were commanded to fight against Midian, surely they should fight against the Moabites who hired Balaam and initially sent their women to entice the Israelites. However Hashem responds to Moses by saying, “Not as you thought, I think”. In the future, Ruth of the Moabites will emerge and spawn the Davidic and hence messianic line. Therefore Hashem spared the Moabites from this battle. The Talmudic commentaries point out that Hashem could have allowed a war against the Moabites and spare Ruth’s ancestors allowing the Davidic line. However the merit of Ruth was so great that it spared her people at that time, showing that Hashem may withhold present judgement based on future considerations.
We cannot fully understand divine judgement in this world. However the aspects of past, present, and future provide an insight to this judgement. In effect each of the three approaches in the Talmud are not conclusive in themselves, hence the Talmud does not accept any answer as conclusive. Rather Hashem’s judgement is a combination of these factors with the ultimate decision according to Hashem’s wisdom.
In particular each person may apply these factors to one’s own life to partially understand divine judgement. For example a person may inquire about his ancestors to obtain an understanding of one’s spiritual DNA, look at their present situation in reference to a divine plan, or look at their own offspring to obtain a glimpse at the future.