Death and Afflictions of the Righteous
Moshe Ben-Chaim
Reader: I don't understand how you can say that no suffering comes upon righteous people in this world. You cite the dictum of our sages, "there is no death without accidental sin, and no suffering without willful sin". But, as anyone who studied this section in Talmud Shabbat 55a-b would know, this statement is actually refuted in the end. 
The Rabbis actually say that the righteous are semaychim biyisurim - they rejoice in suffering (see end of Moreh Nevuchim's discussion of the book of Job). The true benefit of Torah life is metaphysical; but, since we live in the physical world, we are subject to its impact in both positive and negative ways (see Meiri on the section in Shabbat). When we suffer, this reinforces our sense that true tranquility and completeness cannot be found in the material world, it must be sought in the domain of the intellectual.
Mesora: (I wish to thank my friend Joshua for exchanging ideas with me on this topic, and for correcting my reading of a Tosafos, which I have now omitted. I will now address the reader's question.)
Your explanation of an ends, (i.e., suffering reinforces that tranquility cannot be found in the material world) does not justify the means, that the innocent should suffer. Where is there justice in the suffering of the innocent? I say there is none. One who lives in accord with the Torah recognizes his joy is derived from wisdom. He does not overindulge in the physical, and therefore, requires no lesson, as you suggest.
But let us be clear. What is refuted by the Talmud - via argument - in Sabbath 55b, is that death occurs, and even without sin. However, the Talmud does not display any argument against the principle "there is no suffering without willful sin." First, the Talmud cites four individuals who never sinned, yet, they met with death. Therefore, we see that death does visit even those with no sin. But it goes unchallenged that suffering does not happen unless some willful sin has been committed. Oddly, although this is not refuted through an argument, Tosafos make note that the Talmud accepts its refutation. But I ask, if no argument is presented, why do the Talmud and Tosafos both accept its refutation? They have no reasoning! But perhaps their is reasoning. Perhaps they feel if there can be a "harsher" sentence with no sin (death), then a lighter "affliction" can certainly visit someone, although no sin is committed. For the Talmud and Tosafos, it is a simple deduction that lead the Talmud to subsume Earthly afflictions into the same category as punishment by early death.
But as this is a philosophical issue, we are not bound to adhere to the opinion of the Talmud. Only in Jewish law must we follow the Talmud and the Rabbis, "al pi haTorah asher yorucha", "in accord with the Torah (law) that they teach you..." My research inclines me to believe that there is no suffering when one has not sinned. Justice also demands if one has not willfully sinned, he should not receive suffering. This makes sense, as G-d's sufferings are only a means to direct one to perfect himself. (We must be clear again: we refer here only to suffering at G-d's hands. However, man may suffer at the hands of others, if he is so foolish as to associate with those who are abusive.)
A Rabbi once lectured on Maimonides' view of sufferings, and stated that Maimonides also views suffering with no sin, as a principle which is against Torah:
(Maimonides' "Guide to the Perplexed", Book III, Chap. XXIV)
"The doctrine of trials is open to great objections: it is in fact more exposed to objections than any other thing taught in Scripture. It is mentioned in Scripture six times, as I will show in this chapter. People have generally the notion that trials consist in afflictions and mishaps sent by G-d to man, not as punishments for past sins, but as giving opportunity for great reward. This principle is not mentioned in Scripture in plain language, and it is only in one of the six places referred to that the literal meaning conveys this notion. I will explain the meaning of that passage later on. The principle taught in Scripture is exactly the reverse; for it is said:" He is a G-d of faithfulness, and there is no iniquity in him." (Deut. xxxii. 4).
The teaching of our Sages, although some of them approve this general belief [concerning trials], is on the whole against it. For they say," There is no death without sin, and no affliction without transgression." Every intelligent religious person should have this faith, and should not ascribe any wrong to G-d, who is far from it; he must not assume that a person is innocent and perfect and does not deserve what has befallen him."
Maimonides teaches that one who experiences afflictions must have sinned to deserve them. And those without sin, will not be afflicted. To disagree, Maimonides says is a violation of the Scriptural principle "He is a G-d of faithfulness, and there is no iniquity in him." (Deut. xxxii. 4).
As we are on the topic, let us examine the statement, "there is no death without accidental sin, and no suffering without meaningful sin". What is the relation between death to accidental sin, and the relation between suffering and willful sin? It would seem that accidental sin is that, for which man is less culpable. His very nature demands that he sins, "For man is not righteous in the land who does good and does not sin." (Ecclesiastes, 7:20. Tosafos also note that this verse applies to the majority, as only these four mentioned never sinned.) Since by design, man must sin, his fate meets with death. This was only decreed once Adam partook of the forbidden fruit. G-d's justice demanded His sentiment: "As man cannot completely follow Me, death must be delivered to him. He cannot live on Earth eternally as planned." Perhaps, G-d's death-decree helped Adam, (and us, who follow his design) to withdraw from the immortality fantasy which contributed to Adam's sin. G-d's punishments are righteous, and serve a positive purpose. The realization of our own mortality assists in our removal from that which is temporal. Since this is true for all mankind, G-d decreed that all mankind, even those who never sin, must follow this design, where death meets all of us. Death is not necessarily a punishment for an individual's sins. Due to Adam's demonstration of human shortcomings, death must be part of a new human design. As a Rabbi once put it, Adam partook in his very development - his actions sealed the fate for his own natural transition from immortal, to mortal. We now see how death is not due to one's own sins, although the Talmud does admit that if one does sin, he can be killed by G-d at a point earlier than initially planned.
In your question, you quoted "the righteous are semaychim biyisurim", that means, "the righteous are happy with their sufferings." You mistook this to refer to G-d's afflictions, when in fact, this quote is only discussing man's afflictions of the righteous(Sabbath 88b). In this section, a few positive traits are listed, and one is of the righteous, who hear others mocking them, and yet, they do not retaliate. (Rashi) This in no way bears any resemblance to our issue of G-d afflicting the righteous. Therefore, I remain in support of the dictum, "there is no suffering without willful sin." This principle is sound, and not challenged. I contend that such human oppression is of no concern or pain to the righteous individual. He hears their scorn, but places no value in their words.
This Talmudic section continues, quoting a verse as a metaphor for such righteous people: "My loved ones are like the sun, rising in its strength." (Judges, 5:31) What is the metaphor? I suggest the following interpretation: "Sun" is that which illuminates, this is also true of the righteous, their ways illuminate us towards truths. "Rising" is the most contrasting act of the sun; it lightens the darkness - sunrise is a more dramatic illumination than other day times. "In its strength" means that the sun follows its own course, unaffected by other events. So too the righteous. They are unaffected in their daily mission of illuminating others - the scorn of others has no affect on their steadfast course. Just as the sun goes unaffected, so too the righteous are unaffected. The fact that the Talmud says they are "happy in their afflictions" (of man) means that they fully accept the world as G-d' design, they are happy with G-d's design, which also includes the scorn of others. This emotion which causes others to scorn, is no less a creation than the rest of the universe. Thus, the righteous appreciate all that G-d created in His world. But even more beautiful is this idea: the righteous are not centered on themselves, where they need to retaliate against their oppressors. No, this is not their concern. The righteous do not live with the goal of defending their egos, but conversely, they live to observe the external world, G-d's universe is their "playground". They care nothing about defending themselves against attacks, but are solely concerned with seeing new, exciting truths about G-d's creation. "His loved ones" means those who desire G-d's knowledge for the sake of that knowledge, they have no ulterior purpose. Their lives strive towards seeing new ideas. They care only for knowledge.
"Happy with their afflictions", refers to the realm of "human" affliction. Secondly, it means they are happy with G-d's creation, despite human oppression. Thus, this dictum has no bearing on G-d's affliction, and can not be used to defend your claim.
Let us view another Talmudic portion, Talmud Kiddushin 40b: "Rabbi Eliezer son of Tzadok said, "to what are the righteous compared to in this world? To a tree (whose trunk) stands fully in a pure place, and its branches reach out over an impure place. It's branches are cut, and it now stands fully in a pure place. So also, G-d brings afflictions upon the righteous in this world, in order that they inherit the next world." We see clearly, this quote discusses the righteous, but not the "wholly righteous". These righteous people quoted, have "branches in an impure area", that is, they have stretched their hands into impurity - they committed sins. Had they not sinned, this Talmudic section teaches that G-d would not have reason to visit afflictions upon them. Here, the term "righteous" does not mean without any sin. It means the majority of this person's life was righteous. Only when one sins, does G-d see it fit to remedy his flaws with afflictions. Giving the righteous afflictions, G-d forces them to reflect, they discern their flaws, and they repent. But one who finally perfected himself, now with no flaws, would need no moral instruction.
Many verses in the Torah depict what we have stated:
Psalms 121:7: "G-d will guard you from all evil."
Psalms 134:20-21: "Many are the evils of the righteous, and from all, G-d saves him. He guards all his bones, not one is broken."
Talmud Brachos 5a: "Afflictions cleanse all of man's sins." If there are no sins, then afflictions do not come.
Proverbs 16:6: "When man's ways please G-d, He even makes his enemies at peace with him."
Proverbs 19:23: "Fear of G-d is to life, and satisfied will he sleep, no evil will visit him."
Malbim on Proverbs 21:19: "A man of honesty and integrity needs no atonement. Moreover, should a faithless man seek to kill him, he himself will fall victim in his stead, and the upright man will emerge safe."
G-d's justice. What is it? Is it exact? We must affirm. How can it not be exact? G-d has complete knowledge. "Justice" is a system where G-d metes out reward or punishment which is deserved. G-d created the system of justice, of which we apprehend only a minute degree of its workings. Thus, our great ignorance must be no grounds for dismissing unexplained and seeming "deviations" in G-d's justice. This is what Maimonides says is the main lesson in the book of Job, that we cannot compare our ways with G-d's:
(Maimonides' "Guide to the Perplexed", Book III, end of chap. XXVIII)
"In the same manner, as there is a difference between works of nature and productions of human handicraft, so there is a difference between G-d's rule, providence, and intention in reference to all natural forces, and our rule, providence, and intention in reference to things which are the objects of our rule, providence, and intention. This lesson is the principal object of the whole Book of Job; it lays down this principle of faith, and recommends us to derive a proof from nature, that we should not fall into the error of imagining His knowledge to be similar to ours, or His intention, providence, and rule similar to ours. When we know this we shall find everything that may befall us easy to bear; mishap will create no doubts in our hearts concerning G-d, whether He knows our affairs or not, whether He provides for us or abandons us. On the contrary, our fate will increase our love of G-d; as is said in the end of this prophecy:" Therefore I abhor myself and repent concerning the dust and ashes" (xlii. 6): and as our Sages say:" The pious do everything out of love, and rejoice in their own afflictions." (B. T. Shabb. 88b.) If you pay to my words the attention which this treatise demands, and examine all that is said in the Book of job, all will be clear to you, and you will find that I have grasped and taken hold of the whole subject; nothing has been left unnoticed, except such portions as are only introduced because of the context and the whole plan of the allegory. I have explained this method several times in the course of this treatise."
We also must not invalidate G-d's system of justice when we behold a righteous soul living in much anguish and pain. Just as we do not invalidate 2+2=4 as a truth when we cannot comprehend other mathematics, so too we must not invalidate what is just in the Torah when we have questions. G-d knows all. Man knows but a drop in the sea. We have no possible claims against G-d's workings. His knowledge is complete, ours, tragically incomplete. How can our idea of "justice" be more correct, than that of He Who made it?
Proverbs 24:12: "Does not He Who weighs hearts comprehend? And does He Who guards your soul not know? And will He not pay every man according to his actions?"