When the Good Suffer

Rabbi Israel Chait

Student’s notes

STUDENT: “Once permission is given to the destroyer it does not distinguish between good and evil.”  I never understood this in light of Psalms: “Though the misfortunes of the righteous be many, God will save him from them all, keeping all his bones intact, not one of them being broken” (Psalms 34:20,21).  “God is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him with sincerity. He fulfills the wishes of those who fear Him; He hears their cry and delivers them” (Psalms 145:18,19).  And many other verses in Psalms. 

If one is perfectly righteous, he does not deserve any evil. How then do we understand that statement about the destroyer? Thank you.

RABBI  ISRAEL  CHAIT:  Psalms refers to individuals. The destroyer refers to masses, where even the righteous will suffer. Baba Kama 60a:

 “And none of you shall go out of the opening of his house until the morning” (Exodus 12:22). If the [firstborn] plague [in Egypt] was not decreed upon the Jewish people, why were they not permitted to leave their homes? Once permission is granted to the destroyer to kill, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. And not only that, but it begins with the righteous first, as it is stated in the verse: “And I will cut off from you the righteous and the wicked” (Ezekiel 21:8). The righteous precedes the wicked in this verse, teaching they were killed first. Rav Yosef cried and said: “Are all these righteous people also compared to nothing when calamity strikes?” Abaye said to him: “It is goodness for the righteous that they die first, as it is written, ‘The righteous is taken away because of the evil to come’ (Isaiah 57:1), so that he will not have to endure the suffering that will befall the people.”

The righteous were not saved. But once they too had to die along with the other Jews, God exhibits kindness and kills them first to spare their witness of the tragedy. “Chanoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24) Rashi says, “He was a righteous man, but his mind was easily induced to turn from his righteous ways and to become wicked. The Holy One, blessed be He, therefore took him away quickly and made him die before his full time.”  God killed him earlier than his time to spare him from turning evil. 

But the righteous not being spared is a good question. Why must God wipe out the righteous as well? We don’t know why. We can’t know certain areas. Moshe asked God to reveal the concept of the good suffering. We don’t know what God told him. We are not ready for an answer. 

 Gur Aryeh was one of the 4 commentators on Rashi. He says (Gen. 6:13), “Once permission is granted to the destroyer to kill, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked” applies only when the righteous person is together with the wicked. But if he is not, he is spared.” God doesn’t perform a miracle to spare the righteous when the masses are killed. Pinchas was given God’s “Treaty of Peace.” Had God killed only those sinning sexually, it would have removed free will [which God never removes. Seeing a sinner die forces one not to sin, but not out of free will. It’s akin to anyone eating non-kosher suddenly being struck by lightning. No one would continue eating non-kosher.]  Pinchas acted to make a kiddish Hashem and killed those sinners, performing what God could not. God recognized his proper act through granting him the treaty.

Avraham inquired of God’s justice for Sodom. But below a certain number of righteous people, God would not spare even the righteous. (Lot was spared for extraneous reasons.) But the righteous not being spared is a good question.