Why the Good Suffer
Moshe Ben-Chaim
A few introductory remarks are necessary before discussing this subject.
The question of why good people suffer deserves the same objectivity of research as do all other areas. It is wise that this topic be discussed when people are at ease, and not tragedy stricken, during such times, a person has difficulty hearing answers which do not satisfy the emotion of the moment. It is important to note, that prior to such tragedies, one does not usually question G-d's justice. This demonstrates that the question is usually asked from a personal standpoint, and not from an objective, rational inquiry. The fact that this question is usually asked only after experiencing tragic circumstances displays that the question is generated from personal intolerance.
We must first understand that all knowledge is not within man's grasp. Truthfully, we know very little and must appreciate that there are areas in which we will not be totally satisfied due to our ignorance. Abraham our forefather was of the wisest of men, yet G-d had to inform even him on how G-d's justice operates. We do not match Abraham's caliber, therefore we also require instruction and correction on what is true justice of the Creator.
We must also be aware within ourselves whether we ask this question honestly seeking an answer, or under a pretense to abandon Judaic beliefs.
Just as a doctor may not have a cure for one out of a thousand of ailments, and yet is still viewed as a great doctor, the same applies to G-d and His justice. We see the Torah on the whole benefits man. Although we may not find all the answers, one should maintain his high esteem for the Torah, and attribute his ignorance to himself - not blaming the system.
Additionally, one must not judge whether something is an evil or a good, making such a judgment based on the effects of the moment. Perhaps after twenty years this event will show itself to be a good in the larger scheme of things.
Having said this, we must recognize when asking "why good people suffer" we are not in place of G-d, and therefore do not have the ability to determine who is truly "good". We cannot ask, "why this 'good' person suffers." We may look at someone and see they fit a "profile" of what we feel a righteous person is, but this is a false notion. A righteous person has no "profile". Being righteous is purely internal, as the prophet says, (Micha 6:8) "It has been told to you man, what is good and what G-d desires of you, but to perform justice and acts of loving kindness and walk modestly with your G-d". One truly righteous is humble and does not seek public acclaim, rather, he seeks only G-d's approval. External judgments on our part are of no consequence.
We may want to believe someone is righteous for many reasons, viz, associating with this caliber of Jew being self complimentary, or we see a Jew as having a righteous reputation, and feel it must be accurate. It is not our place or capability to make such determinations about another's level of piety. What we are bidden by the Torah to do is to judge all men favorably. This is a statement which urges us to act - not to make absolute moral judgments on the summation of an entire person's thoughts and deeds. This only G-d can do, as the prayers of Rosh Hashannah teach us, "(only) G-d knows the thoughts of man".
So what is the view of the Torah on this matter?
Most wise individuals will experience the most pleasant of lives. While there will be exceptions, the rule determines the general principle, and such a rule is not compromised by such exception. Wise men study all areas, including what to choose as their activity of involvement. As they examine all aspects of life, most unfortunate circumstances are anticipated by them, as they take measures to avoid such mishaps long before their occurrence. This incorporation of wisdom in every area of life is the mark of a chocham, a wise man. He is rarely taken by surprise. The unexpected travails of life which others experience, he avoids. King Solomon describes the fools, (Proverbs, 1:27) "When your dread arrives like a storm, and your calamity like a whirlwind". Again, (ibid, 1:32) "For the waywardness of simpletons will slay them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them". The fool seeks instantaneous pleasures, and knows not how to engage wisdom in order to anticipate a few steps down the road and ask, "what will happen if I do such and such?" Due to his nearsightedness, the fool will ambush himself, as his lack of consideration will invite tragedy to waltz through his front door, like a "storm or a whirlwind", unexpectedly.
The righteous person as well will encounter mishaps in his life, even with much foresight and planning. Nonetheless, he has one other factor to safeguard him, (Proverbs, 3:25,26) "do not be frightened by the sudden terror, or the stormy destruction of the wicked when it comes. For G-d will be your confidence, and He will keep your foot from entrapment". The righteous person has G-d as his source of virtue, and as his Protector. We also read, (Psalms, 34:10, Ibn Ezra) "The righteous do not fear that harm or lack will come to them even through their own actions." Also, (Psalms 34:20,21) "Many tragedies befall the righteous, and from them all G-d saves him. He (G-d) watches all of his bones, not even one is broken". This means that world order continues to operate, but G-d utilizes direct providence to shield the righteous from all mishap and tragedy.
This last statement now begins to enlighten us of G-d's system. It states that not even one bone is allowed to be harmed, provided the person is a tzaddik. This means that G-d does not allow harm to befall a perfectly, righteous person. However, if one is not on this pristine level, he is not shielded from harms way. It is the suffering of this latter individual which generates the question of why the good suffer.
Talmud Sabbath 55a discusses G-d's justice so clearly outlined in Ezekiel 18: "There is no death without sin, and no suffering without transgression." Ezekiel teaches that there are 3 types of man; 1) one who is evil, 2) one who was evil but repented, and 3) one who was evil and repented fully. It is this third type of man which Ezekiel teaches that G-d protects from all harm. He is not only granted life, "chayo yichyeh", now that he repented like the second man, but it states of this third man, "lo yamus" , "he will not die". Meaning, the fully, penitent individual has nothing to fear in life. No harm will ever befall him. Maimonides states that when we see someone suffering, it has come upon him due to his own misdeeds.
This concept makes sense to our minds, as a punishment delivered by G-d is always a corrective measure, and one who has no faults needs no correction and will go without suffering at all.
What should one think when a tragedy occurs to an infant, someone who is not capable of sinning?
I will quote some sources:
- Rashi on Deuteronomy, 9:20, we see the idea of one losing his sons mentioned as a punishment.
- Rashi (Lev. 10:12) implies that Aaron's sons' deaths were a punishment to Aaron, and not for their own misdeeds. If we are to say they died for their own misdeeds, then how could Rashi continue to say that Moshe prayed for Aaron's sons, and saved two, so only two died? What does Moshe's prayer have to do with the sons' merit?
- The Torah itself in Lev. 20:20 (according to Rashi) indicates that loss of children is a punishment, "the nakedness of his aunt he revealed, his sin he will carry, he will die 'ari-rim' (childless)."
However, the most clear statement is from the Torah in, Deut. 24:16:
"Fathers are not killed for the children's sins, and children are not killed for their father's sins, each man in his own sin will they be killed."
Rashi says here that the word "man" teaches that only once one reaches adulthood is he killed for his own sins. But if one is not yet a 'man', he is not 13 years old, he may be killed for his father's sins, and infants are killed by the hand of heaven for their father's sins."
The Torah is teaching that in cases, this type of tragedy can be a correction for the parent. Perhaps, as the child is not one yet who discerns bad from good, he cannot be held 'accountable' for his acts, and therefore his death cannot be a corrective measure for him. G-d in His wisdom grants life, and takes life. He does not "owe" the child anything, and the child has no claim against Him at such an early stage. It is only once the child becomes an aware adult with a developed conscience, that G-d will only then punish him based on his own status, a status prior to which he had not. In His wisdom, G-d uses such a means to correct the parent. Although we may not presently understand why G-d acts this way, we should not foolishly use our ignorance as an argument against G-d's justice. Perhaps as we continue to ponder the Torah's ideas, we will learn how this means of punishment is just.
Should we find ourselves unable to bear this kind of justice, we should reflect on our most wise forefather Avraham, who did not hesitate to slay his own child, the single son he had waited so many decades for.
Avraham's mark of distinction was his knowledge of G-d's justice. We see how Avraham discussed the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom. How Avraham investigated G-d's justice, and how G-d Himself stated about Avraham, "I know him that he will command his household after him to keep the path of God, doing charity and justice". Avraham did not resist the command to slay his son, as this was a command for perfection, and he could not necessarily comprehend how G-d's intended perfection would come about. He did not share the commonly found sentiment of denying G-d's infinite wisdom due to a desire to avoid personal loss. His love for Isaac was great, but his love for truth was greater. Today for the most part, this is not so.
I am certain that as Avraham thought into the justice of Sodom's fate, he also pondered what benefit would be derived from the slaying of Isaac, but his pondering did not delay his fulfillment of G-d's command. Perhaps to teach us that Avraham had no hesitation, the Torah does not record that Avraham was thinking about G-d's command, as some readers might view that as suspicion of G-d, and having hesitation in fulfilling his word, which was not the case.
To read an article discussing the distinction between Avraham's reactions to Sodom and slaying Isaac, click here.
Returning to our topic, in the book of Malachi, 3:13, when evildoers were triumphant, the Jews of that era questioned how this could be, and what benefit there was in following G-d's system. Two other groups of Jews heard this question being asked, the "G-d fearing Jews", and "those who pondered His name". It was only the G-d fearing Jews who had to stop and discuss the 'problem' now raised in their minds by this question. They discussed the matter but came to no understanding, upon which, G-d guaranteed that He will disclose this information to them in the future. However, we do not see the group of "those who pondered His name" having any issue or concern with the question. The reason is that those who "pondered His name" already had the answer, as they, unlike the other group, did not worship G-d from fear, but rather from the attachment to truths derived from pondering G-d's name, or rather, G-d's system. When this pondering group met with a nation of Jews disheartened, witnessing successful evildoers, it was of no concern to them, as their "success" was purely physical, and not a true success. True success was realistically measured by this group in terms of wisdom, the appreciation of ideas, and living a life steeped in the pursuit of truths. This is what success truly is, success at functioning as "man", a thinking and inquisitive being in search of reason and beauty in all of G-d's ways. Not the search for material gain as an end.
These thinking and pondering Jews also understood that the wicked will be successful at times as reward in this world for some small good they have done, thereby being rightfully being paid by their Creator. (Rashi on Deut. 7:10, also Rashi on Psalms; 92)
Our opinion on justice then should be that of the prophets, that G-d will not allow harm to befall purely righteous individuals. We should take note of the righteous themselves, and see that they exhorted the following of the Torah. They deeply penetrated the Torah with their analysis, and pondered all of the questions which we ask. Yet, they desired nothing other than to be involved in the life of Torah and wisdom. No wise, righteous person ever abandoned the concepts of the Torah when tragedies befell people, as they could not determine fully the level of those stricken, whereby they might question the justice of such events. As Maimonides said, "they must have deserved what befell them". Although at times no apparent answer presented itself to their questions of justice, they saw the entire system created by G-d as just.
We do not understand the genius of certain individuals. When they speak of matters we do not comprehend, we do not categorically discount such individuals on account of our perplexity in such cases. We certainly do not have complete understanding of G-d. His actions at times are not within our grasp. However, through study, we see the life outlined by the Torah is the best life for man, as G-d designed us and knows what is best. We see this from the ideas themselves.

When encountering circumstances beyond our understanding, our overall appreciation for the perfection of the Torah and G-d's justice should not be diminished by our ignorance.


Reader's question on the article:

Reader: The basis for your article was the idea presented in the prophets and gemara that there is no punishment without sin; any suffering comes from some imperfection in the person. Question: How do you explain what happened to Iyov, specifically in light of the pesukim which say that he was totally righteous? (see Iyov 1:1 and the Ramban there, who says that he never sinned). Also, if you look at G-d's explanation of Iyov's suffering, He does not say that Iyov deserved it; rather he simply says that man can't understand the way that G-d's hashgacha works  Doesn't G-d's answer seem to be different from yours?

Mesora: You are introducing another accurate explanation by which a person suffers (not punished), which I omitted. You are correct that Iyov did not sin. According to A Rabbi, Iyov had suffered due to his ignorance. Meaning, when one is not a sinner, but is not wise, he may be left up to the laws of nature. Rambam explains that one's hashgacha pratyos from G-d is dependent upon his level of perfection, which is the case with Iyov. Once Iyov raised his level of understanding via Elihu's insights, G-d then was able to be involved with Iyov, and
did so right after Elihu completed his discussion, and Iyov acquiesced.

So this was not a case of "punishment", (which means G-d ordained) but it was a case where a person was bereft of hashgacha, and the natural evils were able to penetrate his life. According to the quotes in Yechezkiel, had Iyov been wise, G-d would shield him from all mishaps. Sefer Iyov must be in line with Tehillim as well, which states that G-d protects all the bones of the tzaddik. We must conclude that Iyov, although not a sinner, was not on the level deserving of this protection until he recognized truths, without which, he was left to the course of nature.


Reader: Why can't it be that a righteous person suffers due to the hashgacha clali on Bnei Yisroel? For example, it seems perfectly legitimate to say that because the tzaddik is part of the am and the am deserves to be destroyed, then he must be punished with them?

Mesora: We see this is not so from Avraham's discussion with G-d regarding S'dom, from G-d saving Noach, and from the quoted verses on the article. Avraham only asked on G-d's mida of saving the sinners on account of the merit of the righteous. Avraham did not ask if G-d would save the righteous when He destroys sinners. This Avraham knew was not the way of G-d, "ha-af tzaddik im rasha tispeh", "will you wipe away the righteous with the sinner". This was not a question, but a rhetorical statement, as a friend pointed out, the punctuation for a "hay hashe-ayla" is not found under the "hay" in "Ha-af".
Additionally, we see G-d only answered Avraham on the question of saving the sinners on account of 50 righteous. Had Avraham actually been asking a question, G-d would have answered that as well. But as G-d didn't answer, it displays that Avraham said "ha-af tzaddik im rasha tispeh" in astonishment and as an accepted truth, not as a question.

G-d will not punish one who is a tzaddik, under any circumstance. The concept of the 10 martyrs then is left open as a strong question, the answer to which I do not know.

Philosophy | Tnach | New Postings | JewishTimes | Audio Archives | Suggested Reading | Live Classes | Search | Letters | Q&A's | Community Action | Volunteer | Links | Education | Chat | Banners | Classifieds | Advertise | Donate | Donors | About Us | Press | Contacts | Home


Mesora website designed by NYDesign.com
© 2003 Mesora of New York, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Articles may be reprinted without permission.