Why do bad things happen to good people?

B”H

Question: I’m curious to know: what does the Talmud say about bad things that happen to good people?

Answer: (By Dr. Michael Schulman and Rabbi Sholom Ber Bloom, Ask Noah International)

One important point is that we physical people have a very limited perspective on what are “bad things”, and our view of “happen” is limited to what we think we see in a small frame of time. But this topic does need a lot of explanation.

Before we discus this topic, it is essential to understand that G-d is the ultimate of goodness, and since everything comes from G-d, the essential nature of everything – at least in its deep essence – is good, since it is part of His plan for bringing the creation to its ultimate perfection. It is also important to know that our perception of good is very limited. Consider, for example, a child who is playing with a sharp knife, and the father sees this and takes it away. The child thinks that the father is being mean by taking away a toy, but the father is really doing his beloved child a favor by taking away the dangerous object that could lead to worse harm than temporary hurt feelings, G-d forbid.

That is an analogy for an important teaching from Kabbalah: there are two types of good in G-d’s creation – hidden good and revealed good. To illustrate this point, the Talmud relates the following two stories.

Rabbi Akiva, who was one of the the famous sages of the Talmud, was once traveling with a donkey, a rooster, and candle. When night came, he tried to find lodging in a village near his route, but he was turned away. Although Rabbi Akiva was forced to spend the night in a field, he did not lament his fate. Instead, his reaction was to declare, “Everything G-d does is for the best.” That night a wind came and blew out his candle, and then a cat ate his rooster, and then a lion came and ate his donkey. With each event, Rabbi Akiva’s reaction was, “Everything that G-d does is for the best.” Later that night, a regiment of Roman soldiers came and took everyone in the town captive, while Rabbi Akiva who was sleeping in the field went unnoticed and thus was spared. When Rabbi Akiva woke up and found out what had happened, he said, “Didn’t I say that everything that G-d does is for the best”?” Obviously if Rabbi Akiva would have found lodging in the town, he would have been captured. And Rashi explains in his commentary that if the burning candle, the rooster or the donkey would have been with Rabbi Akiva in the field that night, the soldiers would have seen the candle light or heard the crowing rooster or the braying donkey, and would have captured him along with the others.

The second story happened to another sage of the Talmud, Rabbi Nachum Ish Gam-Zu. Once it happend that the Jewish sages needed to send a present to appease the Roman Caesar. They decided to send a chest full of precious jewels, and they felt that Nachum Ish Gam-zu would be the best emissary, since he had great faith in G-d. On his way to Rome, he stopped to sleep at an inn, and during the night the unscrupulous owners emptied out the jewels from the chest and filled it with sand. The sage continued on his way, and when he made his periodic check on the contents of the chest, he found the jewels gone and only sand in their place. As he always did with full faith, the sage only said, “Gam-zu le’tova!” – “Also this is for the good!” And he continued on his way to present the gift to the Caesar. When the chest was offered to the Caesar he opened it and saw the sand. Naturally he was infuriated and wanted to kill not only Nachum Ish Gam-zu, but also all of the Jews. Nachum Ish Gam-zu just said with full faith, “Gam-zu le’tova.” At that moment Elijah the Prophet appeared, disguised as one of the Caesar’s advisers, and pointed out that the Jews were very wise, so there must be something very special about this sand that would greatly benefit the Caesar. He suggested that maybe this was from the sand that their Patriarch Abraham and his servant Eliezer threw at the armies of the four kings, and it miraculously turned into swords and spears and destroyed the armies.[1] The Caesar commanded to test the sand on the front lines where his army was fighting a war against a nation that they had difficulty in conquering. In fact the sand turned into missiles of swords and spears when it was thrown, and with this the Romans defeated the opposing army. The Caesar was overjoyed, and he sent Rabbi Nachum Ish Gam-zu back to Judea with great honors and a chest full of much greater treasure than the sages had sent in the first place.

On the return trip, Rabbi Nachum Ish Gam-zu again spent the night at the same inn. The innkeepers couldn’t believe their own eyes. Didn’t they replace the jewels with sand?! How could the Caesar have repaid him with such honor and riches for bringing sand? They approached Rabbi Nachum and asked him, “What was it that you brought to the Caesar, that warranted such a reward”? He replied “What I took from here is what I delivered there.” The innkeepers said to themselves, “Wow! we’re sitting on such valuable sand, and we weren’t even aware of it! They quickly knocked down the inn and brought all the sand to the Caesar, and explained to him that the original sand came from their inn. The Caesar again had the sand tested to see if it also contained the miraculous powers. When the test failed, the thieving innkeepers were executed.

On the surface, these stories seem difficult to comprehend as lessons for our daily lives. How is it expected from a regular person to ignore all the suffering and anxiety that he is experiencing, and just live a regular life as if nothing “bad” was happening? The answer to that question comes from the above approach to life:  being secure in the knowledge that everything that G-d does is for the good. When a person perceives that G-d is causing him to suffer, he should say to himself, “It is really that G-d is showing me a higher expression of good, and it’s all for the best.” Having this sincere faith is a tremendous accomplishment in the service of G-d, and it generates great spiritual merit for the person. That is why Rabbi Akiva always said, “Everything that G-d does is for the good,” and the sage Nachum Ish Gam-zu always said, “This too is for the good,” regardless of whether or not they were blessed to see the goodness that would eventually come from it.

We also must understand that G-d’s ways are not our ways. For alternatively, when G-d decides to afflict a person in this world for sinning against Him, it is not out of vengeance but rather out of love for the person. Kabbalah teaches that when a person commits a sin he creates a blemish on his soul, so in order to cleanse the soul, G-d punishes the person for misdeeds that were done, in order that this soul should become purified. In a similar vein, there is a fundamental difference between Torah-based faith and other religions in the way they have a concept of a “Hell” (which they often conceive of in terms of pagan ideas). Torah teaches about the realm called Gehinom, where a soul that merits can be cleansed from its unrepentant sins. Some popular religions imagine a “Hell” as only a place of eternal damnation, but Torah teaches that Gehinom is established by G-d as a place which enables an essentially good soul to become purified through suffering and thereupon able to enter the spiritual heavens to receive its rewards.

Torah also teaches that for people who deserve great spiritual reward, G-d punishes their sins in this world (which is very light compared to the spiritual punishment / cleansing of a soul in Gehinom), and He rewards their observance of their commandments and their acts of goodness and kindness in their spiritual heaven after death (since the pleasure of a soul in the spiritual heavens is far greater than any pleasure in this world). On the the other hand, for people who are wicked, while they are alive in this world G-d rewards their good deeds and observance of any commandments, and He gives them their punishment after their soul passes on. Thus, like a loving father, G-d rewards and punishes in ways that bring a person to self-judgement so he will search his deeds and be motivated to repentance every day of his life, to discover his faults that were hidden from him by his self-love, and to actually correct them before it is too late.

Furthermore, the Zohar explains that even a righteous person can receive suffering due to a sin that his soul committed in a previous incarnation. For example, if a person dies before he repays what he owes to another person, G-d brings the two souls back into another lifetime together and brings about a situation in which they encounter each other and the accounting is settled for the good of the souls, even though the people have no memory of their past lives. For example, a person who stole in a previous incarnation drops some money, and the person with the soul which he stole from finds it.

In light of the above, the Talmud teaches that a person is obligated to bless G-d when he suffers apparent misfortune, just as he is obligated to bless G-d when he experiences openly revealed good, for his sufferings in this world are ultimately an expression of G-d’s love for him.

That being said, no human has the right or ability to judge as G-d judges, so we must not be unsympathetic to another person’s suffering by rationalizing that “he must deserve it.” G-d obligates us to cheerfully help others in need, heal the sick, give charity for the poor, etc., and He rewards us for doing so.

Also even though we know that everything that comes from G-d is ultimately good, we are limited and weak, and there is only so much that we can we endure. We have to know that we need G-d’s mercy, and He has infinite ability to find ways to accomplish His plan using revealed goodness instead of hidden goodness that we perceive as suffering. Thus we have the opportunity and obligation to pray to G-d for our needs and especially the needs of others (health, sustenance, happiness, etc.), and we say “May it be a will before You, L-rd our G-d, that …” Our prayers can bring G-d to change His will and give us the things that we are needing in our physical lives.

May it be G-d’s will that there will very soon be no more suffering and pain, and that we will only experience revealed good, which will happen with the coming of the true Messiah and the Messianic Era, speedily in our days.

Footnotes:

[1] As described in the Midrash on the Genesis chapter 14.

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