- Why the Good Suffer
- Moshe Ben-Chaim
- A few introductory remarks are necessary before discussing this
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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'
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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.