Does the World Exist?
Chapter 4, Mishnah 19
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Yannai said: It is not within our ability [to understand] neither
the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous."
This week's mishna raises one of the classic, perennial questions of faith:
Why do bad things happen to good people -- as well as vice versa.
I feel the greatest and most eloquent message here is the one which strikes
us most immediately: our mishna does not even attempt an answer. As we know,
there are several theological approaches to this -- and we will look at just
a few below, but at times it is better not to even try. Whatever we say will
not satisfy -- not the good person who suffers tragedy nor the believing
soul who witnesses injustices daily. We will never truly do justice to G-d's
wisdom and judgment, nor will we ever fully understand His will. And at
times it is better to just admit our inability and remain silent.
My uncle, R. Arthur Hertzberg OBM, describes in his memoirs (A Jew in
America, HarperCollins Publishers, 2002, pp. 210-12 & 456-7) his visit with
the Belzer Rebbe in Israel in 1949. The Rebbe had lost his entire family and
the vast majority of his adherents in the War, and was himself only
miraculously whisked from death and brought to the Holy Land (a very
exciting story in itself if any of you are familiar). My uncle attempted to
engage him in conversation about his recent past, but the Rebbe refused to
speak. He never attempted to intellectualize or to rationalize what had
occurred to him or the rest of the Jewish people. But he did do one thing:
he rebuilt. He spent the remainder of his life recreating much of what the
Nazis had destroyed -- his Hassidic court, Torah schools, yeshivas, and more
generally the Hassidic value system and way of life.
And this sometimes is not only the best but the only correct approach. As my
uncle said to me on a different occasion, if we attempt to explain the
Holocaust, it may not only shake our faith, it may destroy it entirely, G-d
forbid. If we ask unanswerable questions, who knows what conclusions we will
reach -- or how we will react to those conclusions? The Rebbe, however, took
the only truly viable approach: he moved on. His faith was unshaken, even if
his intellect was far from assuaged. And in his silence he was able to
triumph where so many had failed.
The truth is, in many other places the Sages, as well as practically every
thinker the Jewish nation has produced, do address this topic -- and many
quite respectable answers are put forth. The Talmud (Brachos 7a) records
that Moses himself asked G-d why do both the righteous and the wicked seem
to sometimes have it good and sometimes bad. Moses' question was even more
broad: The world does not seem to have any pattern to it. It is neither a
pure reflection of truth nor of falsehood. He thus asked how are we to make
sense of this world. How are we to relate to the events we witness, and
recognize them as manifestations of G-d's providence?
To this, continues the Talmud, G-d responded -- an answer almost teasingly
simple: A fully righteous person has it good both in this world and in the
next. A good but not fully righteous person will have it good in the next
world but not in this one. A fully wicked person will have it bad in both
worlds. A not entirely wicked one will have it good in this world and bad in
The commentators explain: A basically but not totally righteous person
enjoys G-d's favor, so to speak. G-d has ample reward prepared for him or
her in the World to Come -- the place of true reward. G-d, however, is
exacting in His justice. No bad deed may go unpunished nor good deed
unrewarded. Therefore, G-d "pays off" all the sins of the righteous person
in this world -- the world of transience -- in order to reward him fully in
the next. And conversely for the sinner who has performed a few good deeds.
G-d will pay off his good deeds here so as to punish him fully when the true
time of reckoning arrives. This considered, the justice we view in this
world may actually be the *inverse* of the true justice which will
ultimately be meted out.
Well, already a brief practical message for us. When G-d gives us challenges
or afflicts us, we should never take it as a sign G-d doesn't *like* us. (Of
course we must not stop there; we must be attuned to the warnings and
messages G-d is sending us.) Conversely, if G-d seems to be pampering us too
much, we might just begin to worry... But let's move on. So much more on
R. Eliyahu Dessler, of Russia, England, and later Israel, was one of the
great thinkers of the previous generation. There are a number of concepts
found in his writings which are relevant to our discussion (Michtav
Mai'Eliyahu, Vol. I pp. 18-21). There are other reasons why G-d must
sometimes withhold true justice in this world. If sinners would always be
punished -- and the wicked would generally be worse off in the world ("Mean
guys finish last?" -- no, never heard that one), there would be little
temptation to sin. The choice between good and evil would be too clear --
and not really a choice. Thus, to preserve free will, G-d allows evil to
look enticing and available -- as if one can enjoy himself and get away with
it. (By the way, you can't -- just in case you're not sure.) As R. Dessler
puts it, G-d permits Satan to reward *his* servants in this world, for if
not, Satan would basically be out of a job.
Another concept is also from R. Dessler -- but of course is found in many
earlier sources. Suffering should not always be viewed as punishment. When
G-d causes the righteous to suffer it is to spur them to spiritual growth.
It directs them to improve and helps shake them out of their complacency.
The Talmud similarly states, "One who sees suffering coming upon him should
examine his deeds" (Brachos 5a).
The wicked, however, are much further from self-improvement. G-d does not
"bother" with them so to speak -- doling out warnings to them. The evil
person is deadened to such messages and will not hear them. G-d's
relationship with such a person is far more distant. He does not intend to
reward him in the next world, nor does He rebuke and chastise him in this one.
We have spent a few paragraphs discussing approaches and "answers". They are
all valid and in fact quite instructive to the believing soul. But they
detract from the message of the Sages here. The Sages at times propose
solutions to this problem, but at the same time they state that it is
unanswerable. For after all is said and done, there is still something just
not answered, something profoundly dissatisfying: The world just does not
make sense! We can explain it away -- it is full of evil and injustice
because of x, y or z, but the world just doesn't seem *right*! Is not evil
wrong? Can it be that we witness sin and corruption -- a terrorist attack --
without repercussion? Doesn't truth dictate that evil is wrong and
Now, if the world *seems* to be a place which permits evil and does not
reward good, then it is not a reflection of truth -- and therefore not a
reflection of G-d. It is instead a place of falsehood. And if so, this may
be a strange way of asking it, but does the world really exist? How do we
relate to the reality of this world -- in fact, how can we stand it -- if it
is not a place of truth? If what *cannot* be appears to be, then the world
is an illusion, a mirage of temporary falsehood. We're living a dream in
which much of what surrounds us is not truly real. And if the world is an
illusion, can we really feel a sense of reality within it? We may propose
intellectual solutions to the existence and flourishing of evil, but on a
very deep and profound level -- the very level of our sense of reality -- it
should bother us -- even frighten us -- deeply.
To this our mishna responds with what seems a cop-out, but which is in truth
a fundamental of Judaism: We Do Not Know! Admitting that we do not
understand places a very different sense on our attitudes and expectations.
Such an admission allows us to accept G-d's sovereignty over the world and
our role within it. If we go through life feeling an urge to make sense of
the inexplicable -- that nothing can be *wrong* in the world -- we will live
with gnawing frustration and doubt -- doubts about ourselves, our mission,
and G-d's creation. We will experience the sadness and resignation so
well-expressed by King Solomon at the start of Ecclesiastes: "Futility of
futilities! All is futile! What gain does man have in all his toil that he
labors under the sun?" And further: "All comes from the dust, and all shall
return to the dust" (3:20).
Admitting, however, that such issues are beyond our grasp restores them to
G-d's domain -- where they belong. We accept that much of what occurs in
this world is beyond our ken. We know G-d has a plan, He carefully directs
the world, and our actions make a difference, but we do not even attempt to
see the entire picture. Intellectually, we may attempt to explain the
concealment of G-d's Hand and the world's lack of justice, but emotionally
we will just have to continue to wait.
But wait for what? It is an equally fundamental principle of Judaism that
the dilemma of a world without reason is not eternal. Yet another
cornerstone of our faith is the belief in the ultimate arrival of the
Messiah. When he arrives, he will not only right the wrongs of mankind and
the Jewish people, but he will restore the world to truth. Peace and
prosperity will be the lot of the servants of G-d. Evil will be banished;
in fact will self-destruct. G-d will dwell among us and His Presence will be
felt: truth and justice will prevail. At that time we will no longer live
with questions, doubts and frustrations. The world *will* make sense, and
will become the true reflection of G-d it was meant to be. May the suffering
and doubts which are the fate of the Israel and mankind today be speedily
and in our days transformed into truth, love and understanding. "And it will
be on those days, the L-rd shall be one and His Name shall be one"
Based in part on a lecture heard from R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu).
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.