Does the World Exist?
Chapter 4, Mishna 19
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Yannai said, it is not in our power to explain neither the
tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous."
This week's mishna raises one of the classic and 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
most immediately: our mishna does not even attempt an answer. As we know,
there are theological approaches and suggestions, but sometimes it is
not to even try. Whatever we say will not satisfy -- not the good person
suffers tragedy nor the believing soul which witnesses injustices daily. We
will never truly do justice to G-d's wisdom and judgment, nor will we ever
fully understand G-d's will. And at times it is better to just admit our
inability and remain silent.
My uncle, R. Arthur Hertzberg, writes in his memoirs (_A Jew in America_,
HarperCollins Publishers, 2002, pp. 210-12 & 456-7), that he visited the
Belzer Rebbe in Israel in 1949. The Rebbe had lost his entire family and
vast majority of his adherents in the War, and was himself only
whisked from death and brought to the Holy Land. 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
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 recently said
to me, if we attempt to explain the Holocaust, it may not only shake our
faith, it may destroy it, G-d forbid. If we ask unanswerable questions, who
knows what conclusions we will reach -- or how we will act upon 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 rebuild and triumph where so
many others 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 (Berachos 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
tantalizingly 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 fully wicked one will have it good in this
world and bad in the next.
The commentators explain: A basically 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-
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 a few good deeds. G-d will pay off his good deeds here
as to punish him fully when the true time of reckoning arrives. This
considered, the justice we view in this world may be the inverse of the
justice which will ultimately be meted out.
Well, already a brief practical message for us. When G-d gives us
or afflicts us, we should never take it as a sign G-d doesn't *like* us.
course we shouldn't stop there; we must be attuned to the warnings and
messages G-d sends us.) Conversely, if G-d seems to be pampering us too
much, we might just begin to worry... But let's move on. There is so much
more to say on this topic.
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 one seems to say that, strangely enough), there
would be little temptation to sin. The choice between good and evil would
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 anyone was
had.) 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, also from R. Dessler -- but of course found in many
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" (Berachos 5a). The wicked, however, are much further
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
all valid and in fact are 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 it is
unanswerable. For after all is said and done, there is still something left
unanswered, something profoundly dissatisfying: The world does not make
sense! We can explain it away -- it is full of evil and injustice because
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 self-
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
of G-d. It is instead a place of emptiness and falsehood. And if so -- this
may be a strange way of asking it -- but does the world really exist? How
we relate to the reality of this world -- in fact, how can we stand it --
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. 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 --
should bother us -- even frighten us -- deeply.
To this our mishna responds with what seems a cop-out, but which is in
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 out
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: "Futility of futilities! All is futile!
What gain does man have in all his toil that he labors under the sun?"
(Koheles 1:1-2). "All comes from the dust, and all shall return to the
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;
fact it will self-destruct. G-d will dwell among us and His Presence will
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
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
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
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.