One of the tenets of our faith is the belief in reward and punishment. Twice a day, we read in the second paragraph of the Shema prayer that the Almighty rewards our good behaviour and punishes us if we transgress His Word.
And yet we see many righteous people leading extremely challenging lives and no shortage of sinners who seem to have pretty good lives! It doesn’t seem to add up, does it?
Why do the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper?
The Torah states that Hashem is a “G-d of faithfulness without error, He is righteous and fair.”
The Talmud explains each clause. What is the meaning of “G-d of faithfulness”? Just like the wicked will be punished in the World to Come for the lightest sin they have transgressed, so too are the righteous punished in this world for the lightest sin.
What is the meaning of “without error”? Just like the righteous will be rewarded in the World to Come for the lightest mitzvah they have performed, so too are the wicked rewarded in this world for the lightest mitzvah.
And the meaning of “He is righteous and straight”? Our Sages teach that when a person passes from this world, all of his deeds pass before him and they say to him ‘You did such and such an action in this place on that day’ and he responds ‘Yes.’ And they tell him ‘Sign here!’ and he signs, as the verse states in Job, “He shall sign by the hand of each person.” Moreover, they make him acknowledge the veracity of the judgment, as he will say to them ‘You have judged me well,’ thereby fulfilling King David’s dictum, “For the sake of your righteousness by your words.”
Imagine you could package all of the pleasures of a lifetime into a box and open it up to have one extreme moment of pleasure. That intense feeling would give you a sense of the magnificent reward in store for you in the World to Come. Every moment in Heaven is pleasurable beyond your wildest dreams. And so if you are righteous, G-d wants to maximize that reward for you.
But let’s be realistic. Nobody’s perfect, right? We all have our shortcomings and skeletons in the closet. And so G-d says, “Look, I get it. I know you’re not perfect, son. How about I punish you in this world, which will hurt a little – but nothing compared to the heat of the Afterlife – and then I can give you unlimited pleasure in the World to Come?”
And on the flipside, G-d always recompenses any mitzvah that anyone performs. And let’s be honest, most people, however wicked they might be, have some redeeming qualities. So G-d says, “I gotta tell you, I really want them to get their just desserts in the Afterlife, for all the pain they caused in this world. So how about I reward them for their good deeds now – we can get that out of the way – and then give them what they deserve in the World to Come?!”
This world isn’t WYSIWYG! What you see in this world isn’t what you get. This world is merely a hallway that leads to the World to Come. Sometimes what we are seeing in this world is G-d finessing the situation so that He can place people where they belong in the World of Truth.