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Sunday, 15 November 2015

Why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper

Daf Yomi Sotah 20


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s greatest wish was to meet Eliyahu Hanavi.  One day, his prayers were answered and so he asked the prophet if he could accompany him on his earthly missions.  “On one condition,” replied Eliyahu, “that you ask no questions.”  The rabbi agreed and they set out together.

Their first stop was a run-down shack by the side of the road, home to an elderly couple who eked out a meager living from an old cow that would give them milk.  They knocked on the door and asked if they could spend the night.  The elderly couple welcomed them with open arms.  In the middle of the night, Eliyahu arose and killed the cow.  The prophet and the rabbi then departed.   Rabbi Yehoshua was stunned but knew that he was forbidden to utter a word.

The next stop was a huge mansion.  Here they too knocked on the door and were brought to the wealthy owner.  They asked to spend the night and he begrudgingly allowed them to sleep on a stone bench in the backyard.   His servants had been working on repairing a broken wall.  Lo and behold, in the middle of the night, Eliyahu arose and repaired the wall singlehandedly.  “This is preposterous,” thought Rabbi Yehoshua, but he knew he could say not a word to the prophet.

They next arrived at a town of inhospitable, mean people.  As they left, Eliyahu blessed them that they should have many great leaders.  The final stop was a friendly town, where everyone offered them food and lodging.  Eliyahu blessed them that they have one leader.  At this point, Rabbi Yehoshua could contain himself no longer.   “I realize that I cannot journey on with you,” he said to Eliyahu, “but seeing all these injustices is too much to bear.  Praytell the meaning and we shall part company.”

Eliyahu replied, “The first home we visited, the wife was destined to die the next day.  That would have in turn killed the husband.  I beseeched the Heavenly court to take the cow instead.  In due course, they will recover from their temporary loss of income and spend their final years in peace and tranquility together.  The second home we visited, I repaired the wall, because had the servants continued to dig into the foundations, they would have found a large treasure that the miser did not deserve to find. 

We then visited two villages that exhibited opposite demeanors; and I, in turn, offered them opposite blessings.  The first were cruel people and so I blessed them with multiple leaders, because ‘many captains sink the ship.’  The nice people of the second town I blessed with a single leader who would lead them united to success and happiness!”  And with that, Eliyahu disappeared and Rabbi Yehoshua walked home knowing that he had learned the greatest lesson of all: the Almighty is righteous in all His ways.

When the sotah drinks the bitter waters, and she has some external merit, her punishment is suspended.   Some merits suspend for a year, other merits suspend for two years, still others suspend for three years.
Ben Azai says: A father is obligated to teach his daughter Torah, so that if she should ever drink the bitter waters, she will know that sometimes an external merit will suspend her punishment.

Why do the wicked prosper?  That question has been asked by philosophers and laymen for thousands of years.  It is the classic question of theodicy: if G-d is righteous, why would he allow bad people to have success and reward? 

There are many unfathomable answers to the question, as Rabbi Yehoshua discovered on his journey with Eliyahu Hanavi.  But the answer offered implicitly by the sotah narrative is that nobody is completely meritless.  Even the wickedest individuals have positive aspects and some good deeds.  Mitzvos (good deeds) and aveiros (sins) do not cancel one another out.  If you have earned merit, you will be rewarded, despite whatever bad you have committed.  And conversely, if you have sinned, you will be punished, despite whatever merit you have accrued.

And so when the disloyal woman drinks the bitter waters, they do not activate immediately, since she still no doubt has many merits for which she is deserving of Heavenly reward.   Ben Azai insists that we teach all our children this powerful lesson, lest they see people who appear to be wicked prospering and conclude that the Torah’s promises of reward and punishment are inaccurate.   Only once you understand that Heaven may delay reward or punishment while other factors are taken into account, can you begin to accept that G-d is truly in control and His ways are perfect.

There is a competing opinion in the Mishnah to Ben Azai’s position.  According to Rabbi Eliezer, one should not teach this idea to our children.  Because it is dangerous.  If you know that G-d will reward you for your merits and the reward is not cancelled out by bad behaviour, you might tell yourself that it’s okay to sin – just as long as you have a lot of merit to counterbalance and carry you through life.  In other words, the knowledge that G-d always rewards you for merits may lead to sinful behaviour, if you abuse that information.


The belief in reward and punishment is fundamental to Judaism.  But there’s no way of knowing how G-d works and metes out to the deserving and undeserving.  May you merit serving Heaven wholeheartedly, without any expectation of reward; and may you never question G-d’s justice and righteousness, for His ways are perfect!