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From: Fahim (Moshe) in Iran

Dear Rabbi,

Why do the people who are bad and do only a few mitzvot live well and without problems, but those who are good and do many mitzvot live bad and with difficulties and problems in their lives?

Dear Fahim (Moshe),

You are in good company when you ask this question, as the Talmud teaches that your namesake, Moshe Rabbeinu, also asked G-d this very same question (Berachot 7a). Unfortunately, it’s admittedly unclear if and how G-d answered.

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yossi: Moshe requested three things from G-d and G-d granted him all three requests. One of these was, “Reveal to me Your ways” (Ex. 33:13), by which Moshe intended to ask, “Master of the Universe, why are there righteous who prosper and righteous who suffer; wicked who prosper and wicked who suffer?” G-d replied, “Righteous who prosper are ‘righteous sons of the righteous’ and righteous who suffer are ‘righteous sons of the wicked’; wicked who prosper are ‘wicked sons of the righteous’ and wicked who suffer are ‘wicked sons of the wicked’.

The Talmud is not satisfied with this explanation as it implies that the judgments on one’s parents are conferred to oneself, which counters the following teaching: Behold an apparent contradiction — one verse states, “G-d delivers the transgressions of the fathers onto the sons” (Ex. 34:7); while another verse states, “Sons shall not be punished on account of their fathers” (Deut. 24:16). The Talmud then suggests that this may be resolved as follows — the first verse is referring to a case where the sons continue in the evil ways of their fathers, while the second verse is referring to a case where the sons reject their fathers’ evil ways. Accordingly, one will not be punished (note the discussion does not address reward) solely on account of one’s parents’ deeds, so the original answer does not suffice.

Based on this difficulty the Talmud offers an alternative answer from G-d to Moshe’s question. Rather, the Talmud posits, a righteous man who prospers is completely righteous, whereas a righteous man who suffers is not completely righteous; a wicked man who prospers is not completely wicked, whereas a wicked man who suffers is completely wicked. This is based on the idea that a person’s deeds are reckoned such that he receives his full reward in the world of his primary concern. Namely, a completely righteous person can enjoy reward in this world without diminishing his reward in the World-to-Come whereas a nearly righteous person is cleaned of transgression by suffering in this world in order to receive full reward in the World-to-Come. Conversely, the not completely wicked person is rewarded in this world for his good deeds in order to receive full retribution for his wickedness in the World-to-Come, whereas a completely evil person may suffer in this world without diminishing his punishment in the World-to-Come.

Apparently, the Talmud is not completely satisfied with this explanation either, as the Talmud then notes that regarding the original opinion of Rabbi Yossi that G-d granted all three of Moshe’s requests, Rabbi Meir differs and is of the opinion that G-d never answered the question of why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Rabbi Meir’s opinion is based on the continuation of G-d’s reply to Moshe’s “Reveal to me Your ways” where G-d says, “I shall show favor on those that I show favor to, and have mercy on those that I am merciful to” (Ex. 33:19), implying that G-d may ‘arbitrarily’ decide to be good to people even if they don’t deserve it and we have no way of understanding this. According to Rabbi Meir, G-d effectively “answered” Moshe’s question as to why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper by saying, “because that’s the way it is”, or “because I said so”. While this power-pulling answer is used by many parents, it’s not an answer in the true sense.

So to summarize, from this section of the Talmud (keep in mind that the classical commentaries also deal with this question at great length), an innocent person will not suffer on account of his parents. If he is wicked as they are/were, his suffering may be compounded. Still, it seems that this is only regarding punishment. As far as reward is concerned, a wicked person may nevertheless receive Divine favor on account of a righteous ancestor. That being said, since a righteous person doesn’t suffer on account of parents, his suffering may be because of his own few or minor transgressions which are atoned for in this world in order to receive full reward in the next. Conversely, in a case where the wicked man prospers without the merit of his fathers, this may be because of his few or minor good deeds which are rewarded in this world in order to receive full punishment in the next. However, at the end of the day, what’s happening behind the scenes in any particular case can only be speculated, because, in these matters, it may just be that G-d ‘arbitrarily’ decides what’s best based on considerations that we simply don’t perceive or can’t conceive.

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