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Rav Elazar said, "When Hashem blesses the righteous, He punishes the sinners at the same time. When Hashem punishes the sinners, He rewards the righteous at the same time.”

We see here an interconnected relationship between the way Hashem rewards the righteous and how He punishessinners. It surely cannot be a coincidence that when Hashem punishes sinners, He rewards the righteous — and conversely, when Hashem punishes sinners, He also rewards righteousness at that time. Certainly, the connection is deliberate and meaningful. There must be an important message here, one that will teach us Hashem’s way — and therefore something about our own nature and our relationship to Hashem.

So, what does Rav Elazar mean by this connection Hashem makes between blessing the righteous and punishing the wicked?

I once heard an Orthodox scientist mention our gemara as proof that just as there is a law of conservation of energy in Newtonian Physics, likewise there is a principle of conservation of blessing and punishment in the “spiritual energy” in the world. Accordingly, when Hashem blesses one person, He punishes another, thereby conserving and continuously maintaining the balance of positive and negative spiritual energy in the world. At the time, I wasn’t sure if the scientist was being serious, or if it was his way of injecting a touch of humor into the lecture. I am still not sure.

The classical Torah commentaries, however, learn from our gemara an important lesson regarding the nature of absolute righteousness, relative righteousness and the role of righteous and non-righteous influences on a person.

Let us take a close look at the examples in the Torah which Rav Elazar cites as proof of this connection. The first part of his teaching asserts that when Hashem blesses the righteous, He also punishes the sinners. As the verses state (in Ber. 8:18-21 and more): “And Avraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed in him. For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of Hashem, to perform righteousness and justice, in order that Hashem will bring upon Avraham that which He spoke concerning him.”

This is immediately followed by: And Hashem said (to Avraham – Rashi), “Since the cry of S’dom and Amorrah has become great, and since their sin has become very grave, I will descend now and see, whether according to her cry, which has come to Me, they have done; I will wreak destruction upon them….”

Here we see that when Hashem blessed Avraham, He also punished S’dom and Amorrah for their transgressions.”

Elsewhere in Chumash (Ber. 13-17) we see this same dual process of blessing the righteous and punishing the wicked — but stated in the reverse order. “And the people of S’dom were very evil and sinful against Hashem. And Hashem said to Avram (his name before Hashem changed it to Avraham) after Lot had parted from him, ‘Please raise your eyes and see, from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward. For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your descendants to eternity. And I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth, so that if a person will be able to count the dust of the earth, so great your descendants will be in number. Rise, walk in the Land, to its length and to its breadth, for I will give it to you.’”

In one set of verses, the blessing of Avraham was mentioned prior to — and together with — the punishment of the wicked people of those cities, teaching that a person has the potential to be completely righteous and choose the righteous path of Hashem despite the wicked influences of his time and place. Avraham, despite the wicked people of these cities and the entire pagan world surrounding him, chose to follow the righteous path of Hashem as evidenced in his passing the ten Divine trials (as mentioned in Pirkei Avot). He was not negatively influenced by his wicked environment. On the contrary, his utter righteous conviction made it a moral imperative for him to try to help elevate the ways of the wicked — to do teshuva and recognize the one true all-knowing and all-caring Creator of everything in existence.

The other set of verses show the opposite: that the wicked people of S’dom and Amorrah failed to pay heed to the positive influence of the righteous Avraham. Therefore, they were deserving of the serious punishment that was commensurate with their wickedness.

Speaking of righteous people, a close relative once suggested to me that there might be a connection between the concept taught in our gemara and the status of Noach. The verse (Ber. 6:9) states: “Noach was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generations.” The qualifying phrase “in his generations” appears quite enigmatic. Why mention it at all when describing the righteousness of Noach? Rashi in Chumash addresses this point by citing a Midrash: “Some explain this as a compliment — Noach was righteous despite being in a generation of evil-doers; just imagine how much more righteous he would have been had he lived in a generation of righteous people! Others, however, explain the phrase as an insult — Noach was “righteous” only relative and compared to the other sinners of his generation. But had he lived in the generation of Avraham, he would not have been of any significance.”

What appears to be the most correct explanation of this Midrash is that the first opinion regards him as having been righteous, whereas the second opinion views him as a sinner. When the verse calls him “righteous in his generation” does it mean that he was indeed righteous, and he accomplished righteousness despite living in a sinful environment? Or does it mean that he was not actually objectively righteous, but rather relatively so. He was a sinner but just less of a sinner than the other people of his time and place.

The concept seen in our gemara is perhaps more clearly consistent with the first view, that Noach was righteous despite the sinners all around. Since he resisted the negative influence of his environment, he deserved the great blessing of being saved during the Great Flood while the rest of mankind perished. But, is the second view in the Midrash also consistent with the principle taught by Rav Elazar? If he was not really righteous, can we still apply Rav Elazar’s principle to Noach and the sinners of his generation? The reader is invited to share with the author of this column any thoughts and insights on this question.

  • Yoma 38b

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