An Age Old Question
The question of why the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer has existed from time immemorial. From Moshe's question, "לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה",1 to Yirmeyahu's complaint, "מַדּוּעַ דֶּרֶךְ רְשָׁעִים צָלֵחָה",2 and Kohelet's observation, "יֵשׁ צַדִּיק אֹבֵד בְּצִדְקוֹ וְיֵשׁ רָשָׁע מַאֲרִיךְ בְּרָעָתוֹ",3 the issue comes up time and again in Tanakh.4 It is Sefer Iyyov, though, which addresses the problem most directly. The entire book is devoted to understanding why the upright and God-fearing Iyyov deserved to lose his health, wealth, and loved ones. Various suggestions are made by his friends, but each is rejected. The book's conclusion is obscure, leaving the reader unsure as to how the problem is resolved.
Hashem's Promises of Retribution
The Torah abounds in promises of retribution for both the wicked and righteous. Both Sefer Vayikra and Devarim end with blessings for observance and curses for disobedience. Other individual verses promise long life, rain and abundant crops.5 Hashem further promises not to delay the punishment of the wicked.6 Are these rewards and punishments aimed at the individual or the collective?7 Do they refer to blessings of this world or the next?8 If the latter, does that mean that it is possible that an individual might not reap what is due to him in this world? If the former, why does it seems that Hashem promises but does not fulfill? In Avraham's words: "Does the Judge of the whole world not do justice"?
The question of Hashem's justice is intricately related to several other philosophical issues:
- Divine providence – To what extent is the world run by natural order, and to what extent via Divine providence? Is there individual providence, only general providence, or neither in this world? If the former, how does it work? Does everyone merit providence to the same degree? How often will Hashem actively intervene and perform miracles to either protect or punish?
- Retribution and the World to Come – What is the nature and purpose of the next world? Is it just for the soul, or for the body as well? Do individuals get their just deserts in this world or only in the next? Is there a difference between national and individual recompense?
- Collective and vicarious punishment – Are there cases where people are punished for the sins of others? Hashem says of Himself that he is "פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים", suggesting that this mode of punishment must be just. Yet, such vicarious punishment would seem to be the ultimate example of "צדיק ורע לו ורשע וטוב לו". Is punishment within the family unique? Why, though, should anyone suffer for crimes they did not commit?9
- Afflictions of Love – Chazal refer to some of the suffering of the righteous as "afflictions of love". What does this term mean? How does it solve the problem of innocent suffering? How does it relate to the "testing" of the righteous?
- Repentance – How does repentance affect retribution? Does it erase the need for punishment, or simply atone for sin?
- "A righteous nation which suffers"? – Most people speak of unjust suffering on the individual level. Can the same be said of the nation as a whole? Is there such a thing as "עם צדיק ורע לו"? A Biblical case might be the Egyptian bondage and exile, in which the entire nation suffered despite their apparent innocence.10