”צדק צדק תרדוף“ (דברים טז, כ)
”Justice, Justice shall you pursue“ (Dvarim 16:20, Parashat Mishpatim)
But how can we be called upon to pursue justice in a world where it appears that God does not practice what He preaches? We are surrounded by what appears to be cosmic injustice–or at least indifference. And the perennial question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” appears to have no answer.
The question has been of more than academic interest throughout the vicissitudes of Jewish history. Jewish tradition has grappled with the question from both the halakhic (legal) and the hashkafic (philosophical) aspects. The halakhic view uses the concept of “g’mul” to express the way our actions in the world rebound upon us, while the hashkafic view assumes that, regardless of how it may look to us, justice is in fact a “conserved quantity”.
The Jewish notion of Karma
G’mul might be best defined as the Jewish answer to karma. The word g’mul means “outcome”, “response”, “payment”, “recompense”… The same word is used for a salary that one earns for a job, and in general refers to something that one earns with a given act. It’s common for concepts from everyday relationships to be extended by Jewish philosophy to much broader realms. So it is here: we earn our fate via our deeds; however, this “salary” may not be “paid out” in life, but may need to wait until we reach a new spiritual level.
The notion of g’mul has its place in the history of nations and the destiny of peoples as well. Historians may be able to trace the fate of whole nations backward to their deeds and see where they “went wrong.” But when dealing with individuals in the here and now, Jewish law prohibits any speculation about what someone might have done in order to earn his or her fate. All too often such speculation leads us to blame the victim. The simple truth is that not everything is earned. Much that happens to us has nothing to do with our pasts; some things may be given us in order to satisfy some present need, still others may be for the sake of future needs. Still other things may have nothing to do with us at all; we may simply be instruments of someone else’s destiny. We can’t know.
A conversation is recorded in the Talmud regarding seemingly undeserved suffering. The discussion opens with our tendency to assume that suffering is deserved: “if one sees afflictions come to him, he should examine his deeds.” However, it is acknowledged that there are limits to this approach; sometimes one simply can’t find anything—any action done or not done—that might have brought about the undesirable result. In such cases, the sufferer can only accept that his afflictions are for another reason, “for God chastises those He loves”. These “afflictions of love” may have very different reasons than any we can think up. Perhaps the affliction is actually pointing the way for us to become something other than we were. Perhaps it is equipping us for our future, rather than paying out our past.
But this discussion is not the end of the matter. There are countless attempts throughout Jewish history to come to terms with “why bad things happen to good people”. One of the more chilling examples is a story (aggadah) from the time of the Mishna, following the most horrendous calamity ever to strike the Jewish People up until the shoah. Fully a third of the Jewish people had been murdered and hundreds of thousands sold into slavery in foreign lands. Whole families had been wiped out, the economy was in ruins, and the political and religious leadership was in tatters. The rabbis of the time were no more able to come to terms with the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked than we are today, and yet, the survivors looked to them for some explanation of it all.
And so we find the following story which describes Moshe’s glimpse into the future, where he encounters the great sage R’ Akiva:
Moshe Rabbenu asked God why He was putting crowns on the letters of the Torah. God told Moshe, “Many generations from now, there will be a man named Akiva ben Yosef, who will expound mountains upon mountains of rulings based on every point of every crown.”
“Master of the Universe, let me see him,” Moshe asked.
“Turn around (!חזור לאחורך – lit. take a step back),” God said.
Moshe then found himself in the academy of R’ Akiva, and sat at the back of eight rows of students (with the beginning students). At first, he was upset that he could not understand what they were saying. Then, he was relieved to hear a student ask R’ Akiva for the source of one of his teachings, to which R’ Akiva replied that it was a tradition they had received from Moshe Rabbeinu.
Moshe then returned before HaKadosh Baruch Hu and said, “Master of the Universe, You have such a man as this, yet You choose to give the Torah through me?!”
God said, “Silence! This is My will (כך עלה למחשבה לפני – lit. thus it has arisen in thought before Me).”
It would appear that questioning one’s role in the world is ultimately unproductive; whatever role we are called upon to play, we can only do the best we can with it. The story continues:
“Master of the Universe, You have shown me his Torah, now show me his reward,” Moshe asked.
“Turn around (!חזור לאחורך),” God said. Moshe stepped back and saw R’ Akiva’s flesh being weighed in the butcher’s market (after it was stripped from his body by the Roman executioners).
“Master of the Universe, this is his Torah, and this is its reward?!” Moshe asked.
“Silence! This is My will (כך עלה למחשבה לפני lit. thus it has arisen in though before Me),” God said.
The bottom line here is that not only can we not understand why bad things happen to good people, or why certain people are chosen for certain tasks, it is counter-productive even to ask. Note that this aggadah equates the two issues. Being chosen to a position of leadership and undergoing seemingly undeserved suffering are equally inexplicable.
The limitations of human knowledge
Other aggadot take this even farther. It is said that “Four entered the Pardes (‘the orchard’ which here refers to mystical knowledge)”. One of the four was R’ Akiva, and only he emerged from the adventure whole and unscathed. It may be that the mystical knowledge of the orchard is the answer to the question of why evil exists, and that the answers to these questions can be just as damaging as the questions themselves. Perhaps this is the explanation of the answer which God gave Moshe when he asked to see God’s face: “You can’t see Me and live”.
In fact, the connection between that episode, where Moshe was allowed only to see “God’s back”, and the above Agaddah was the subject of an exposition by a modern scholar, Rav Asher Weiss, who made the connection between the two stories through the repetition of key phrases:
When Hashem allowed Moshe to gaze into the future, and see what he could not possibly understand, He told Moshe, “Take a step back (!חזור לאחורך).” Moshe was allowed only to see “אחורי” the back of Hashem, so to speak, of which Hashem said, “ וראית את אחורי — You shall see My back”. From this perspective, Moshe could not understand why he was chosen as the emissary to deliver the Torah, rather than R’ Akiva, who seemed superior. Nor could Moshe understand the terrible suffering R’ Akiva was made to suffer.
To both of these questions, Hashem answered, “!כך עלה למחשבה לפני — This is My will,” which is literally translated as, “This is what ascended in thought before Me.” In other words, these thoughts can only be understood from a perspective of “לפני — Before me”, of which Hashem said, “ופני לא יראו — My face may not be seen.” Human wisdom cannot possibly comprehend Hashem’s infinitely benevolent design for His creation.”
Rav Asher concludes by saying: “Although we often fail to perceive the hidden kindness inherent in Hashem’s plan for His creation, we must firmly believe that from our very misfortune will sprout our greatest benefit. As we say in Selichot (prayers for forgiveness), ‘From the wound itself, He prepares the remedy.’”
This episode is here seen as a precaution regarding the limitations of our knowledge. We can’t know everything (we can’t see God’s face). And this means that we can’t know why God allows (or causes?) terrible evil to flourish in the world. The corollary to this is that we assume that there is a reason, which may be comforting at those times when we allow ourselves to be comforted.
But the limitation on our knowledge applies in both directions. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) interpreted the episode of Moshe seeing only “God’s back” as a statement about our inability to know the future. He writes that even if human beings reach a point where they can calculate events with ultimate precision, they will never be able to accurately calculate the future from present events. There will always be “chance” standing between us and ultimate certainty. Thus God says to man:
“You can put together, in a makeshift way, what I have already provided. But the future conceals itself from your calculations and your power. ‘You may look at me as I move away from you, but no mortal gaze may behold My countenance.’”
This was written nearly a century before Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. These days, we have reached the barrier of complexity in any attempt at “ultimate predictions”. Chaos theory is able to calculate trends in data, but the “complexity barrier” remains. This means that even on the most mundane level, we can’t predict the ultimate consequences of a given action, nor even know how past acts have brought about the present reality.
If we are not able to trace the causality of our actions in the world, we must assume that g’mul must always remain a matter of faith, not knowledge. In fact, Jewish tradition takes as axiomatic that Divine Justice exists; every action has its consequence, even if we can’t always understand how and in what way.
An analogy from physics may make this clearer: We have such faith in conservation of energy that if we see a situation in which energy does not appear to be conserved, we know that the system in question is not a closed system. Once we go one level up, we find that energy is indeed conserved for the more inclusive system.
In the same way, Judaism posits that justice is a “conserved quantity”, provided we take into account that our world is merely a sub-system of a larger system. Once we see that “bigger picture” we can appreciate that there is redress. This world is not a closed system, but is part of a larger World, where justice is in fact conserved. For such laws to hold, we have to define our world more inclusively, to include Olam Haba (lit. the World to Come).
And what is Olam Haba? R’ Chaim Volozhin (Lithuania, 1749-1821) wrote that Olam Haba is not so much a place of reward and punishment, as a state of being that we create by our concrete actions in this world:
The actions themselves of the person constitute the reward in Olam Haba. After the soul departs from the body it rises to take pleasure and satisfaction with the light, energy, and worlds of Kedusha (Holiness) that have been added and multiplied by his good actions. This is what the Sages meant when they said that “All of Israel have a portion to the World-to-Come [We translate it as in the World-to-Come, but the literal translation is to the World-to-Come] and not in the World-to-Come. The word “in” would imply that Olam Haba is ready and waiting from the time of Creation, as if it where something with a separate existence, and if man warrants he will receive a portion of it for his reward [like a piece of candy waiting in G-d’s pocket to be given to whoever deserves it]. In truth, Olam Haba is [made up of] the actions of the person, which he expanded and added and perfected into a place for himself [to dwell]….and so it is with the punishment of Gehinam, the sin itself is his punishment [it becomes the “space” that he will occupy during the time of his “reward”]. (Nefesh HaChaim 1:12)
The focus of Judaism is on this single life. Only here do we have power over matter and over fate. Only here do we have “power” even over God, because He has withdrawn His power over our wills and left us free to choose. What we do here matters, and has repercussions that we may never know. Olam Haba is the path that we create by our footsteps as we walk through the world.
 Talmud Bavli, Brachot 5b.
 Talmud Bavli, Menachot 29b
 Weiss, Asher. From Slavery to Freedom Hashem’s Hidden Kindness. Minchat Asher Publishing (http://www.whiteshul.org/_siteAssets/KI/file/Weiss_Va’era_English.pdf.) Unfortunately, this link no longer works and I have not been able to find a version of this article online. If anyone has access to the original, please let me know, and I will revise the credit here.
 Hirsch, Samson Raphael. The Jewish Year, Vol. 1. p. 33.