To what are the righteous compared in this world? To a tree that stands completely in a pure place, but whose branches extend into an impure place; cut off the branches and all of the tree will be in a pure place. Thus God brings suffering on the righteous in this world, in order to increase their portion in the World-to-Come...
Talmud Kiddushin 40b
All large trees begin as tiny seeds planted in the ground. As they grow, their roots spread in all directions as do their branches in the air above. By the time the trees reach maturity, they have extended themselves far beyond their original environment. Perhaps the branches of the trees have extended into another area altogether.
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So too it is with the righteous. They begin small, exposed only to the immediate, holy environment. However, as they grow and reach maturity, they become exposed to others less spiritual than themselves. Indeed, the pursuit of Godliness often demands it of them and can result in actions less than fitting for a person on such a spiritual plain. (For example, Abraham adopted his nephew Lot, but the cost for doing so left Abraham on a lesser spiritual level, and without Divine prophecy (Genesis 13:14, See Rashi on, After Lot was separated from him).)
Thus even righteous people can ‘drop a notch’ when exposed to environments that do not support their spiritual needs. To the observer, the slightly negative change of behavior may be imperceptible. Nevertheless, it is negative growth attributed to the individual and which, according to the Talmud, needs to be purged before the time for eternal reward.
(The Jewish point of view is that life in this world is only temporary, only a ‘corridor’ to the next world, which is eternal (Ethics of Our Fathers). The ‘portion’ one receives of the Eternal World is determined by one’s moral behavior in this world. This idea, which for many is difficult to relate to and therefore accept, will discussed in more depth in Section Two, Chapter Two.)
Thus, so far the Talmud’s point of view is that righteous people suffer because of mistakes they have made, whether we can notice them or not. Indeed, elsewhere the Talmud states that suffering, and ultimately death itself, can only occur as a result of immoral behavior:
In a certain place, a lizard used to injure people. The students of Rebi Chanina, the son of Dosa, came and told him. He said to them, "Show me its hole." He put his heel over the hole, and the lizard came out and bit him, and it died. He put it on his shoulder and brought it to the study hall and said to them, "See! It is not the lizard that kills; it is sin that kills!" (Talmud Brochos 33a)And sometimes the ‘sin’ that leads to suffering for the righteous is neglecting a responsibility they shoulder because they are so righteous, as the following dialogue illustrates:
The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to [the angel] Gabriel, "Go and make a mark of ink on the foreheads of the righteous so the angel of destruction won’t be able to affect them, and a mark of blood on the evil, so that the angel of destruction can harm them." The Attribute of Justice said to the Holy One, Blessed be He, "What is the difference between these and these?" He responded, "These are completely righteous, and these are completely wicked." [The Attribute of Justice] responded, "But the righteous could have protested, and yet they didn’t!" [God] said, "It is revealed and known before Me that had they protested, they would not have been successful." [The Attribute of Justice] answered, "Before You it is known... but who revealed it to them?" And thus it is written, Young men, maidens, children and women were killed... (Talmud Shabbos 55a)It is true that the righteous are not the cause of moral backsliding and may not be held accountable for not stopping it. But ultimately, the Talmud argues, righteous people bear a certain responsibility to be concerned about the moral direction of the world around them, and to seek methods to put society back on track. To not do so, the Talmud concludes, is to suffer the same fate as those who anger God.
And sometimes, the sin that kills the righteous may not even be their own:
... [The child of Reb Chiyah that died] was a young man and he [Judah, the son of Nachmani] said to [Reb Chiyah] ... "You are important enough to be ‘taken’ for [the shortcomings of] the generation." (Talmud Kesuvos 8b.)Rashi, the medieval commentator explains this difficult passage by saying that Reb Chiya’s son was taken as a sort of atonement for the generation, because he was so righteous.
(One way to relate to this concept is by parable. Imagine a town filled with poor people that was in debt to the government. One day the government comes to collect the debt, which requires all the poor people to pay an imposing amount of one hundred dollars each. Upon seeing the distress of the town, the government turns to the one wealthy man in the town and asks him to pay the debt on behalf of the town. It is true the wealthy person was sacrificed, but in the process, the many were saved, and in the case of the righteous, they are amply rewarded.)
This adds a whole new dimension to the topic of suffering, and reveals how intertwined the life of the righteous is with society as a whole. The traditional role of the righteous, it seems, extends far beyond maintaining and increasing their own spiritual perfection, into the spiritual well-being of the entire nation.
But no matter what the reason may be, it seems that to the Talmud, even for the righteous, suffering is always from God, always possible, and never without meaning. That is, until you consider the following:
... And this (i.e. that Benjamin the son of Jacob, etc. died free of sin) (This is the Talmud’s conclusion after a lengthy discussion about whether or not suffering and death come only as a result of sin.) proves that death can occur without sin [as a cause], and suffering can occur without transgression [as a cause]. (Talmud Shabbos 55b.)Furthermore, the Torah itself states with regard to the tenth and final plague inflicted upon the Egyptians, when Moses is warning the Jews to stay in their houses:
And you shall take a bunch of hyssop branches and dip them in blood that is in the basin and bring them to the lintel and the two door posts ... and no man shall leave his house until the morning. (Exodus 12:22.)It would seem that suffering can occur for reasons other than in response to sin. And if one considers the following, it would seem that the word ‘accident’ can fit into the traditional Jewish vocabulary:
This tells us that when permission is given [by God] to the ‘destroyer’ to harm, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the evil... (Rashi on this verse.)
And they said to each other [Joseph’s brothers], "Behold, the dreamer comes! And now, let’s go and kill him and throw him into one of these pits, and we will say that a wild animal ate him, and we will see what will become of his dreams." And Reuben heard it, and saved him from their hands, and said... (Genesis 37:21.)According to the Or HaChaim, (Genesis 37:21. The Or HaChaim is a commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Chaim (ben Moshe) ibn Attar (1696-1743; Morocco, Israel).) the brothers could have killed Joseph even if God had not intended for him to die. In fact, the Or HaChaim adds, killing Joseph would not have proved that Joseph’s dreams had been false, as the brothers wanted to think, since their free-will could have ‘interfered’ with Joseph’s destiny.
Is this idea not contrary to the earlier Talmudic viewpoint that "it is not lizards that kill, it is sin that kills," which implies that an individual free of sin will also be free of suffering? The answer is yes, at least until you seriously consider the issue of free-will.