Suffering of the Righteous

Avot (4:15) | Yisrael Bankier | 3 years ago

The Mishnah taught (4:15):

Rav Yannai says: we cannot understand [literally, it is not in our hands] the peace of the wicked or even the suffering of the righteous

The Bartunera, in his first comment, explains that Rav Yannai teaches that we do not know the reason why the wicked appear to succeed while we find that righteous are struck with suffering. This is the age old question, and Rav Yanai is responding that we do not have access to the answer.

Rashi adds that not only do we not understand the situation, but it is "not in our hands" to control either.

The Tifferet Yisrael comments that while it is clear that we cannot not explain why the wicked prosper, there are a number of reasons why a righteous person may be suffering. Firstly, even though he may appear to be righteous, in truth, this individual is corrupt. Alternatively, we should never suspect that this individual is wicked, but instead, perhaps Hashem is giving him a challenge for some purpose. It could also be that the difficulties were self-inflicted, either deliberately or due to negligence. Finally, it is possible that the difficulty is ultimately beneficial to this individual, either in this world or the next. In short, given the number of explanations, it is not that the suffering of the righteous cannot be understood in general, but that we do not have the ability to explain why a righteous individual suffers.

The Tifferet Yisrael continues by explaining the pasuk, "na'ar hayiti, ve'gam zakanti, ve'lo ra'iti zadik nezav…" – "I was a youth, and also have aged, and I have not seen a righteous man forsaken…" (Tehillim 37:25). The Tifferet Yisrael explains that youth and old age refer not to one's years. Instead, "old" and "young" refer to one's cognitive approach. The "young" refers to one that is quick to judge (if they notice), while old age refers to one that takes time to contemplate what he observes. David HaMelech reflects that at both these times in his life he never saw a tzadik abandoned by Hashem. David HaMelech did not say that he never saw a tzadik suffer. But due to all the above stated possible explanations, the tzaddik's situation had a purpose – he was never viewed as being abandoned by Hashem.

It is important immediately follow the Tifferet Yisrael with a comment by Irving Bunim. Despite suffering having some purpose, it does not mean that it should not bother us or that would not empathise. In his final explanation of the Mishnah, after a lengthy analysis, he suggests that Rav Yannai laments this very fact. When the Mishnah writes that "it is not in our hands", Rav Yannai reflects that the fact the wicked prosper and righteous suffer no longer bothers us. While the prophets would rally against corruption and evil, even in Rav Yannai time things had changed. To close with Irving Bunim's words, "for our own time as well, the words of this Mishnah are no less relevant."


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