Insights in Pirkei Avot: The Suffering of the Righteous

R. Yannai would say: We have no comprehension of the tranquility of the wicked, nor of the suffering of the righteous.  R. Matya the son of Harash would say: Be first to greet every man. Be a tail to lions, rather than a head to foxes.  (Avot 4:15)

Bartenura cites two interpretations of R. Yannai’s teaching.  The original Hebrew reads “ain bi’yadenu” and may refer to what we experience rather than to what we comprehend.  The travails of our exile are neither the reward merited out to wicked people for the few positive contributions they make nor the afflictions of love that the very righteous suffer.   Distant from both extremes, we remain mired in mediocrity.  Tosafot Yom Tov adds that we should not despair of ourselves as lost in wickedness nor feel overly secure in our saintliness.  A healthier self- appraisal views oneself as a balance of good and evil.

The other interpretation relates to our understanding of suffering.  We all encounter good people struggling and wicked people at the pinnacle of success.  Religious thinkers have tried for centuries to explain why a benevolent and omnipotent deity allows such phenomena.  Over the centuries, philosophers proposed many different answers to this conundrum.  R. Yannai informs his students that, at the end of the day, we truly do not know the answer to the problems of evil and injustice.

We can offer two different versions of this reading.  Perhaps we remain unsatisfied with all of the models for explaining the suffering of the righteous.  Alternatively, we think several models potentially reasonable but cannot confidently apply those to given situations.  For example, we do not know when God is trying or punishing or when a person’s suffering is due to their own negligence or to the divine hand.

Preferring an unanswered question to classic theodicy finds expression in other traditional sources.  The gemara in Berachot (7a) says that Moshe requested three things of God, including the explanation for why the righteous suffer.  After the gemara raises two potential answers to the problem of evil, R. Meir says that God did not answer Moshe’s query.  R. Meir apparently chose no answer over explanations he found unsatisfactory.

R. Soloveitchik states that Judaism stands for an ethic of destiny in which we adopt a more active role rather than an ethic of fate in which other forces act upon us.  From the perspective of fate, we confront suffering by philosophizing about it. A person of destiny, on the other hand, responds to evil by trying to overcome it or to become a stronger person as a result.  Thus, focusing excessive energy on theodicy reflects religious error.

I believe R. Soloveitchik would admit that the many religious thinkers who attempted to explain why the righteous suffer contributed something of worth to Jewish thought.  At the same time, he instructs us to direct our essential energies elsewhere.  In some areas of life, leaving a question unanswered is the appropriate response.

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Rabbi Avi Weinstein taught at Yeshivat Hamivtar and Michlelet Bruria from 1979 until 1984. He also has been a talmid of Rabbi Brovender since 1975. He is currently the Head of Jewish Studies at The Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kansas. He blogs frequently at: scorchintorah.com and invites you to come and join him at your convenience.

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