In a number of places in the Talmud, the rabbis try to show how God is good even when things are awful. In a famous passage we’ll see next year in Kiddushin 39b, the rabbis grapple with the death of a child who falls after climbing a tree at his father’s request to take some eggs from a nest. In an attempt to justify how a child performing the two mitzvot for which the Torah explicitly promises long life as a reward — honoring one’s parents and shooing away the mother bird before taking her eggs — the Gemara goes so far as to suggest the incident might never have occurred. So deep is the rabbinic commitment to theodicy, the assertion that God is good (despite evidence to the contrary!).
Something similar unfolds on today’s daf. Continuing a discussion from yesterday about the Book of Job, the biblical story of a righteous man who, at Satan’s urging, is tormented by God, we find the rabbis puzzling over a particular verse. The Gemara then relates this about Rabbi Yohanan.
When Rabbi Yohanan reached this verse, he cried: “Behold He puts no trust in His sacred ones” (Job 15:15), saying: If He does not place trust in His sacred ones, in whom does He place trust?
This particular verse from Job is a bit confusing even in its original context, so the Gemara delves more deeply:
The Gemara relates: One day Rabbi Yohanan was walking along the road, and he saw a certain man who was picking figs: He left the ones that had reached ripeness and took those that had not yet reached that state.
Rabbi Yohanan said to him: Aren’t these ripe ones much better?
He said to him: I need these figs for the road. These that are not yet ripe will be preserved, and these that are already ripe will not be preserved.
Rabbi Yohanan said: This is the same as is written: “Behold He puts no trust in His sacred ones.”
This gives us a little more clarity. The picker is concerned that the ripe figs, though they are good now, will not keep for his journey. So he chooses the unripe ones instead, which he knows will still be good to eat in the future. Similarly, Rabbi Yohanan understands the verse from Job to be saying that God is concerned that people who behave righteously now will ultimately behave unrighteously. To make sure that this doesn’t come to pass, God takes them from this world when they’re young and still acting nicely. Thus what appears to be a fundamental unfairness is actually God keeping the righteous from transgressing.
This strikes me as cold comfort to the person’s loved ones, and I’m evidently not alone. Immediately, the Gemara questions it.
The Gemara asks: Is that so? But there was a certain student in the neighborhood of Rabbi Alexandri, and he died while young. And Rabbi Alexandri said: If this young sage had wanted, he would have lived (i.e. his actions caused him to die young).
And if it is so, as Rabbi Yohanan suggested, perhaps this student was from those concerning whom it is written: “Behold he puts no trust in his sacred ones.” That student was one who acted irreverently toward his teachers.
The Gemara presents us here with two possibilities. Either the young man brought death on himself through sinfulness, or he was righteous and died before his time to protect him from future sinfulness, as Rabbi Yohanan maintains. The Gemara confirms the former as truth. Thus, the situation is outside the scope of what Rabbi Yohanan tries to explain, even if it doesn’t contradict his broader point.
The page goes on to consider (and attempt to justify) other situations where fairness doesn’t appear to win out, from a master goaded into abusing an enslaved person to someone who judges a convert to Judaism unjustly. None of these are necessarily convincing, but they show how earlier generations of Jews wrestled with theodicy and give our current struggles some context.
Read all of Chagigah 5 on Sefaria.