Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do bad things happen to good people?
The technical term for these questions is theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the existence of evil with a belief in divine justice. But whatever we call them, these questions are profoundly human, and can arise both in times of great sadness and great joy.
The rabbis of the Talmud asked these questions too. They are committed to a belief in divine justice, but still have questions about how it plays out in their lives, lives which could perhaps feel profoundly unjust. Just like today, ancient Jews experienced physical and mental illness, financial hardship, capricious governmental authority, and worries for their childrens’ future. At the same time, they saw people with profoundly different morals and values, people whose actions hurt or kill others, people who worship other gods thriving politically and financially.
And so the rabbis turn to the Torah to make sense of it all. On today’s daf, the Talmud cites an opinion based on a verse in Deuteronomy 7:10: “And he repays those that hate Him instantly — He will not delay to those that hate Him, He will repay them to their face.”
Rabbi Ila said: He will not delay in bringing punishment to him that hates Him, but He will delay in rewarding those who are absolutely righteous, as the reward of the righteous does not arrive immediately, but only in the World to Come.
Rabbi Ila argues that verse is telling us that the wicked are punished immediately, but the righteous are only rewarded in the World to Come. But is that really true? Are the wicked punished immediately for their wickedness? And do the righteous only prosper in the afterlife? Rabbi lla’s position is a fascinating read of the verse in Deuteronomy, but it doesn’t match the fullness of lived experience.
So the Talmud brings an interpretation of another biblical verse, from Exodus 34:6: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, merciful and gracious, long-suffering [erekh appayim], and abundant in love and truth.”
Why does it say “erekh appayim,” using a plural form? It should have said erekh af, using the singular form! He is long-suffering toward the righteous, i.e., He delays payment of their reward; and He is also long-suffering toward the wicked, i.e., He does not punish them immediately.
According to this opinion, which the Talmud ascribes either to Rabbi Haggai or Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani, the Torah uses a plural form of the phrase erekh appayim to indicate that God delays both the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous. But erekh appayim, long-suffering, is an interesting phrase. To be long-suffering is to be engaged, to feel, while perhaps holding off on action. This opinion suggests God is always engaged in the righteousness of the righteous and the wickedness of the wicked. Though actual reward and punishment might be delayed, God’s engagement is continuous.
Can divine justice be happening even if we can’t see its effects in the world around us, if its real-world effects are delayed? The Talmud doesn’t explicitly tell us the answer, but this opinion is its last word on the question.