Sunday, August 14, 2011

Things are not always as they appear: 3 amazing stories of "bad" (or is it?) happening to the righteous

One of the most troubling questions that every G-d fearing person faces, is to try to explain why terrible things happen to the good and righteous. It is not the goal of this article to try and explain why, but rather to share 3 stories, all with unexpected endings, and all leading to the same conclusion.

The first story is apparently from a Midrash, and is quoted by Rabbi Nissan Mindel in his book, "The complete Story of Shavuot". (Though I looked in numerous sources, I was unable to find this midrash, so if anyone can enlighten me as to its source I would appreciate it!) He tells us that the following story occurred during Moshe's third visit to Mount Sinai where he spent 40 days and 40 nights as on the previous two occasions. "Moshe was very wise. And no wonder. G-d Himself taught Moshe every kind of wisdom and science. Moreover, He opened Moshe's eyes and let him see everything that would come to pass in generations to follow....It seemed strange to Moshe that for the most part the good, kind and righteous people were for the most part poor, while the wicked ones seemed to be powerful and wealthy. 'O good and righteous G-d, Supreme Judge of the world, Exclaimed Moshe, "How can you bear to see so much wrong and injustice? Why are the wicked prosperous while the righteous are suffering? I beseech You, O G-d, make me understand Your ways and Your laws of justice so that I may praise your abundant wisdom and mercy and teach them to all.' 'I heard your prayers, my servant Moshe' G-d answered. 'I shall show you my hidden ways. It will be a grief glance, however, for no human eye can see it all. Now open your eyes and behold what I show you.' Moshe opened his eyes wide and looked:

He saw a stream flowing peacefully down the hill. Its waters, pure as crystal, sparkled in the sunshine. Suddenly a knight appeared riding a fine horse. The rider halted by the stream, dismounted and led his horse to the water. He watched his horse drink and then knelt and also drank of the clear and cool water. As he was bending down, the knight did not notice his purse slip out of his pocket. Having drunk their fill, both rider and horse rode off as swiftly as they had appeared.

Then a young shepherd appeared on the hillside leading his flock to the water. Having watered his sheep, he was about to leave when he noticed the purse. "Hurray!" he cried as he picked it up and saw that it was full of gold and silver coins. "What luck!" He exclaimed. "No more suffering for me. I shall leave my master at once and return to my dear mother. We shall buy a field and a house and live happily ever after!" There was no end to the lad's delight as he drove his flock home more vigorously than ever.

As the dust cleared from the bank of the stream, an old man came plodding down the hill. He looked tired and weary and leaned heavily on his walking stick. When he finally reached the bank of the stream he settled himself on the sand, took out some slices of stale bread which he dipped into the water and ate. Then he put his bag under his head and was soon fast asleep.

Meanwhile the knight discovered his loss. He knew that he must have lost his money at the stream, so he turned his horse around and galloped back as fast as he could.

"Hey you! Wake up you tramp!" he shouted at the sleeping beggar as he shook him with both his hands. The old beggar woke with a start. "What do you want?" "You know very well what I want! Come on, hand me back my purse and make it fast!" "You must be out of your mind, my dear man," the beggar replied. "Why don't you let me sleep?"
"Look here, you old thief," the knight roared. "I dropped my purse on this spot a while ago and you're the only one who could have picked it up. You had better hand over the purse or I'll kill you!"

The poor beggar just laughed at him, but the knight became so infuriated that he drew his sword and stabbed him. He then searched the old man's back and pockets, but could not find his purse. He shrugged his shoulders and rode away.

At the sight of this cold-blooded murder, Moshe was terribly shocked. "O G-d," he exclaimed, " how could you allow an old, innocent and defenseless man be so brutally killed while the young shepherd boy walks off with the treasure?"

"Do not be so hasty," came G-d's reply. "See the ladder yonder? Ascend one step and look! No human eye saw as much, but you shall see that justice is done and that all my ways are righteous."

Moshe ascended onto the step that G-d had shown to him. A new scene opened before his eyes. He saw a lame farmer walking on a crutch and a little boy walking by his side holding his hand. Suddenly, a tramp, lying in ambush, jumped out and stabbed the farmer, snatching his purse and dashing off. A passing rider heard the boy's cries but remained indifferent. Calmly he picked up the purse that the robber had dropped in his haste and flight and rode off. Again moshe was horrified, but presently heard G-d voice:
"Listen to me, Moshe, and you will understand that I rule the world with justice: The tramp that you saw murdered on the bank of the stream is the same one who murdered the lame farmer and robbed his money. The rider who looked on indifferently when murder was committed, later himself executed the murderer, for he was the knight who had dropped the purse by the stream. He had found the purse that the tramp robbed from the farmer, but did not return to the little boy. So he too lost it. And the shepherd was that farmer's son, so as the rightful heir he finally got the money. You see, now, he who sheds an innocent man's blood, his blood shall be shed, and no man ever profits from robbery. Thereupon Moshe exclaimed: "The faithful G-d, without iniquity, righteous and equitable is He!"

A second story that I want to share with you also comes from the Midrash, this one from Seder HaDoros, Erech R. Yehoshua ben Levi, sec. 4 (p. 192).

"Once, when Rabbi Yehoshua encountered Eliyahu HaNovi, he asked Eliyahu if he could accompany him so that he could learn from his conduct. Eliyahu refused, explaining that Rabbi Yehoshua would not understand what he would see. On the contrary, his mortal mind would raise countless questions and there would be no time for explanations.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi nevertheless begged and pleaded, promising that he would not ask any questions. Eliyahu finally agreed on the condition that as soon as Rabbi Yehoshua would begin to ask questions, they would agree to part company.

So they set out on their journey. Toward evening, they reached an old, shaky hut. An elderly couple was sitting outside. While they were dignified, they were also clearly poor. But they nonetheless enthusiastically welcomed the weary travelers, eagerly inviting them into their home and offered them a meal and a place to sleep.

Now though the accommodations meager, nevertheless they were willing to share, whatever they had, in order to offer hospitality to their guests.

The following morning, the two travelers bade their hosts farewell and set out again. But shortly after departing, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi saw Eliyahu HaNovi daven that this wonderful couple's cow should die! The cow, which was their most precious possession, and whose milk was the source of their livelihood, Eliyahu was praying that it should die!

Rabbi Yehoshua was shocked. The couple had been so warm and hospitable. Why did they deserve that their cow should die? But he had agreed not to ask any questions, and so he remained silent.

As they proceeded on their journey, they talked. Rabbi Yehoshua hoped that Eliyahu would offer some explanation or at least a hint as to what happened, but nothing. Instead he directed their conversation to other issues.

Toward evening, they came to a beautiful mansion and although many members of the household saw them, no one offered them hospitality. They asked the owner of the house, a very rich man, for permission to spend the night in his home, and reluctantly he agreed, but didn't offer them any food, and hardly said a word to them.

Again, after setting off in the morning, Rabbi Yehoshua noticed that Eliyahu was davening. It so happened that one of the walls of rich man’s mansion was cracking and weak. This time, Eliyahu davened that this wall should be restored and should remain strong and solid.

Rabbi Yehoshua just couldn't make sense of this. This time, the man was a cold miser, who had hardly given them the time of day, yet Eliyahu was praying for him, asking Ha-Shem that his wall, which was cracked, should become solid and strong again! And again, he abided by the terms of his agreement and asked no questions.

Later on in the day, the two travelers arrived in a beautiful city, a city of great wealth and opulence. They made their way to the main shul to daven. As would be expected, it was a magnificent structure, designed with elegance and taste, and everything, even the benches, were beautiful.

Here, in a place such as this, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi assumed they would have no problem finding hospitality. But it did not work out that way. After davening, nobody approached them to welcome them, or ask if they had where to eat or sleep. Without any other choice, they spent the night in the shul, sleeping on those beautiful benches, without eating supper.

In the morning, as they were getting ready to leave, Eliyahu blessed the inhabitants of the city, wishing them that they should all become leaders. Again, Rabbi Yehoshua was puzzled. Why did Eliyahu bless people who had not shown them hospitality?

That evening, they came to another city which obviously was not as wealthy as the first. Again they looked for the shul which also was much more modest than the previous city's. But also unlike the previous city, here, the townspeople did everything they could to make the two travelers comfortable. Before leaving that city, Eliyahu told them, “May G-d help that only one of you becomes a leader.”

At this point, Rabbi Yehoshua could no longer contain his curiosity. He told Eliyahu, “I know that by asking questions I will forfeit my right to accompany you, but I cannot go on like this. Please, explain these four incidents to me.”

And so Eliyahu began to explain: “The elderly couple whom we first met were wonderful people who performed numerous acts of kindness. So I wanted to give them a blessing. What you didn't realize, was that the righteous wife was destined to pass away that very day! But by hosting us, she was given the opportunity to perform yet one more mitzvah, and the merit of that mitzvah of hospitality was great enough for the decree to be lifted, but not entirely. So I prayed that their cow — which meant so much to them and which was their source of income — should die. Because the cow would die, the woman would have many more years to live. So the cow’s death was really a blessing for them.

“About the miser’s house. In that wall, a very great treasure lied buried. But the wall was weak and would soon break. Because he was a miser and conducted himself so crudely, I prayed that the wall should become strong so that he would not be able to benefit from the treasure.

“What about the people in the prosperous city?” Eliyahu continued. “My prayer that they should all become leaders was anything but a blessing! For the most destructive thing that can happen to a city is for all its inhabitants to becomes leaders, each knowing better than the other.

“And in the other city, where the people were kind, I gave them a genuine blessing: that one, and only one, of them become a true leader.”

The third story is of a more recent vintage, and comes from Rav Shalom Arush's important book, "The Garden of Emuna" wonderfully translated by my dear friend, Rav Lazer Brody (available from:

"Here is a story about a tragedy that jolted the very foundation of an entire Jewish community's emuna in Ha-shem. A beautiful young lady- the daughter of one of the community's most prestigious and respected families married a righteous merchant, a man of charity and compassion. The early years of their marriage were blessed with happiness, abundance, and children. The modest wife became a wonderful mother, utalizing every free minute from her busy schedule to recite Tehilim or care for the community's poor and underprivileged. The husband whose successful commerce carried him to surrounding cities and hamlets, never failed to fulfill a strict daily quota of prayer and Torah learning. In addition he gave enormous amounts to charities all over the country, easing the suffering of thousands of impoverished people.

Suddenly disaster struck. Their home, a bright beacon of charity, good deeds and loving kindness- became the scene of agony. A drunken soldier viciously abused, mutilated and murdered the couple's 3 year old son. The entire community was appalled. Thousands joined in mourning, including the nation's leading sages and spiritual leaders. No one understood. Many vocalized the doubts in their hearts in public: Is this the reward that such a righteous couple deserves? Why did Ha-shem do something so horrendous like that to them? Why did the poor little toddler have to suffer so severely? Others harbored malice in their hearts against Ha-Shem that weakened their emuna and distanced them from Torah.

The couple reacted with total emuna, capitulation and loving acceptance of the Divine decree. They continued with their righteous lifestyle as if nothing had changed: the wife with her acts of lovingkindness and the husband with his torah learning and magnificent charity.

Shortly thereafter tragedy struck again: Like wildfire, word spread around the town that the righteous merchant had fallen deathly ill. All the local synagogues mobilized their members in round the clock prayer vigils. Everyone loved the merchant. Almost every person in town had benefited from his generosity at one time or another...The cries of the community pierced the very thresholds of the Heavens. (But alas,)...the pain and bewilderment of the entire town reached new heights when the word of the righteous merchant's death became common knowledge. Such a young man, at the prime of life-didn't he suffer enough? He did nothing but good deeds his entire life, is that what he deserved? The tears of the young, barely 35 year old widow tore at the community's already perplexed and agonized heart.

A few years passed. One Friday afternoon, the newly married son of the young widow came to wish his mother Shabbat Shalom; she tried to smile, but burst into tears.

"Mama," the young man pleaded, "three years have passed already. You've cried enough. Our sages prescribed set times for mourning. If someone cries more than they should, then sorrow never leaves them! We are believers; None of us know Ha-Shem's considerations. Everything that Ha-Shem does is for the very best! Mama, your crying not only saddens us, your children, but it saddens Papa's soul too. The matchmakers have been chasing after with several good proposals and you've been avoiding them. Mama please, you must continue on with your life."

The young widow took a deep breath. Enough! she made a firm resolve to overcome the sorrow. An encouraging thought flashed across her mind: "Am I more merciful than
Ha-Shem? Of course not! I've always trusted Ha-Shem. Why shouldn't I be happy?" To the relief of her worried children that very Shabbat, Mama became a new person. For the first time in years, the widow slept soundly and peacefully. She realized that a lack of emuna-not her husband's absence- was responsible for the gap in her heart. Now that gap was filled again.

She had a dream. She saw herself standing in an exotic garden of supernatural beauty and she understood that this must be the next world....She was led to a magnificent palace where a young man was giving a torah lecture to thousands of elderly righteous souls. When the lecture was over, the lecturer approached her. It was her husband!

"Dearest husband," she exclaimed, why did you leave me alone at such an early stage of our lives? How have you become the teacher of so many tzaddikim? You were a merchant and an upright man, but you were never a Torah scholar." The husband smiled. "In my former life I was a great scholar. But I never married. When I died, I was told that I could not assume my designated place in the upper palaces of heaven because I never fulfilled the first commandment of the Torah, namely that one must be fruitful and multiply. Therefore, I was reincarnated again for the sole purpose of marrying and having children, and to raise them in the path of Torah. That's exactly what I did. As soon as I completed my tikkun-my soul correction and my mission on earth-I no longer had to remain down there. Now, as you see, I live a life of eternal bliss."

"Then why did our little son die?" probed the wife. The husband answered, "he is the lofty soul of a holy tzaddik, an extremely righteous individual. In his previous life he was kidnapped at birth and raised on the milk of a gentile surrogate mother. Finally at age 3, he was redeemed by the Jewish community and subsequently became a sage or enormous spiritual proportions. After his death he was denied his righteous place in Heaven since his early childhood had left a tiny blemish on his soul. His sole tikkun was to return to earth, to be born, nursed and raised for three years by an upright Jewish woman; You, dear wife, were granted the privilege of being that woman!" "But why was his death so horrible?" "Know," continued her husband, that since our toddler-son had completed his tikkun, he was destined to die anyway. At the same time, the Heavenly Court had decreed - in light of the dire sins between man and fellow man in our town, that all of its inhabitants were to be destroyed in a catastrophic pogrom. The rightous soul of our little one volunteered to die a terrible death as an attonement for the entire town. He became a holy martyr and sanctified himself as a public sacrifice. No one is allowed to reach his lofty abode except for me, since I was his father. When your time comes, you, his mother, will also be allowed. You cant imagine the bliss of the Divine light that surrounds our son."

The husband faded away. Before he departed, his voice reverberated, "only by virtue of your reinforced emuna was I revealed to you. As long as you were in a cloud of sadness, you almost lost another child. All of my request to be revealed to you were refused....My tikkun is over, but you still have much to do. Go, remarry and live a life of emuna and joy. Go with my blessing. Farewell!" The husband's image disappeared completely.

The widow awakened. She felt like she had been born anew. She realized that her questions, as well as the rest of the towns questions, were needless. If the Torah teaches us that Hashem is Righteous and Just, then there is no need to wonder why Hashem does what He does."

It is incredibly difficult to imagine what was going through the mind of our three protagonists: Moshe Rabenu, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and the young widow. Yet we all endure the thick fog which surrounds us, and prevents us from seeing why things really happen. In hebrew, the word for world is "olam," which comes from the root "hidden." So much of what reality really is is hidden from us, and at times that lack of clarity can make us crazy, desperate, afraid, hopeless, depressed, or angry--giving us no peace of mind. Yet as each of these stories teaches, we must let go of our egos, surrender control, be ever so grateful for the wonderful blessing that all of us really do have, and have emuna, trusting that everything that Ha-Shem gives to us is to help us heal and become whole. And, we must also know that for us to ever hope to receive the deliverances and healings that we need and lack, we must constantly consider the two aspects of what it means to be a Jew, and from which the Hebrew word for Jew, Yehudi comes from: Vidui or confession--being honest with ourselves and admitting when we make mistakes, and hoda'ah, being grateful and giving thanks for the blessings that we receive. May our examples serve as lights to illuminate the fog of the world.

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