Rabbi Elozar ben Pedas was extremely poor. On one occasion after being bled he found he had nothing to eat to regain his strength. He took the skin of garlic and put it in his mouth. He became faint and fell asleep. The rabbis who came to visit him saw that while he was sleeping he was crying and laughing and that a ray of light was radiating from his forehead. When he woke up they asked him why he had been crying and laughing.
He answered because Hashem was sitting with me and I asked him: “How much longer will I suffer in this world? He said: „Elozar My son would you like me to return the world back to its beginning and recreate it so that perhaps you would be born at a more propitious time?‟ I replied to Him in amazement: Despite all this effort of creating the world anew it would only be a possibility that my life would be better? I asked Him then: Which is longer the life I have already lived or what I still have to live? He answered: „The life you have already lived.‟” Rabbi Elozar determined that he had already lived most of his years and as such, declined to have his life restarted.
Hashem rewarded him for turning down the offer. As a reward, he would be given thirteen rivers of Afarsamon oil in the next world. Rabbi Elozar asked of Hashem if that will be his complete reward. Hashem responded that there must be a remainder to give to others. Rabbi Elozar requested the portions of the people who will not be receiving portions in the World to Come. Hashem flicked Rabbi Elozar on the forehead and said “My arrows have struck you.” – Talmud, Taanis 25a, translation from dafnotes.com/english_dafyomi/taanis/Taanis_25.pdf
The above story in the Talmud raises many questions. What, exactly, is going on here? The way I actually learned this in Yeshiva was something like, “you can’t expect the entire world to change for you, and even if the world we’re recreated, there’s no guarantee things would turn out differently for you.” Then I heard Rav Shimson Dovid Pincus‘s explanation. His talmidim [students] recorded it in Nefesh Shimshon, some quite excellent books on really having a relationship with the Creator – the Rav has quite a few statements about those who do all the mizvos, but still have no real relationship with the Creator and will be quite disappointed with their future. This is actually a little scary for me, but his explanation of the above opens up worlds of understanding.
Rav Elozar declined to have have life restarted. For accepting what he received, he was rewarded in the next world (after his death, here). When offered quite a generous reward, he argued that G_d is infinite – surely more of a reward can be given in the next world. After all, Rav Elozar was so poor, he had nothing to eat, but yet he served G_d with all his strength, and Rav Elozar wasn’t afraid to ask for more.
Rav Elozar viewed G_d’s power as being something far away, but on the other hand, G_d was pleased with his answer – he didn’t view G_d as limited in the sense that only a concrete reward can be given. Rather, G_d can choose to give more. An arrow to the forehead is an appropriate metaphor – it’s something that comes from far away, but hits him right there in the forehead, where he had proper thoughts, since he viewed G_d as only being able to give him more in the next world, but not to change his situation in this world.
The problem here was that Rav Elozar’s question was really in the form of a complaint. He could have said, “G_d, you are infinite and I serve you with all my heart and soul, so please, lighten my burdens and I will serve you just the same.” Nope. He said, “How much longer must I suffer in this world?” That is – Rav Elozar believed that he would be justly rewarded in the next world (and so we see by Hashem’s answer that it was to be), but in this world, he complained over his suffering. This is seen in many places in our relationship with the Creator, to the extent that those who want to see a random world, will see a random world. Atheists don’t have any share in the next world, because that’s the only just thing to do (Bildad says as much in Sefer Iyov). Those who sincerely search for G_d will soon find him everywhere, and the there are no limits on a person’s growth and expanding understanding of the world, to the point where it all looks like a facade of a construct, shown pretty well in The Matrix (the first movie – the second and third were lousy) that can even be bent and shaped.
Had Rav Elozar looked it differently, according to Rav Shimson David Pincus, the answer is – absolutely. Those of us in the middle, somewhere between a Rav Shimson David Pincus and someone claiming to be an atheist, often make the mistake of viewing a separation between the “spiritual” world and the “physical” world. We assume there are laws of each, and certain things are set in stone. As another famous story in the Talmud goes, once a synagogue put vinegar instead of oil in the lights. When the Rav found out, he said, “He who makes oil burn, can also make vinegar burn!” This doesn’t work for most of us, because for us, we’d be asking for an open miracle, but why should oil have the quality of being flammable, but not vinegar? We see it, so we believe it is so, and get caught up in it mistaking the physical world for reality, rather than an outer layer of what is really reality.
Reality is a consequence of our actions and belief. This concept, I would further posit, is seen even in the beginning of creation. Things were “void and empty” and once man was created, according to our sources, the way of the world reacts to how man does things. We have different languages thanks to the tower of Bavel, we have seasons to shake us out of our complacency with always having abundance around us, we have sneezing and sickness as a warning of death, and for that matter, we have death itself because we chose to know the difference between good and bad. How is it a punishment for the snake to have all the food it needs? Because it will never look for more. It will never not have enough and is no longer upright, to look up to find something more. G_d denied it a relationship and cut it off – here’s all you need, now enjoy and never talk to me again! It’s not a punishment, but a consequence.
Borrowing from the founder effect, when a population first gets on the scene, the dictate much of the result. Later generations tend to base themselves off of what was built before. A complaint which I’ve heard from a colleague who works on rocket ships as well as Iyov that we can know physical world through examination, but wisdom of the universe (the ‘why’) only through fear and faith in prior words handed down to us. Thus, the test of knowing the existence of a creator in later generations, further removed from the more direct understanding, becomes weaker as the solidness of the physical world becomes more set in place. According to the prior generations, Adam haRishon, the first man with a neshama [soul] that we know today in people, had a very deep understanding of the nature of all creation. Then we had a period of prophecy which ended, because the counterbalance, idolatry, became too hard to bear about 2,400 years ago. Until about 200 or 300 years ago, still, those who wanted to do their own thing would not deny the existence of a Creator, but would argue that the words of the Creator were different, corrupted, changed, replaced, or whatnot. Only very recently have people become so divorced from the Creator as to deny there is one entirely.
… and so the world responds, and so it is for a great many people. If we start looking, as I heard Rabbi Shlomo Singer say, we just need to open a pinhole of a window, and G_d will help us with the rest. It must be a sincere pinhole of a window, and it’s important to see the difference between “help” and “do for you” as it’s continued work and a continued process towards getting to the point where when surrounded by those who look at the world as a place of suffering, you see the world closer to the malleable way Adam haRishon saw it. This is all based on the extent to which we recognize and have a relationship with the Creator.