Why Don’t Bad Things Happen to Bad People?


badpersonReally, the title should be “Why don’t Bad Things Always Happen to Bad People?”  I thought would try to tackle this subject based on some sources in Judaism.  Now, we can answer this by saying, “yeah, it will in the next world” but that’s not always a satisfying answer, and is anyway, a discussion unto itself.

I do believe in the authenticity of all the sources below, but whether you believe same or not, that’s fine.  I still invite you to read and try to understand the philosophical points and answers to the question.  I make no claims of being right about any of this, and of course, we can never truly understand the infinite unless we were completely infinite.  However, a part of us is finite.  Still, I will try to gain the some clarification by sharing some sources on the topic which I have come across.

Iyov (Job) Answer 1

The most obvious first source for this topic is Iyov (Job).  I’ve actually outlined the entire book, based on Malbim’s commentary.  The Creator does actually answer this quite directly to Iyov in Chapter 40.  While it can be difficult to unlock what is going on here, according to the Malbim’s explanation, if we didn’t allow bad things to happen, it’d be a pretty boring world.  We’d have worms and maggots, but nothing else but weak and helpless creatures because anything more than that would, well, be capable of hurting another.  The Creator actually challenges Iyov – okay, go ahead … start destroying creates who hurt one another.  Start with the biggest, meanest animal and then keep going downward.  Where will you stop?

Iyov (Job) Answer 2

We-do-bad-things-to-bad-people2Rather, all creatures have survival instincts and means of protection.  It is true that humans can oppress the poor and weak, but we also have intelligence, a deep seated love of justice, social norms, and an inclination to protect each other.  If people are hurting each other, says the Creator to Iyov, it’s because we’re not doing our job.  Even more so, Iyov, a judge in a court of law, thought he was righteous by not punishing those who stole, and these are the same people who came back to destroy his property.  Thus, if people are hurting others, we have only, well, people to blame.  We have the choice how to handle the world.

Midrash Rabba Answer – King Ahaz

“When a wise man contends with a foolish man [the wise man] may rage or smile, but will have no satisfaction” – Iyov 9:4, here G_d declares “I raged but had no satisfaction and I smiled but had no satisfaction. I raged at you in the days of Pekah ben Remaliah . . . I smiled upon you in the days of Amaziah”. – Midrash Rabbah to Eicha [Lamentations], Pesichta (Opening), Chapter 13.

Some explanation: On a simple level, when I wise man argues with a fool, the wise man can go on and on explaining to the fool his errors, but the fool won’t get it.  The wise man can do this through lots of anger (rage) or niceness (the smile) but just will not get anywhere.  The particular “wise man” referred to by the Midrash is the Creator himself, and the fool, in this case, was, unfortunately, the Jews in the days of Pekah b’Remaliah . . . during the rein of King Ahaz.  What happened?  Well, king Ahaz lived in the days of open prophecy, and with free will being a prerequisite to man at all times, the pull to service of things other than G_d was just as great a temptation.  In those days, it was physical idols, but we’ve still got plenty of “idols” today.

Anyway, the Creator sent the king of Damascus and Pekah (the leader of the Northern Kingdom of Israel) to attack Ahaz, but instead of Ahaz saying, “Ohhhhh #$#%, I better stop my evil ways and serve the Creator” he said something more like, “Hey! Those guys from Damascus have some pretty great idols!  Look how they killed thousands of us!  I’m going to serve those idols, too!”  (It’s kind of like if, as punishment for “The Jersey Shore” TV show G_d sends us “Mississippi Shore” and instead of realizing it’s time to throw out the TV, we watch that too.)

I just picture G_d doing the proverbial smacking himself on the forehead then lowering of the head into hands and shaking slowly from left to right . . . as in, “don’t get you get it?”

So what’s the point of punishing someone who won’t get it?  Move on to someone who cares, spend you time with someone who might listen and have that relationship with you.  If you can’t get through to the fool, there’s no need to destroy him … go ahead, live your life.

Judge Petrolli’s Answer

. . . But the person who G_d “punishes” … now, that, by logical extension, is a person that G_d cares about.  That’s someone who can be reached for a relationship.

Judge Petrolli was a family court judge in Newark, NJ.  During law school, I used to represent juvenile delinquents.  To figure out if a kid should stay in jail or go home to his parents, they sometimes use a form with a bunch of factors … supervision in the home, does he go to school, did he test positive for drugs, etc.  One time, one of my clients was re-arrested for something very minor after being sent on home detention.  He scored very high for going home to his parents the first time, but the judge insisted on holding him in jail until he could be re-assessed.  Not only was the judge going to have him held in prison longer, he didn’t stop screaming at the kid.  Despite my arguments again and again that, given the very recent last assessment with nothing changing, of course he was going to go home again.  I argued this point and that point, and that point.  Nothing swayed the judge.  After the client was removed back to the jail cell the judge said to me, “You did a great job, but I think you’ll find you have a much more cooperative client after he returns.”

On the other hand, you could have a gang member, drug dealer with a gun who previously stole three cars.  Never, once, did I see Judge Petrolli scream at a juvenile delinquent with a history like that.  He didn’t bother.  He only screamed at the kids he felt he could reach.

Mesillas Yesharim – the Way of the Just

Mesillas Yesharim, “The Way of the Just” by a 17th century Kabbalist, is a very frequently studied work.  It is a work on how to perfect your service of the Creator, and is no light reading.  I can’t say I’ve really gotten much past the first few chapters, if even that, but Chapter 1 tells us about how change is hard and painful.  We become habituated into our routine, and afraid to change, afraid to lose part of our self, and fear the unknown.  Rabbi Twerski, a psychologist, has a good summary of this. It often takes something to jog us and make us realize that life is meaningless or more painful for us not to change.

But if you have a righteous Creator,  then this will come only as necessary to draw you closer and jog you from what you are doing wrong or could be doing better.  We’re given that chance to do better before the painful way sets in.  I try, for example, to thank the Creator every day for what I have – family, children, health, and all, and look back at some painful instances and can say, yes they were painful and I wish I could have seen and changed earlier to prevent that or have the good that I have now, but in any case, it was for the best.  On a lower level, there’s some “fear” of pain, but love, according to Jewish sources (and logic) is a greater way to have a relationship than fear.  If those who did wrong always felt their punishment right away, they could never self-correct out of free will and could never have a relationship out of love.

The Snake

Then, there’s the ultimate classic – the nachash or snake which temped Chava (Eve) to eat the forbidden fruit.  What happens to him?  To quote Rav Rosmarin, one of my Rabbeim from yeshiva, G_d said to the nachash, “ess, fress, take whatever you want, but I never want to hear from you again!”  According to midrashic sources, the arms and legs of the nachash are chopped off and it will forever crawl on the ground where,

“You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” (Bereshis / Geneis 3:14).

The opening words to this posuk (verse) are:

Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! (Bereshis / Geneis 3:14).

Reading the last phrase first, you have to wonder, “why’s that so bad?”  Your food is everywhere!  You’re on the ground and your food is all over the ground.  Wherever there’s dust, you’ll find food!  No need to even get up from your chair!  This now takes us full circle back to the answer in Iyov (Job) – isn’t the classic philosophical complaint that bad things should happen to bad people?  NO, says G_d!  Everything is created by G_d and the worst punishment is not destruction or pain . . . it is being cut off from the source . . . being cutoff from knowing the Creator . . . from that relationship with the infinite.  The snake crawls on the ground and has everything it needs right there.  It never has the question, “Where’d G_d in the world?” because it never even thinks to look there!  It has, and now never have a relationship with anything greater than the dust on the ground.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev

This answer is interesting – the Creator does not want to be associated with evil.  If there’s an evil person there for everyone to see who is suddenly struck down by lightning, people will scream for joy and tell this story for generations, something like how we retell the story of Paroh’s [Pharoah’s] destruction in Egypt thousands of years later.  The Creator doesn’t want to be mentioned together or associated with the evil, according R’Levi Yitzchak.

The Kikaron – Tree to Give Jonah Shade

The Creator wanted the people of Nineveh to do better and did not want to destroy them.  Jonah/Yonah was sent on this mission, but did not want it.  To make the point of the Creator not desiring the destruction of his creations, G_d makes a “kikayon” tree which protects Jonah from the heat, only to have it die soon after.  Jonah complains bitterly to G_d about this, to which G_d responds:

You have pity on the kikayon for which you did not labor or make grow, which grew in a night and was destroyed in a night, but I should not have pity on Nineveh, that great city . . . – Jonah 4:10-11


To summarize:

– Bad things do happen to bad people.

– Iyov: the ability to do bad (really, move away from a relationship with the Creator by not doing the will of the Creator) makes for a far greater world with free will.

– Iyov: animals and people have the ability to defend themselves and use their powers for good.  If we’re doing that, then we can stamp out the bad.

– Midrash Rabbah – if a person won’t listen, no point in hurting them . . . it’s still one of G_d’s creations.

– Sometimes, G_d punishes the “less bad” person because they are the one capable of being reached.

– Punishment used to pull us out of where we are so we can do better.  Still, G_d wants to be served with love, not fear.

– Greatest punishment is disconnection from your source (the snake).  The Creator may simply be choosing not to be associated with the evil at all.






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3 Responses

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  3. December 19, 2014

    […] Jump down to page 5 over here to read, in English, more of the account of how things were created according to the Torah.  Some of it matches our modern understanding, some does not.  For example, I find this interesting and perplexing:  “Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: The first man [extended] from one end of the world to the other … as soon as he sinned, the Holy One, blessed be He, placed His hand upon him and diminished him.”  Does this mean that “man” as we know us was not the 6 foot tall flesh and blood creature?  I picture The Little Prince on his own world or a baby in a womb, the womb being the entire universe at the time, and then the entire nature of the world became concertized into something closer the form we know it today once man was expelled from the garden.  It’s all just conjecture, but fits in with Rav Meiselman‘s point about not being able to understand previous time epics through extrapolation using present physics, rendering such theories meaningless.  Or, it might also fit with those who take the Torah’s account of creation to not be literal in any case, such as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the complete other end of the spectrum.  Perhaps there is really no difference between the two “opposite” opinions.  It is something I grapple with all the time, for which the only thing I know is that I will never know. […]

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