There are plenty of reasons one might be skeptical of placing their trust in God. But few are as pronounced as, “Why do the innocent suffer while the evil seem to prosper?” Though not all rich people are evil, the perception is that most celebrities are entitled, uncaring, narcissists, while the richest of the rich take advantage of their workers, hoard an unfair portion, and enjoy the finest luxuries spending in a day what others make in a year. And it seems that the most successful are ruthless, aggressive, and even spiteful in their pursuit of wealth.
Why would God reward these people and their continued behavior with health, comfort, and access to the finest physical pleasures available on the planet while nations of people go hungry?
The answers offered in Sha’ar Habitachon of the book Duties of the Heart aren’t simple.
But first off we must remember that our primary purpose on Earth (from a Jewish perspective) isn’t to be happy or comfortable. Our purpose is growth and striving to perfect the world. A deeper happiness will come from this, but it isn’t the happiness of eating caviar on the beach.
The second thing to keep in mind is that we don’t know what’s really going on with anyone. What may seem like a jerk move, might actually be a kindness or the person was put in a difficult situation. How many times are we normally quite courteous, but on the one day we get no sleep, we find our car won’t start, we tear our favorite shirt, and then when the Starbucks barista messes up the order, we snap. So it’s not fair to judge individuals.
Those caveats in mind, now for some explanations.
If there’s one persistent criticism of the millennial generation is that they are entitled. I personally haven’t seen this more in them then any others, but I spend a lot of time isolated, so who knows.
However, when it comes to money (as well as other essentials, time, health, etc.) we believe we are entitled to what we think is ours. I worked X number of hours, so I deserve X dollars. I deserve this rate/hour because my qualifications and work ethic afford me that right to demand it. My genius in the stock market is why I deserve these thousands of dollars. And because of my work/genius/skills/effort, I can spend this money in anyway I see fit.
According to Judaism, such assumptions are categorically false. Sure, the investment banker may be doing certain tactics that yield success. Or they have certain God given talents that make them better at the job. But overnight all their wealth could evaporate. Our success is determined by God. Though we do have to work for it, (That’s called hishtadlus, and I’ll do a future post about that soon) we can only make the effort.
So if we look at it from the perspective that God has entrusted to us our income, that demands a certain responsibility. That being said, why would someone who is wicked get chosen by God to be the holder of such wealth?
Pendulum of Responsibility
There is a fundamental concept that the magnitude of evil a person does is opposite to the potential of good they could have done. See Hitler Could Have Saved 6 Million Jews. We’re all given opportunities to affect the world in profound and meaningful ways. Some people are given the ability to change the world through wealth and power.
But wealth and power are difficult challenges. A life of comfort can lead to a life of inaction. If someone has no obstacles, getting to do what you want when you want can be a curse in and of itself. At that point you are challenged as to whether you really care about society’s/religion’s laws or not. When you won’t feel the consequence for your actions, would you still follow them? That’s a test that requires tremendous strength of character to pass. As Notorious B.I.G. put it “Mo money, mo problems.” (Actually that same sentiment is said in Pirkei Avos a few centuries before.)
However if a wealthy person realizes that it is their role to support their extended family, their community, their country, or even the world, and they don’t lord it over the recipients expecting praise and gratitude, then they’ll have truly realized the potential of their blessing.
Reward in This World, Account Balance $0 in The Next World
When it comes to explanations that require you to believe “it’ll all get worked out in the afterlife,” I used to really roll my eyes. So if this next explanation isn’t your thing, I totally get it. But I like the thought anyway.
If we can believe that there is another existence after death, then according to the Jewish concepts on this, there is some sort of heavenly court case which looks over everything you’ve done and comes up with a reward system. (Think The Good Place.) Everyone goes to a sort of hell called Gehinnom for a period of time. Assuming you weren’t super evil, you then would move on to heaven or rather Olam Habah (the world to come). But it’s not a gated, in or out, policy. So the question isn’t, did I get in, but rather, what is my portion?
What that exactly means, I could go on for a whole other blog post, but I’ll save it for another time. The point being is that you are rewarded for your actions giving you a “better heaven,” if you will. However, it is possible to get some of that reward in the world of the living. In fact, you could get all of it here. Which suggests the answer to why a truly evil person would get wealth upon wealth, and never see any suffering.
Lines 7&8 of Psalm 92 speak to this.
A brutish man cannot know, a fool cannot understand: When the wicked thrive like grass, and all evildoers flourish — It is in order that they may be destroyed forever.
Judaism believes in justice, that everything is recorded, and every good action is rewarded. By giving the wicked every ounce of their reward now (because no one can get through life not doing any good) it means when they get to the next world they have nothing.
Reward in This World
If you have good things in your life, don’t freak out, it doesn’t mean you’re losing your reward in the next world. The calculation of reward and punishment has been grossly oversimplified in this blog post. There are many other factors. So I’ll go into one more then wrap up.
No man is an island. As isolated as we may find ourselves these days, there are still millions of ways our actions affect those around us and vice versa. You receive benefit and endure problems because of how your city is run, or how your community makes and enforces policy. On a spiritual level you can receive blessing and curses in a similar way too. The Rabbi you learn with, the people you pray with. If you didn’t give up on a problem child and helped them, then they go on to cure cancer, you better believe you get reward for that.
One huge source of blessings and curses are with family. The Torah says (within the section where God gives the 10 Commandments)
…I, the Lord, your God, am a zealous God, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, and [I] perform loving kindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and to those who keep My Commandments. (Shemos 19: 5-6)
According to the above verse, we can feel the sins of the father for 3-4 generations, but when it comes to reward we feel that reward for at least a thousand generations. So the wealth a wicked person receives may have nothing to do with them, but the things their parents or grand parents did.
The Final Test
Once again, this is the tip of the iceberg as to how many ways Judaism explains this problem. In our consumer driven, capitalist society, where profit made is the primary measure of success, this question of why the wicked prosper is particularly difficult. But as one final idea, the Chovos HaLevavos says, “Sometimes it is in order to try those who are deceptive and inwardly evil, who, when they observe [the prosperity of the wicked], hurry to turn away from the service of God and hasten to win the favor of the wicked and learn from their actions.” (Sha’ar Habitachon Chapter 3)
Though the quote seems to be addressing some two-faced, obsequious, individual who is only pretending to be good because it serves them, I actually feel the quote is more universal. Why do we do what is moral and right? Do we “follow the rules” because we understand and agree with socially accepted morals? Or do we do them because of the consequences? Is it right to take advantage of someone in a business deal? It all comes down to, where do we really believe our livelihood is coming from. Us or Hashem?
If you think it is you, well then you’ll do what you have to do to survive. If you believe it’s Hashem, well then you can trust you’ll get what you need. That’s really what Bitachon is all about. Don’t worry so much about the rich guy.