Why do bad things happen to good people? This basic moral and religious problem comes up several times in the Talmud, because it is unavoidable for anyone who thinks about Jewish law. Most legal codes include clearly defined punishments for infractions—fines, jail time, or in the worst cases, capital punishment. In Tractate Sanhedrin, the rabbis, too, take up questions of how crimes should be punished. But throughout the Talmud, it often remains unclear exactly how the laws are supposed to be enforced. Some crimes are punishable by lashes; but in the absence of a Jewish government, who is to administer them? Others, like idol worship, call for execution; but the Talmud itself boasts that in the days of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court of the Second Temple period, death sentences were almost never enforced.
Instead, for the worst crimes—such as deliberate violation of Shabbat—the Talmud usually declares that the punishment is karet, being “cut off.” In the Torah, the word seems to imply ostracism—being cut off from the life of the tribe. But to the rabbis, karet is a vaguer concept that suggests a punishment enforced directly by God, instead of human beings. This can mean dying young or childless, but most of the time it is taken to refer to a posthumous punishment—the soul is cut off from God in the world to come. This is one of the concepts that distinguish the Talmudic worldview from the Torah’s, where there is no mention of reward or punishment after death, only prosperity or suffering in this world.
What drove the rabbis to embrace the idea of posthumous judgment? The answer is made clear in a stunning anecdote in Chullin 142a, the very last page of Tractate Chullin, which Daf Yomi readers finished last week. Rabbi Ya’akov relates a story about a young man “whose father said to him: Climb to the top of the building and bring me fledglings.” In other words, birds had nested on a roof, maybe the roof of his house, and the man wanted to capture them; not being spry enough to do it himself, he sent his son to do it.
There is, however, a commandment in Deuteronomy which says that if you come upon a bird’s nest and want to take the young birds or eggs, you first have to send the mother bird away. The Torah does not explain the reason for this rule, but most commentators have said that it has to do with avoiding cruelty to animals. Just as you can’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk, so you can’t take a fledgling from its mother’s nest, because seeing her children suffer would cause pain to the mother. This is a remarkable expansion of sympathy and ethical obligation to include animals.
Chapter 12 of Tractate Chullin is entirely devoted to this mitzva, but typically, it does not spend any time asking for the reason behind it. God’s laws don’t have to have explanations, and it may even be impious to ask for them. What matters is that they are correctly followed, and this chapter lays out many details about proper procedure and hypothetical cases. Does the rule apply to all birds, or only to kosher birds? What if a non-kosher bird is sitting on the eggs of a kosher bird, or vice versa? What if the mother isn’t actually sitting on the eggs, but only hovering above them, or perched in the branch of a tree? What if you send the mother away but it comes back—how many times do you have to send it away before you have fulfilled your obligation?
At the end, however, Aggadah takes over from Halakha and we are left with a moral dilemma. When the boy in Rabbi Ya’akov’s tale climbed the roof at his father’s behest, he was pious enough to send away the mother bird before taking the fledglings, just as he was supposed to. As he was coming back down, however, “he fell and died.” Here is a case of a Jew who was killed in the course of performing a mitzva—actually, two mitzvot, since he was also honoring his father. How can this be reconciled with the bedrock Torah principle that following God’s commandments brings reward? After all, the Gemara points out, the commandment about sending away the mother bird specifically says that you should do this “that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days.” So why did this boy die? “Where is the length of days of this one?” Rabbi Ya’akov asks plaintively and pointedly.
The Gemara tries to deflect the challenge concealed in this story. “Perhaps it never occurred,” the rabbis first suggest. But no, there was an eyewitness: “Rabbi Ya’akov himself saw an incident of this kind.” Then the Gemara tries a strategy that the rabbis often employ when dealing with unearned suffering: suggesting that it must have been earned after all. “Perhaps the man was contemplating sin” while climbing—that is, intending to do something wicked—and God punished him preemptively? But the rabbis reject this idea, since “the Holy One, Blessed be He, does not link a bad thought to an action”: In other words, you can’t be punished for a sinful intention alone, only for an actual sin. This is a wise and compassionate principle, which recognizes that often our thoughts are not under our control.
The rabbis try another tactic: “Perhaps the son was contemplating idol worship” while climbing to the roof? If so, he would have deserved to fall, since in the case of idol worship a mere intention is punishable by death. But Rabbi Ya’akov points out that, if one is protected from harm while performing a mitzva—another fundamental belief of the rabbis—then the young man should have been protected against thoughts of idol worship while engaged in the mitzva of sending away the mother bird. But, the Gemara counters, the fall occurred when the man was on the way down, after he performed the mitzva—maybe the divine protection is only in effect on the way to the mitzva, not after it is finished? No, says Rabbi Elazar: The protection is supposed to be effective both ways.
Now the Gemara introduces another idea, one that tempers the belief in divine protection for mitzvot. It is true that God protects Jews who are carrying out a commandment against unforeseen harms; but, the Gemara notes with characteristic realism, “a place where danger is established is different.” In other words, God doesn’t protect people from dangers that are obvious and avoidable—you can’t expect to walk into a house on fire, or through a battlefield, and come out safe on the other side just because you are performing a mitzva. Perhaps, then, the ladder the man was climbing was rickety, and that’s why he fell: He was trying God’s patience by doing something clearly dangerous.
But by this point, the Gemara is clearly searching for excuses. Even if there was a way to wriggle out of Rabbi Ya’akov’s example, the moral problem remains: People do not always get rewarded or punished fairly in this life. In fact, the stark injustice of human life is said in the Gemara to be the reason why Acher sinned. Acher, which in Hebrew means “the Other,” was the name the rabbis used to refer to a sage named Elisha ben Abuya, who was once among the wisest of the wise but then became an apostate and abandoned Judaism for Greek ways. He appears from time to time in the Talmud as an ambiguous figure—a reminder to the rabbis that leaving Judaism was in fact thinkable, that there existed another thought-world beside their own. Here we learn that Acher became a heretic because he “saw an incident like this” and could not reconcile his belief in God with the evident injustice of the world. This is the eternal problem of theodicy: If God is both good and omnipotent, why is there evil in the world?
Acher couldn’t answer this question, but rabbinic Judaism can. According to Rabbi Ya’akov, “There is not a single mitzva in the Torah whose reward is stated alongside it which is not dependent on the resurrection of the dead.” It is not in this life that the just can expect length of days, but in what the rabbis call “the world where all is well”: the world to come, olam ha’ba. The world to come serves as a kind of reparations fund for the injustice of this world: Everyone who suffered here will be rewarded there, and vice versa, those who unjustly prospered here will suffer there. When you look at Jewish history, it’s no wonder this idea should have such a powerful appeal.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.