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Wrestling with Divine Justice

Jul 16, 2023

Beach in Tel Aviv (

כִּֽי־קִ֭נֵּאתִי בַּהוֹלְלִ֑ים שְׁל֖וֹם רְשָׁעִ֣ים אֶרְאֶֽה׃

for I envied the wanton; I saw the wicked at ease.

ki-ki-NEE ba-hol-LE-leem, sh'-LOM r'-sha-EEM er-EH

Psalms 73:3

Have you ever been bothered by the perplexing reality of why the righteous often face hardships while the wicked prosper? This enigma, known as theodicy, has long troubled humanity, from the biblical times of King David and the prophet Jeremiah to the present day. In their quest for answers, they grappled with this theological concept, seeking to reconcile divine goodness with the existence of evil. Yet even though they struggled to make sense of this difficult reality, they continued to serve God with all of their strength.

King David lived and breathed this dilemma, but perhaps the most powerful expression of theodicy came from the prophet Jeremiah:

You will win, Hashem, if I make claim against You, Yet I shall present charges against You: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease? Jeremiah 12:1

In Psalm 73, we read the words ascribed to Asaf. Asaf was credited with having such a deep relationship with God that he was also a prophet (I Chronicles 25:2, II Chronicles 29:30). Asaf clearly had the same dilemma of theodicy:

For I envied the wanton; I saw the wicked at ease. Psalm 73:3

But, unlike David and Jeremiah, Asaf had a response, describing the success of evil people as a strategy used by God to make their eventual downfall even more traumatic:

You surround them with flattery; You make them fall through blandishments. How suddenly are they ruined, wholly swept away by terrors. Psalm 73:18-19

The medieval biblical commentator known as Rashi explains the seeming conflict by saying that God afflicts the righteous in order to increase their reward in the world to come. The commentator known as Radak adds that God is always good to Israel, even in exile, as well as to the righteous from the other nations. Even though the reward is delayed, rest assured, God will reward the faithful.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi offers a different approach, explaining that a connection with God transcends reason and logic.

“The ultimate union with God cannot be attained via the intellect. God’s Essence defies definition and thus comprehension as well. To truly connect with God, we must transcend the limits of our minds and access our intrinsic faith. Only when we discover the core of our soul and its oneness with God do we achieve complete unity with Him.”

It is reasonable to expect God to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. But that is not how it works. God’s essence defies definition, eluding the constraints of human understanding. In God’s judgment, the normal rules of reward and punishment do not apply. Since we can’t always understand His reason and logic, we must stop trying to understand. Life is not a courtroom or a transactional business; it is an intimate dance with the Divine. What truly matters is humbling oneself before God.

“One should not seek spiritual adornment and accomplishment but should cast oneself to the earth, for the lowly and humble have nowhere to fall,” Rabbi Schneur Zalman concludes.

This is also the conclusion of Asaf, who concludes this Psalm with this declaration of faith:

Those who keep far from You perish; You annihilate all who are untrue to You. As for me, nearness to Hashem is good; I have made Hashem my refuge, that I may recount all Your works. Psalm 73:27-28

Like Asaf, we must transcend the limitations of reason and embrace our intrinsic faith. In doing so, we will discover that the essence of our existence lies not in the pursuit of earthly rewards but in the intimate relationship we cultivate with the Divine.

Related Names and Places:

Relate Bible Verses: Chapter 73

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