Rav Lipman Podolsky
The age-old question of, "Why do bad things happen to good people," has occupied the minds of thinkers and non-thinkers for many centuries. Many answers -- all partial -- have been suggested. Perhaps our parsha can provide us with one classic explanation to help us deal with this crucial question.
"And it came to pass, when Yitzchak had become old, and his eyes dimmed from seeing... (Breishis 27:1)." Why did Yitzchak go blind? Was he not a consummate Tzaddik? Did he not willingly offer his life as a burnt offering? He was most certainly beloved in Hashem's eyes. Why did he have to suffer so?
One source for suffering can be found in the Medrash: "Said Yitzchak to Hashem: Master of all the worlds, should a person die without having suffered, the attribute of justice will be stretched taut against him. Said Hashem, by your life, you have asked for a good thing, and from you will I begin (Yalkut Shimoni, Chayei Sarah 105)."
Thus Yitzchak went blind. And thus many Tzaddikim in this world suffer. Because Hashem wishes to abate the attribute of justice, he cleanses their sins in tolerable doses in this world, sparing them unbearable agony in the next.
"Said Rabi Shimon ben Lakish: The word 'bris' appears regarding salt, and it appears regarding suffering; Just as by the 'bris' of salt, salt sweetens meat, so too by the 'bris' of suffering, the suffering cleanses a person's sins (Brachos 5a)."
"Said Rabi Elazar ben Rabi Tzadok: To what are Tzaddikim compared in this world? To a tree that stands almost entirely in a place of purity, but its branches stretch over a place of impurity. If its branches are cut off, the entire tree is in a place of purity. So too, Hashem brings suffering upon Tzaddikim in this world so that they should inherit the world to come... (Kiddushin 40b)."
Although these and other sources provide an intellectual explanation, we still feel somewhat skeptical. There is a vast difference between theory and real life... A vast difference.
This fascinating tale was related by Reb Shabsi Yudelevitz zt"l:
There once lived a Jew, Reuven, who suffered unbearably. He was utterly impoverished and wholly incapable of supporting his family. He and his wife were constantly ill, agonized by intolerable pain. And their sickly children suffered from malnutrition and other terrible maladies.
Finally Reuven could tolerate it no longer. He decided to seek counsel with the eminent Kabbalist, Rav Shalom Sharabi, in the holy city of Jerusalem. It was a vast distance, fraught with danger, but Reuven had had enough; he placed his faith in the blessing of the renowned Tzaddik to ameliorate his unendurable fate.
After a long and wearisome journey, Reuven finally arrived. Filled with hope and anxiousness, he knocked humbly on the door. The rebbetzin greeted him, and welcomed him in. The rabbi was currently busy with someone else, she informed him, and invited him to make himself comfortable in the meantime.
Reuven sat down, and owing to his exhausting journey, promptly succumbed to a deep sleep. In his dream, he was wandering along a lonely path that seemed to stretch to eternity. He had no idea where the path led, but he intuitively followed its direction. Everything was perfectly still and quiet.
After several minutes, he heard a commotion behind him. Turning around, he perceived a huge caravan of wagons heading his way. As they approached and passed him, he noticed that they were filled with angels, all dressed in white. There were fat angels and skinny ones; tall angels and short ones. Angels of every description. Eventually the caravan passed and all was quiet once again. Curious, he continued walking.
A short while later, Reuven perceived another tumult from behind. This time the caravan was populated with angels garbed in black. Again, there were angels of all shapes and sizes. Reuven could not imagine the meaning of these caravans or their purpose. He increased his pace in an attempt to solve this mysterious riddle.
Eventually, Reuven came to an enormous square. The angels were all congregating haphazardly. The noise was deafening. In the center of the square stood an immense balance. Asking one of the angels, Reuven was informed that this was the Heavenly tribunal, and that someone was about to be tried for his life accomplishments.
The white angels represented the person's mitzvos (See Avos 4:11). The large, heavy angels were created through the self-sacrifice and enthusiasm the person invested in his mitzvos. The skinny angels were the result of mitzvos the man performed merely to be "yotzei" (to fulfill his minimal obligation). The black-clothed angels were products of the man's sins. This intrigued Reuven exceedingly, and he paid close attention to the proceedings..
A voice rang out: "Sin-Angels, ascend the scale!" With an tremendous ruckus, the black angels raced one another onto one side of the scale. The scaled tipped ominously in the direction of sins.
The voice reverberated again: "Mitzva-Angels, ascend the scale!" With a ruckus that rivaled the first, the white angels jumped onto the other side of the scale. Slowly, the tilt of the scale began to level off. As the last angels boarded the scale, though, the balance was still predominantly leaning in favor of the sins.
"Boy, this guy's in for a tough time," commented Reuven, grateful that he only had observer status. "By the way, who are they trying?"
"Why, didn't you realize?" queried the surprised angel. "The one being judged... is you!!"
Reuven nearly fainted. He was being judged! This was the trial of his life! And the scale was tipping in the direction of sins! What would become of him?
Fearing the worst, Reuven cringed, preparing himself for the ultimate conviction. Just then, the voice thundered once more: "Angels of suffering, ascend the scale!" From out of nowhere, huge, mighty angels appeared and jumped quickly onto the scale. These were angels created by Reuven's incessant suffering in the physical world. Some flew onto the side of mitzvos, while others climbed briefly onto the side of sins, kicking off some of the sin-angels.
The scale slowly shifted in the direction of mitzvos. Only a few more millimeters were needed. One more angel and Reuven would be in the clear! Sitting on the edge of his seat, Reuven searched desperately for another angel of suffering to tip the scales. But then, all the commotion ceased; no new angels were to be seen.
Reuven understood the implications. He was about to be sentenced to what every human being fears most. If only he had a few more angels of suffering, he would be declared righteous. Why could he not conjure up a few more angels of suffering? Panic-stricken, Reuven emitted a blood curdling scream: "GIVE ME MORE SUFFERING!!!"
And then he woke up.
Everyone in the house heard Reuven's impassioned cry. They rushed into the room. Reuven lay there, in a puddle of perspiration, hyperventilating, trying to calm down. "What happened? Are you all right?"
After a few minutes, Reuven rose, and walked definitively toward the door. "Where are you going? Did you not wish to speak with the rabbi?"
Reuven replied, "I already received my answer... from Heaven."
There's nothing quite like real life.