Why do the Wicked Prosper?
By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)
In this study I would like to examine a question that was raised by the Prophet, “Why do the wicked prosper?”
Yiremeyahu (Jeremiah) 12:1 Right wouldest Thou be, HaShem, were I to contend with Thee, yet will I reason with Thee: Why do the wicked prosper? Wherefore are all they secure that deal very treacherously?
Solomon brings this question into sharp focus:
Kohelet 8:14 There are righteous who are treated as if they had done the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked who are treated as if they had done the deeds of the righteous. I thought, this is more futility!
This famous question needs to be answered in order that we should begin to understand the ways of HaShem. This question is especially important at Rosh HaShana (Yom Teruah). In this paper I would like to explore an answer that I have learned.
In various places, the Torah compares a person to a tree:
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 20:19 A person is like the tree of a field...
Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 65:22 For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people.
Yiremeyahu (Jeremiah) 17:8 He will be like a tree planted near water...
All men enter the world with their tree planted on the middle line between good and evil. Their branches hang on both sides and they will bear fruit on both sides. HaShem will bring mitzvot and sins in order that they should test them. Most (99.99%) all people will remain firmly planted and will never move their tree off that middle line.
In Bereshit (Genesis) 3:9, Adam and Chava had just eaten some fruit from the forbidden tree and, sensing HaShem’s presence in the Garden of Eden, they hid among the trees. While they were hiding, HaShem asked Adam a one-word question. In Hebrew that word is ayeka? In English it means, “Where are you”? This question continues to reverberate through time to confront every man: Where are you?
Maimonides writes in his laws of repentance that every person should consider himself or herself as perfectly balanced between good and bad and the world as perfectly balanced between good and evil. The next action you do, however trivial, can tilt you and the whole world toward the side of good and life or to the side of evil and death.
Each man has the power of choice, and is able to choose either side, knowingly and willingly, as well as to possess whichever one he wishes. Man was therefore created with both a good inclination (yetzer tov) and an evil inclination (yetzer hara). He has the power to incline himself in which ever direction he desires.
Therefore, the physical world was made neutral, left for man to determine how it would be used. One world, two possibilities, and man is the one to determine whether or not he walks that path, or stumbles it in. But, try it he must, for that is what he was created to do.
Those who are righteous, the tzaddikim, in this world have made a conscious, decision to plant their tree on the side of righteousness.
Those who are wicked, the reshaim, in this world have made a decision to plant their tree on the side of wickedness.
Yet, most people never make a decision to move their tree one way or the other, and thus they remain in the middle, balanced between good and evil, they are still firmly straddling the line, a very bad position to be in. They fail to do what they were created to do.
Revelation 3:16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 30:19 I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: 20 That thou mayest love the HaShem thy G-d, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the HaShem sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.
The type of choices that are able to accomplish an attachment to HaShem, are those choices taken for the express purpose of attaching to life, and to good, instead of what is temporary, and therefore to the evil.
These kinds of choices are made in the context of confronting moral dilemmas when we are torn in two directions, and we do not have a powerful inner program instilled by heredity or environment pointing us in the right direction. We desire one thing, but we know that the right decision is in the other direction, not because of our inner program but because HaShem told us in the Torah that that is the way to go. It is in these sorts of situations that present us with the opportunity of attaching ourselves to righteousness, to life.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 30:15-19 Look, I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil, that which I command you today, to love HaShem your HaShem, to walk in His ways, to observe His commandments, His decrees, and His ordinances ... But if your heart will stray and you will not listen, and you are led astray, and you prostrate yourselves to strange gods and serve them, I tell you today that you will surely be lost ... I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life so that you will live, you and your offspring...
Now, lets look at the implications that can be derived from the fact that our tree will always have some branches on the other side of this line, no matter which decision we have made.
Midrash PESIQTA deRAB KAHANA Pisqa Nine IX:I [Concerning the verse: When a bull or sheep or goat is born, it will remain seven days with its mother; and from the eighth day on it will be acceptable as an offering by fire to the Lord (Lev. 22:27)]: Your righteousness/generosity is like the mountains of God, Your judgments are like the great deep; [man and beast You save, O LORD] (Ps. 36:6). R. Ishmael and R. Aqiba: R. Ishmael says, “With the righteous / generous, who carry out the Torah, which was given from the mountains of God the Holy One, blessed be He, does righteousness / generosity like the mountains of God. Your righteousness / generosity is like the mountains of God. But with the wicked, who do not carry out the Torah, which was given ‘from the mountains of God,’ the Holy One, blessed be He, seeks a strict accounting, unto the great deep. Your judgments are like the great deep. R. Aqiba says, “All the same are these and those: the Holy One, blessed be He, seeks a strict accounting with [all of] them in accord with strict justice. He seeks a strict accounting with the righteous / generous, collecting from them the few bad deeds that they do in this world, in order to pay them an abundant reward in the world to come. And He affords prosperity to the wicked and gives them a full reward for the minor religious duties that they successfully accomplished in this world, in order to exact a full penalty from them in the world to come.”
If we have made a conscious decision to move our tree to the side of righteousness, then we are on the road to becoming a great Tzadik. Never the less, we will still have some branches which hang over the side of wickedness. HaShem, in His mercy, will assist us in either moving our tree more, or in pruning the branches which are on the side of wickedness. The pruning of the branches is what we see as the tribulations that the righteous encounter in their walk with HaShem. The sufferings and trials of the righteous are simply the pruning of their wayward branches. These branches are the sins which the righteous commit. Since evil is temporary, it’s reward (punishment) is paid out in this world. HaShem can see that this tree will be with Him in the Olam HaBa, the world to come. In that world of clarity, there will be no sin and no ambiguity. Therefore the sins of the righteous must receive their reward (correction) in this world, because in the Olam HaBa there is only righteousness.
People who have attached themselves to the eternal, even if they have only done so once in their lives, will make it to the Olam HaBa eventually, in spite of the multitude of their transgressions. Never the less, those transgressions must be corrected in this world.
But what about that person’s past transgressions? His transgressions are a barrier to the enjoyment of the Olam HaBa and consequently they must be dealt with and purified. Consequently, the transgressions of such a person must be dealt with either in this world or in Gehenom (hell). But once again utilitarian considerations mandate that the necessary purification be accomplished in this world. Therefore, anyone who belongs in the Olam HaBa but is blemished by transgressions, as most of us are, this world can logically be expected to be a vale of tears.
Jewish tradition teaches that HaShem’s policy is never to allow a person’s mitzvot to be cancelled by his transgressions. Therefore, if a person performed his mitzvot with the type of dedication that is required to attach himself to HaShem and to eternal life, this act altered his inner reality permanently. He is now a person who is attached to Olam HaBa once and for all and he will eventually enjoy that life.
We certainly do not want to think of ourselves as wicked. But most of us know that we are not tzaddikim gemurim, “totally righteous people” either. If so, we will make it to the Olam HaBa with HaShem’s help, as all people in general do except for the wicked. But this means that something has to be done to cleanse us of our many evil deeds. This can either be done by the means of hardships that we suffer in this world, or by subjecting us to the tortures of Gehenom or hell after we die.
As the tortures of hell are infinitely more painful than any tribulation we might experience in this world, we ought to prefer to complete our purification in this one. So why, on Rosh HaShana, are we asking HaShem for an easy year? And how could the decree of a good year possibly be considered a favorable judgment?
There is an additional component that we need to be aware of. The righteous is seeking an eternal reward and is not interested in a temporary reward, and because HaShem has promised an eternal reward, the ONLY reward is the reward in the Olam HaBa, the world to come. Because the righteous man has not attached himself to the temporary world, any reward in this world becomes unavailable to him. He is not attached to this world.
On the other hand, if we have made a conscious decision to move our tree to the side of wickedness, then we are on the road to becoming a great rasha, a wicked person. Never the less, we will still have some branches which hang over the side of righteousness. Even the most wicked person does some mitzvot, some kindness in this world. HaShem, in His mercy, will assist the rasha in either moving his tree more, or in pruning the branches which are on the side of righteousness. The pruning of the branches is what we see as the prosperity that the wicked encounter in this world. The prosperity of the wicked is simply the pruning of their wayward branches. These branches are their mitzvot. HaShem can see that this tree will NOT be with Him in the Olam HaBa, the world to come. In that world of clarity there can be no sin and no ambiguity. Therefore the mitzvot of the wicked must receive their “reward” (blessing) in this world, because in the Olam HaBa there is only righteousness. In the Olam HaBa, the world of clarity, the wicked will simply not exist.
Reward in this world is mainly distributed to those who cannot receive their reward in the Olam HaBa because they simply won’t make it there. (The exceptions are too complicated to explain in the context of this essay.) But even such people, known as reshaim gemurim, or “totally evil”, have many good deeds to their credit. They may have been good fathers or husbands, they may have helped people when they felt the urge, and consequently they need to be rewarded.
Of course, it is impossible for us to grasp how such people with all these good deeds to their credit can be considered reshaim gemurim without appreciating how evil is to be understood, according to Jewish tradition.
Kiddushin 39b Yet is it a fact that he who performs one precept in addition to his [equally balanced] merits is rewarded? But the following contradicts it: He whose good deeds outnumber his iniquities is punished, and is as though he had burnt the whole Torah, not leaving even a single letter; while he whose iniquities outnumber his good deeds is rewarded, and is as though he had fulfilled the whole Torah, not omitting even a single letter! — Said Abaye: Our Mishnah means that a festive day and an evil day are prepared for him, Raba said: This latter agrees with R. Jacob, who said: There is no reward for precepts in this world. For it was taught: R. Jacob said: There is not a single precept in the Torah whose reward is [stated] at its side which is not dependent on the resurrection of the dead. [Thus:] in connection with honouring parents it is written, that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee. In reference to the dismissal of the nest it is written, that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days. Now, if one’s father said to him, ‘Ascend to the loft and bring me young birds,’ and he ascends to the loft, dismisses the dam and takes the young, and on his return falls and is killed — where is this man’s happiness and where is this man’s prolonging of days? But ‘in order that it may be well with thee’, means on the day that is wholly good; and ‘in order that thy days may be long’, on the day that is wholly long.
The commentators explain that it would be utterly cruel of HaShem to reward any good deed in this world when the option exists to reward it in the next. The reward for any good deed preformed by someone with a share in the Olam HaBa, the world to come, should automatically be received later on simple utilitarian grounds. The payoff in this world is incomparably less, and rewarding the good deed here would be an unconscionable waste of a valuable resource.
The truth is that the reward of a mitzva simply doesn’t fit into this world. If you lined up the pleasure felt by all human beings from the beginning of the world to the present and squeezed it into a single moment, it would still not equal a moment’s pleasure in the Olam HaBa.
Nachmanides explains that the word tov or “good”, refers to something “everlasting”, and that the word ra or “evil” refers to something “temporary”. This view is intuitively sensible as well, HaShem wants the good to last forever, whereas evil is clearly a temporary phenomenon. According to this perception, a rasha is not necessarily an evil person in the common sense of the word; rather, he is a person who is attached only to the temporary and transient and has never connected himself to the everlasting.
As Nachmanides explains: Life and good and death and evil are not different things but synonymous; the good is life everlasting, and the evil is death because it is temporary. This passage states that life is gained through choice: choose life so that you will live. The rasha is not evil in the common sense; he is merely a person who chooses the temporary and the short-lived rather than the everlasting.
For the rasha who has failed to attach himself to the eternal even once in his life, but who has performed many good deeds which must be rewarded, this world is the only place where such rewards can be made available, he does not exist in the Olam HaBa! As the rewards of mitzvot are so incomparably large, we would expect him to have a wonderful life in this world. Thus the wicked prosper in this world, but they do not exist in the Olam HaBa.
Further, the wicked does not believe in an eternal existence and would not want is reward in the next world. He wants his reward in this world, and he wants it NOW! Therefore, HaShem must pay him in this world. He would not want any other reward.
In the end of days, HaShem will reveal Himself and say just two words: “Ani HaShem - I am HaShem,” and all will become crystal clear to us. Everything will make sense; it will all fit. We’ll see that there was a divine scheme. A sequence of events had to take place the way it did for our ultimate benefit. And we will see clearly that even what seemed bad and unjust was, without a doubt, orchestrated by HaShem for our benefit.
This world is a workplace. The Divine policies that apply here are generated primarily by concerns over maximizing production, just as you would expect in any industrial setting. After all, the product of this world is the manufacture of eternal life. Practically speaking, this means that the creation of a place in Olam HaBa for all of us is the focus of Hashgacha Pratit, Divine Providence.
There are three primary factors
involved: We all must be placed into a situation that will force us to produce.
For example, suppose A is sent into the world to correct the character trait of arrogance and
cruelty. The extent of the correction achieved will determine A’s place in the Olam HaBa.
On the other hand, B is sent to the world to
correct the trait of self-pity and to demonstrate the cheerful acceptance of one’s lot.
The second function of
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto in “Derech HaShem”, “The Way of God”, explains that there are three levels of assistance in either direction. The person who begins on the path towards the Olam HaBa, the world to come, automatically receives some assistance. The person who is firmly set on his way gets more; his assistance comes in the form of redefining his job so that it is easier to complete. The person who has already gone most of the way gets the most assistance; HaShem provides him with whatever it takes to guarantee that he successfully completes his job.
But if we want HaShem to help us and lead us away from the wrong choice and along the path of life and goodness, then we have to do something equal and similar to deserve it. We have to go out onto the roads, where the roads are forked and there is a choice that needs to be made, and we have to stand there and tell other Jews, which way they should go, we have to go out there and scream “go in the right path, go in the path of goodness, away from the avenger, the Satan, away from the yetzer hara, the evil inclination”.
For the rasha
who is headed in the opposite direction there are also three
levels of “assistance”. Someone who has begun on the path away from the Olam HaBa loses the assistance he could have received
and is left to his own devices, but Divine Providence doesn’t hinder him from
turning back to face the right direction either. On the
other hand, for the person who is well on his way
on the road that leads away from the Olam HaBa is
positively hindered from turning back. Divine
Luzatto provides a practical example to bring this down to
earth. Changing one’s direction in life requires
introspection, self-criticism and thought. These in turn require opportunity
and motivation. Thus the rasha
may be so loaded down with the trials and cares of poverty and ill health that
his daily struggles make it impossible for him to enjoy the peace of mind that
is required to really look closely at his life and figure out that he is headed
in the wrong direction. Or Divine Providence may decide to bless the rasha with great wealth which will
remove his motivation to indulge in searching self-criticism. Why rock the boat
when everything is going well? The method selected by the
This determination of Divine Providence, of how much positive help a person deserves, or how many obstacles should be placed in his path, is a function of judgment. This is what the judgment of Rosh HaShana is about.
Let us return to our examples A and B.
A, the wealthy man who was
sent into the world to struggle with arrogance and
cruelty has been doing a poor job. He hasn’t been at all charitable and he has
become unapproachable and haughty. He knows about the workings of
What can he do about it? He should say to HaShem that he realizes that until now he has been deficient in his task but from now on he intends to fully engage in the activities for which he was born. If he can persuade HaShem of his sincerity, he will not lose his wealth.
B, also stands before HaShem knowing that his poverty is a result of the
Rosh HaShana is indeed about judgment. The judgment doesn’t concern ultimate rewards but is about the availability of Divine assistance. Unlike the ultimate rewards which are the direct results of the inner transformations accomplished by the person himself and therefore cannot be awarded but must be chosen, assistance is a variable commodity whose availability is never absolutely fixed. Like everything else in this world it is relative rather than absolute, and human beings can employ their creative ingenuity to increase it.
We stand before HaShem on Rosh HaShana to present our case for increased Hashgacha Pratit, Divine Providence. May it be His will to judge our worldly task as finally complete and witness the arrival of the Mashiach, Amen ve Amen!
Luqas (Luke) 16:19-31 There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: 20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, 21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; 23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. 25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. 26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. 27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: 28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. 29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. 30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. 31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
This passage warns us to hear and heed the law of Moshe. This is just another way of warning us to choose life!
Devarim(Deuteronomy) 30:19 I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live:
Choosing life is nothing more than moving your tree. After all, moving our tree to the side of righteousness is the ultimate choice for life.
Have you ever wondered whether you have trully moved your tree? One of the ways to receive confirmation that you have moved your tree and are now doing the Torah deeds of righteousness, is to see what HaShem is giving you as your due in this world:
Luqas (Luke) 6:20-26 And lifting up his eyes upon his disciples, said, Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled. Blessed ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh. 22 Blessed are ye when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from them, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as wicked, for the Son of man’s sake: 23 rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in the heaven, for after this manner did their fathers act toward the prophets. 24 But woe to you rich, for ye have received your consolation. 25 Woe to you that are filled, for ye shall hunger. Woe to you who laugh now, for ye shall mourn and weep. 26 Woe, when all men speak well of you, for after this manner did their fathers to the false prophets.
Have you moved your tree yet?
The physical world was made neutral, left for man to determine how it would be used. One world, two possibilities, and man is the one to determine whether or not he walks that path, or stumbles it in. But, try it he must, for that is what he was created to do.
For further elucidation on this fascinating subject, I recommend:
Michtav m’Eliyahu - Strive for Truth! by Rabbi E. E. Dessler.
It is possible to believe that our prosperity is due to our own hard work and wisdom. When we believe this, we must also believe that HaShem does not control His world. Never the less, it is easy to decieve ourselves and believe in our own abilities.
Hard work does not bring prosperity; HaShem brings prosperity. When people work hard and prosper, they can fool people into believing that they achieved their own properity. We must constantly acknowledge that HaShem is in control of our prosperity and all of our circumstances, and we must verbalize this to others. If we fail to alert others to HaShem’s total control, then we become the worm on the hook of reality. We deceive others into imitating us so that they can achieve what we achieved. We become like the wicked who believe in their own hard work, looks, wisdom, etc. and that those are what brought our success.
Do not become the worm on the hook of reality!
* * *
This study was written by
Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David
Comments may be submitted to:
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