I’ve tried to nourish my mind, to find explanations for our tragedies in the words of our Sages. Many midrashim illustrate that justice is not always obvious, but they usually relate to people getting the rewards they deserve. Take the story about the rabbi who prayed to have the chance to see the prophet Elijah.
His prayer was answered, but when the rabbi asked if he could travel with the prophet, Elijah said, “No, because you will not understand my actions and they will upset you.”
The rabbi begged Elijah and swore he would ask no questions if he was allowed to accompany him.
Elijah agreed, but said the first time the rabbi asked a question or expressed astonishment, he would have to leave.
The first place they visited was the home of a poor man whose only possession of value was a cow. The man’s wife implored them to come inside to eat and drink and to sleep in their house. After enjoying the couple’s hospitality, Elijah got up the next morning and prayed that their cow would die. And it did.
After they left, the rabbi asked, “Why did you kill the cow of this good man?”
“Look, listen and be silent,” replied Elijah. “If I answer your questions we must part.”
They traveled on and came to a large mansion owned by an arrogant and wealthy man. They were coldly received, given only a glass of water and a piece of bread. They slept in the house and then, the next morning, Elijah saw that a wall of the mansion had collapsed. He restored it.
The rabbi was surprised but held his tongue.
The following evening they entered a town with a large synagogue. They arrived in time for the evening service and were impressed by the velvet cushions and gilded carvings. After the service, the president asked, “Who is willing to take these two poor men to their house?” No one responded, so Elijah and the rabbi slept in the synagogue. In the morning, Elijah shook hands with each member of the synagogue and said, “I hope you may all become presidents.”
The next evening they entered another city. The sexton of the synagogue greeted them and notified the congregation of the arrival of two strangers. The best hotel was opened to them and all showed them attention and honor. Before leaving, Elijah said, “May the Lord appoint but one president over you.”
Finally, the rabbi couldn’t stand it any longer and had to ask Elijah to explain his actions. “Why,” he asked, “did you extend good wishes to those who treated us badly but not to those who were generous?”
Elijah explained: “We first entered the house of the poor man who treated us so kindly. Now it had been decreed that on that very day his wife should die. I prayed to the Lord that the cow might die instead. God granted my prayers, and the woman was saved.”
“The rich man we visited next,” Elijah continued, “treated us coldly, but I rebuilt his wall. If he had rebuilt it himself, he would have discovered a treasure that lies underneath.”
“And the members of the synagogue?” the rabbi asked.
“To the members of the synagogue who were not hospitable I said: ‘May you all be presidents,’ because where many rule there can be no peace. But to the others I said, ‘May you have but one president,’ because with one leader, no dissension will arise.”
“Now, if you see the wicked prospering, be not envious; if you see the righteous in poverty and trouble, be not doubtful of God’s justice.”
This excerpt is from Mitchell Bard’s novel, After Anatevka — Tevya Goes to Palestine available now in paperback and on Kindle.