click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

How Is Suffering Fair?

How Is Suffering Fair?

Context is everything.


Every thinking person, at some point in his life, has to come to grips with the question of human suffering. It is a question that plagued none other than Moses himself!1

Although much ink has been spent on this subject by many distinguished people throughout history, I would like to presume to add my own two cents.

The Affluent of Yesteryear: Beggars of Today?

Let us begin the discussion by asking what makes an experience good or bad?

Basically, we judge our situation by comparing it with previous situations that we have already sorted into categories of pleasantness versus unpleasantness, and rate it accordingly. Therefore, an experience can be said to be subjectively good or bad.

To illustrate, a rich person in earlier generations who would have thought he was living in heaven would today be looked at as having lived in deplorable and unlivable conditions!

Sure, he lived in a palace, but can you imagine? No fridge, no air-conditioning, and no cars or phones either!

The “rich” person looks at his condition favorably simply because he has never experienced anything better by which to gauge his current level of living.

The opposite of this is also true.

A child thinks that the problems he encounters are devastating and earth-shattering because he does not yet have the range of experiences by which to rate what is truly bad and what is truly good. As he gets older, his spectrum widens and his perspective changes accordingly.

He realizes that having to wait longer than ten seconds for his toy is not the worst problem he will encounter, and that it doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things!

Determining a Trait by Observing Deeds

A second point; If you want to test a child in order to find out if he is the type of person that perseveres when challenged, you give him a challenge suitable to his personal constitution and limitations.

When a child works hard at catching a ball, or passing a test, you can ascertain that he has the trait of perseverance and his display of this trait will not be limited to that particular task alone. One may then safely assume that as the child grows older he will apply that trait to even greater challenges to come.

God wanted us to test our unwavering devotion to faith. But here enters the problem; if we see the full extent of the good that awaits us by passing the test, the “bad” experiences sent to challenge faith would have to be altered accordingly, and that would be daunting indeed. Therefore, God simply restricted and limited our field of vision so that our perspective of good experiences versus bad experiences would be “child’s play” compared to the unparalleled good that would completely nullify and overshadow any experience that we may have previously encountered.

When we pass the test and cling to faith, we have proven that we carry and own the trait of emunah, (belief in God) and it therefore stands to reason that we would behave accordingly even if our “perspective was widened” and we would be tested at a much higher level.

As such, God has no need to test us further, for we have already indicated our possession of the traits involved.

The reason why events sometimes appear so dismal is because we are judging our experiences only relative to the “good” experiences in this world.

Ergo, the difficult and painful events we encounter in life may not be as bad as we make them out to be when looked at from the true perspective.

Don’t Worry! It’s Just a Dream!”

This understanding occurred to me while reciting the chapter of Psalms Shir Ha’Malos before Grace after Meals. There, the sentence states,2

A Song of Ascents; When God returns the captives of Zion we will be like dreamers.”

This is referring to the Babylonian Exile which lasted for 70 years. The Talmud in Ta’anis3relates how Choni Ha’Maagul asked on this verse, “Can a person really sleep for 70 years?”

It is apparent that he understood the verse to mean that after redemption the entire Exile will be, in retrospect, like a dream.

Both commentaries the Radak and Metzudas Dovid explain that compared to the bliss of the redemption, all the trials and travails of the bitter exile will have been like a fleeting dream.

Along the lines that we have been formulating above, we may explain that when a person dreams, he may be wholly convinced that what he is “experiencing” is of utter importance, and that his dire predicament is truly devastating.

It is only upon awaking that he realizes that he had attached much too much importance on his “predicament” and that his judgment of the situation was baseless and flawed.

Terrifying nightmares can be actually quite humorous when seen in their proper context.

It is with this type of approach I believe we can view human suffering; perhaps it is being viewed out of its proper context.

These words may be very hard to hear — how can we look at the horrific tortures we have endured throughout history and say they are being viewed “out of context”? That is a valid point, but the truth is that we say this because we are still in the middle of the nightmare.

We have a one-up over the dreamer, however, and that is that we can realize while we are in the middle of the nightmare that it is just a dream and anticipate our awaited awakening.

A Broader Spectrum of Reality

With this in mind, perhaps we can better understand the phenomenon of the suffering of the righteous (Tzaddik).

It’s funny, I don’t think it’s usually the righteous that are complaining about their fate — rather it is the people who aren’t righteous observing the Tzaddik’s plight that are doing the questioning!

I think this is because the Tzaddik’s perspective of good is much more developed and closer to the truth than a regular person, and he is tested accordingly.

His tolerance level is much higher than the rest of humanity, for he weighs his experiences against a very palpable and eclipsing goodness!

It is only the person of lesser stature, then, who is troubled by the Tzaddik’s suffering — because he does not grasp the full picture.

The Ultimate Test

Perhaps there is a special advantage, too, in the Tzaddik’s “heightened” test. We have explained above that God tests us on a level relatively lighter and easier than reality would demand, but God, in His kindness, considers this enough (compromising, that we simply indicate our possession of the trait involved).

The Tzaddik, on the other hand, can be tested on a level closer to the truth. When he stares at the true face of evil and goodness, and passes the test, the resultant Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of God’s Name) is that much greater.

Perhaps this is what is meant when the Sages said:

“At first, God wanted to create the world through the attribute of Justice, but, seeing that the world would not survive, He first brought in the attribute of Kindness and used it jointly with the attribute of Justice [to create the world].”

The attribute of Justice would require that we be tested against a much more exacting level, parallel to the good waiting for us if we succeed!

But, since we would most probably prove incapable of actually passing those tests, the tests, including the perception of the good to be attained, was lowered many notches.

If so, we can readily understand why we find certain Tzaddikim that were judged only with the Attribute of Justice.5 They merited to create a much higher level of Kiddush Hashem through their mitzvah observance, for they were tested at the level of true reality — no compromises.

If this is the case, it behooves the person who lives a life tasting the true, sweet pleasure of Torah to hold himself to a higher standard since his accountability will be set according to his understanding of the Goodness that awaits in the True World.

Indeed, this is what we are taught6: “God judges those who fear Him ‘to a hairsbreadth.’”

Perhaps now we may also understand Moses’ request to God, “Show me Your Glory7,” which he asks after begging to understand the enigma of the suffering of the righteous.8

Moses was asking for a revelation into the goodness of God.

If he could grasp the extent of God’s awesome kindness, this would automatically grant him an understanding of the phenomenon of the suffering righteous, because it would give him a truer perspective required to form a mature outlook on the comparative relativity of good versus bad.

God is not so easy to judge after all.

Excerpted from the recently published book The Deeper Meaning. Spanning a broad spectrum of topics, The Deeper Meaning addresses questions such as "Why do we cry when someone dies?” and "Why is it so hard to be good?”. From free will to Shabbos, to self-esteem, this book makes for a fresh and thought-provoking read; bound to leave you with more ideas to think about, and a deeper appreciation of our everyday life. Click here to order.


  1. Brachos 7a
  2. Psalms 126:1
  3. Ta’anis 23a
  4. Bereishis Rabba 12:15
  5. See Menachos 29b “ כך עלה במחשבה לפני ” ; See also Medrash Eileh Ezk’ra
  6. See Psalms 50:3 “ וסביביו נשערה מאד ” with Gemarra Bavah Kamma 50a
  7. Shmos 33:18
  8. Brachos ibid

January 11, 2014

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 9

(8) Aryeh Baer, January 28, 2014 3:23 PM

Not sure I understand

I am not sure I understand points one and two. Can you find me a context where watching one's child suffer or die can be considered "not so bad". Do you think someone will one day - even after attaining further insight after 120 years - look back on these events and chuckle? Do you think anyone at any point in history - post-Messianc or otherwise - will look back at the holocaust and life. Seems unlikely. I don't know why G-d allows these things to happen, but trying to minimize the horror people suffer is not the answer.

Uri Kestenbaum, April 27, 2014 2:26 AM

Response from Author

Aryeh, your objections are valid, and totally understandable. I don’t believe that there will ever be a point where we will “chuckle”, as you put it, at tragic events, but I do believe that understanding the positive consequences of such events can mitigate, in a large way, the pain. This is not novel: the efficacy of positive reframing for sufferers from PTSD and other effects of trauma are well-researched and documented. It is a proven fact that reframing an event and showing how it lead a sufferer to some form of meaning or growth in their life is an effective method to mitigate pain.

This is a highly-charged topic and I understand that many people who have suffered will have a hard time listening to someone trying to “dismiss” the extent of their pain. For such a person, I would recommend revisiting these ideas after some time has elapsed and after one has had more opportunity to process and churn through the emotional turmoil brought on by pain and suffering.

Hope that answers your question!

(7) Uri Kestenbaum, January 23, 2014 12:53 AM

Response from the author

Thanks for your comments!
Ruth, I agree that it’s hard to take something so emotional and talk about in an abstract form. I agree that it is very personal, and sometimes we have to suffer in order to grow and develop our personalities, rather than suffering as a punishment.
Anna, I would say that the modern appliances you reference truly would not be classify someone as a beggar. However, even low-income families have refrigerators and fans, heaters or air-conditioning. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that someone who cannot keep his food fresh for more than a day or two would be called a pauper. Regardless of the semantics, the point being made still holds true. An experience changes when put in a different context.
David, I’m not sure I understand your question. Understanding G-d better was Moshe’s primary concern, not reward. He wanted to understand how G-d could be called Good if he causes the righteous to suffer. The only way for Moshe to understand this would be to have a “wider” view of reality. If G-d would raise the bar and show Moshe what true reward looks like, he would then be able to understand how suffering in this world would be considered negligible in comparison to the reward.


(6) David, January 18, 2014 8:24 PM

Question to Author

At first it seems you are saying that the righteous embrace their reality because they have a higher understanding of God and thus truth. Then you said that this understanding "behooves" the righteous to act like that because they merit more truth. And then you said that Moses was looking to do the same. But aren't Tzaddikim Tzaddikim precisely because they aren't chasing the reward? It seemed like you built them up and then lowered them from one sentence to the next

(5) Anna, January 17, 2014 8:02 PM

I can't agree that rich people in the past would be the equivalent of beggars and living in deprivation today. That's just silly. They may not have had modern appliances, but they had plenty of luxuries. I didn't have a cellphone when I was growing up, or a microwave or video or computer or digital camera-all things that I greatly enjoy having now-but this didn't mean that I lived a life of poverty and deprivation.To say that millionaires and potentates and kings lived poverty-stricken like paupers today is just silly.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment