Do the Just Suffer and Wicked Prosper?


Rabbi Joshua ben Levi fasted and prayed to God that he might be permitted to gaze on the prophet Elijah who had ascended alive into heaven. God granted his prayer, and Elijah appeared before him.

“Let me journey with you in your travels through the world,” the Rabbi entreated Elijah; “let me observe your doings so that I may gain in wisdom and understanding.”

“No,” answered Elijah; “you would not understand my actions; my doings would trouble you. They are beyond your comprehension.”

But still the Rabbi implored: “I will neither trouble nor question you; only let me accompany you on your way.”

“Come, then,” said Elijah; “but let your tongue be mute. With your first question, your first expression of astonishment, we must part company.”

So the two journeyed through the world together. They approached the house of a poor man, whose only treasure and means of support was a cow. As they came near, the man and his wife hastened to meet them, begged them to come into their house, eat and drink of the best they had and to pass the night under their roof. This they did, [and they] received every attention from their host and hostess. In the morning Elijah prayed to God that the cow belonging to the poor people should die, and the animal died. Then the travelers continued on their way.

Rabbi Joshua was amazed. “Why did you kill the cow of this good man?” he asked.

“Look, listen, and be silent,” Elijah replied; “if I answer your questions we must part.”

They continued on their way together. Toward evening they arrived at a large and imposing mansion, the residence of an arrogant and wealthy man. They were coldly received; a piece of bread and a glass of water were placed before them. They remained there during the night. In the morning Elijah saw that a wall of the house had collapsed and he immediately restored it.

Rabbi Joshua again was filled with wonder but said nothing, and they proceeded on their journey.

As the shades of night were falling. they entered a city where there was a large and imposing synagogue. They went in at the time of the evening service and admired the rich adornments, the velvet cushions, and gilded carvings of the interior. After the service, the president arose and called out: “Who is willing to take these two poor men to his house?” None answered, and the traveling strangers had to sleep in the synagogue. In the morning, however, Elijah shook hands with the members of the synagogue and said: “I hope that you may all become presidents.”

Next evening the two entered another city. The sexton of the synagogue came to meet them and notified the members of the congregation of the coming of the two strangers. The best hotel of the place was opened to them, and all showed them attention and honor. On parting with them, Elijah said: “May the Lord appoint but one president over you.”

Rabbi Joshua could resist his curiosity no longer. “Tell me,” he said to Elijah, “tell me the meaning of all these actions which I have witnessed. To those who have treated us coldly you have extended good wishes; to those who have been gracious to us you have made no suitable return. Even at the risk of parting, please explain to me the meaning of your acts.”

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 the Lord that the cow might die instead. God granted my prayers, and the woman was saved. The rich man, whom we visited next, treated us coldly and I rebuilt his wall. For had he rebuilt it himself he would have discovered a treasure which lies underneath. To the members of the synagogue who were not hospitable I said: ‘May you all be presidents,’ and where many rule there can be no peace. But to the others I said: ‘May you have but one president’; 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.”

With these words Elijah disappeared, and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was left alone.


Source: Birnbaum, Philip. A Treasury of Judaism. NY: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1957, pp. 284-286.