Life is Unfair (Thank God!)

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Please complete the following quote from Pirkei Avos (4:1): “Who is considered rich? A person who ________________.”

If you’re like most people, you probably completed that phrase with “is satisfied with his lot” or “is happy with what he has.” But that’s not what the mishna actually says. “Eizehu ashir? Hasameiach b’chelko” – “Who is considered rich? One who rejoices in his portion.” Being satisfied with what we have is the bare minimum; we’re meant to rejoice in what we have.

No story better illustrates this concept than a famous incident involving the saintly Reb Zusha of Annapoli:

A man once visited the Maggid of Mezeritch and said that he couldn’t grasp the Talmudic dictum that we are meant to bless God for the bad times just as we bless Him for the good times (Brachos 54a). The Maggid told him to go visit his student Reb Zusha, who would explain it to him. The man went to Reb Zusha’s house and was astonished at the family’s dire poverty. They had almost no food, family members were sick, and there were many other challenges, but Reb Zusha welcomed him warmly and cheerfully.

“I asked the Maggid how it’s possible to bless God for the bad times as we do for the good times,” the visitor told Reb Zusha, “and he said that you would explain it to me.”

“I’m flattered,” Reb Zusha replied, “but I’m afraid I can’t help you. I’ve never experienced any bad times!”

It’s easy to see Reb Zusha’s mindset but it’s hard to understand how he got there, let alone how we could possibly hope to emulate him. A few months ago, however, I read something in the most unlikely of places that helped me to contextualize this matter.

A little while ago, in an article on “religious embarrassment,” I cited an idea from a book called I Still Want to Be an Astronaut: Living Your Dream When You Dream Too Much by James Perry, a sketch comedian whose work I enjoy. He also says something on this topic that I’d like to share:

Life is totally unfair. Thank goodness! If life were fair, we would all suffer for every bad thing we’ve done. If life were fair, your imperfection would lead to devastation, because you would never be able to do anything perfectly, and that would ruin your life. You would pay for every sin, and you would have to earn goodness before you could experience it. … I’m so glad life is so much kinder than it is fair.

What a novel – and yet completely accurate – way of looking at things! When people say that life is unfair, what they usually mean is that someone else has something that they don’t, and they want to have that thing, too. It’s essentially complaining that God – our Father – is showing favoritism to another person.

On the subject of parental favoritism, allow me to share the most obscure movie reference you’ll see all year. In the 1976 comedy The Big Bus, José Ferrer portrays the villain, who is in an iron lung. The villain’s brother, who is jealous because of their father’s alleged favoritism, complains, “How come you got the iron lung?” Ferrer’s character replies, “I’m the one who was sick!” The brother is so hyper-focused on what he doesn’t have (an iron lung) that he completely overlooks what he does have (his health). Do we do the same thing?

We’re all experts in what we don’t have but have we thought as much about what we do have? Were you born into a loving family, with parents who raised you, fed you and clothed you? If so, you did nothing to earn that; it was a gift. Do you have a roof over your head? Food on your plate? Relatively good health? An education? Family? Friends? Some of us may not have all of these particular things but each of us surely has some things. Whatever we have, it’s a gift. We did nothing to earn it. How terrible life would be if it were “fair” and we had to earn the good things in our lives!

Consider God’s Divine “attributes,” as listed in Exodus 34:6-7: God is compassionate both before and after a person sins; He is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth; He preserves kindness for 2,000 generations, and forgives iniquity, rebellion and sin; but if a person persists in his ancestors’ evil behavior, then God will revisit the ancestors’ guilt for up to three or four generations. So, of God’s 13 “attributes,” 12 are inherently generous and only one is strict – and even then, only conditionally. The Tosefta, noting that God repays good for 2,000 generations but He only repays evil for four generations, concludes that His attribute of mercy is 500 times greater than His inclination to punish. (If you’re curious why I keep putting “attributes” in quotes, see my book The God Book, excerpted here.)

If life unfair? Absolutely. But I’d much rather live in a world where the deck is stacked in favor of Divine mercy and undeserved kindness than one where we have to earn everything that God gives us now for free. As King David wrote (Psalms 130:3), if God were to keep score of our deeds, none of us could possibly endure.

Our senses, the leaves on the trees, potable water, a functioning digestive system, Internet access to read this article – whatever we have in life is a gift that we have done nothing to earn. If that’s not a reason to rejoice in what we have, I don’t know what is.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.