Sources refer to the Ramchal’s Derech Hashem.
We have discussed how a person’s role in this life is to choose good in a world that offers both good and bad. This choice can manifest in many forms: ego vs. humility; mercy vs. hard-heartedness; being satisfied with one’s lot vs. always feeling the need for more, etc. God determined all the traits that would be necessary for a person to accomplish his task in life, and He created them. In order for these traits to work, it was also necessary that people possess different stations in life. Any position that a person occupies, be it lofty or humble, is a test for that person. In this way, negative traits like jealousy and greed can exist, while people have the opportunity to choose the opposing positive traits. For example, if there were no poverty, a wealthy person could never have the opportunity to be generous. (Conversely, he could also opt to ignore the needy – the choice is his!)
Poverty (for example) is a test for both the rich and the poor in other ways, as well. Will the less-fortunate be grateful and thank God for what they have? Will the wealthy become haughty and turn their backs on God? God arranged humanity so that these and other tests would be possible. A person’s job in life is to face these challenges and to overcome his evil inclination. [II, 3.1]
We also discussed how everything in the physical world is connected to an analogous force in the spiritual plane (section 5). Similarly, a person’s challenges are connected to spiritual counterparts. The challenges that a person faces are based on the spiritual forces that are unique to him. [II, 3.2] Consequently, everything good or bad that befalls a person is a test, designed specifically with that particular individual in mind. [II, 3.3]
Another reason that things happen to a person is divine justice. God in His wisdom decreed that a person’s deeds should determine whether or not God assists him in the pursuit of personal perfection. If a person merits it, God will help him achieve his goals, as I Samuel 2:9 says, God “protects the steps of His pious.” This assistance can vary greatly among individuals. One person may merit just a little help; others may earn much more. Similarly, a person’s deeds may determine that God provide no assistance at all, or even that He make a person’s job that much more difficult by placing obstacles in his path. If a person’s deeds are sufficiently evil, God might even cut off all paths, leaving the person to be abandoned to his own malevolence.
There are still other factors involved. If a person has earned it, God may decree success for him, in order to assist this person in his service of God. In such a case, obstacles are removed from this person’s path, enabling him to achieve his personal perfection. Conversely, a person’s deeds can cause God to decree losses for him, so that this person must struggle harder in his efforts.
This is even true of evil people; God might decree that they have success in their evil deeds, as this will lead to their own undoing. Or, God might decree obstacles, which will impede this person’s ability to commit wrongdoing despite his intentions.
The wisdom that it takes for God to accomplish all this is beyond our comprehension. He is able to judge every aspect of every person’s situation completely and in truth. For example, a person of means who neglects his duty would be judged more harshly than a downtrodden person who is unable to fulfill his duty because of his circumstances. Similarly, God evaluates whether a person acted intentionally or inadvertently, willfully or under coercion, etc. God knows all the details and He judges everyone individually in absolute truth. [II, 3.4]
Another reason a person might endure suffering is so that he will be motivated to examine his deeds and repent. This is especially true when it is a righteous person (or an average person) who is undergoing hardships. If he is mostly righteous (or if his good and bad deeds balance out), his suffering might be a message to improve his ways. This is different from suffering that is intended as atonement for sin. When suffering is intended as atonement, it is punishment in the absence of repentance. This is not the preferred course of action; God would rather a person not sin in the first place. If he does, God would rather he repent. Barring this, a person can still be cleansed through punishments, which is still better than being destroyed. Therefore, a person first endures some suffering to encourage him to repent. If this does not have the desired effect, the person must undergo further suffering as an atonement. [II, 3.5]
There is a limit to the amount of evil that God permits a person to perform. When a person reaches this limit, the person receives no more chances and God simply destroys him, as per Job 20:22, “When the measure is full, he will be constrained.” This is why the evil are permitted to be successful – because it ultimately leads to their own destruction. As the Sages put it, “If a person desires to sin, the door is open for him” (Yoma 38b). God permits a person to sin until he reaches his limit, at which point he is destroyed. [II, 3.6]
When it comes to God’s providence, everything is perfectly balanced. God takes every detail into account, as well as the way everything is interconnected with everything else. Therefore, when a person is judged, God takes into account what preceded this person (his ancestors), what will succeed this person (his descendants), and what coexists with this person (his generation). With all this in mind, a person is assigned a unique task in life. (This is all true only for a person’s judgment in this world; one’s judgment in the Next World depends solely upon his own actions.) Therefore, if it is decreed that a person be wealthy, his children will benefit from that. In fact, the Sages tell us that parents can benefit their children in five ways: with good looks, physical strength, financial wealth, intelligence and longevity (Eduyos 2:9). One might also be granted some benefit because it has been decreed that his children be born with a particular advantage. The same can be true of disadvantages. Similarly, a benefit or an obstacle might be decreed for a person as a consequence of where he lives or the social circle he chooses. [II, 3.7]
Another concept arises from the concepts of general and individual providence. Specifically, when God evaluated what would be necessary for humanity to perfect itself, He determined that it would be appropriate if some people were able to assist others in achieving this perfection. The ramification of this is that a person can improve himself spiritually by associating with worthier individuals. Therefore, the only ones not able to achieve perfection are those who neither have their own merits nor who associate with worthier people. This minimizes the number of people cast aside. Those who positively influence others will be the most prominent members in the community of perfected individuals, while those who enter “on their coattails” will turn to them for guidance. The Sages expressed the idea that “all Jews are responsible for one another” (Sanhedrin 27b, et al.); we are all connected and no one is alone. It is the result of God’s goodness that human beings are able to share their merits with others.
Because of this connection, a righteous individual might be subject to suffering in order to atone for the deeds of his generation. God decreed that His attribute of justice could be satisfied through certain perfected individuals on behalf of others. These individuals are themselves deserving of goodness and they only suffer because of others. The suffering required of these individuals is much smaller than that which would be required of the community as a whole. The one suffering must accept this for the sake of his generation just as he accepts suffering when it is to atone for his own misdeeds. By doing so, not only does his experience atone for others, it serves to elevate him even further spiritually – perhaps to the degree that he can atone for the actions of humanity back to the beginning of time. Such a person will become very close to God and he will merit being a great leader in the future community of perfected individuals. [II, 3.8]
We said earlier that God “stacks the deck” to maximize a person’s chance of achieving perfection (section 7). One way in which He does this is through reincarnation. This process enables a single soul to inhabit a succession of bodies. By doing so, it has the potential to rectify the misdeeds of its previous incarnations in the hope of ultimately achieving spiritual perfection. The soul is judged at the end of this series of incarnations and its fate will be determined by what took place over the course of all these lives.
A reincarnated soul might be affected by the events of its previous incarnations. The situations in which a person with a reincarnated soul finds himself will likewise be based upon past-life experiences and will carry corresponding responsibilities.
The details of reincarnation, including how much an individual is judged based on his current incarnation as opposed to past incarnations, are far beyond us. Suffice it to say that God’s system is just and it is designed to assist mankind in achieving perfection. [II, 3.10]
We see that there are many potential factors that contribute to what befalls a person. That’s not to say that each one of these is in play every time something good or bad occurs, just that these are the things that may or may not be involved. A cause does not always have to result in the same outcome. There are many causes at work and some of them cancel out one another. For example, the merit of a person’s parents may decree that he be wealthy, but his own deeds may call for him to be poor. His relative position in the overall scheme of things may then be called upon as a tie-breaker of sorts. Similarly, a person may have performed one deed that calls for something good to happen to him, and another deed that makes him undeserving of this benefit. Because such stalemates are possible, God uses His wisdom to create an infinite number of potential scenarios, each appropriate to an individual’s unique circumstances. [II, 3.11]
We must remember that when something good or bad befalls a person, it could be an end result but it could also be a means to an end. Some things happen to a person because of the various factors we’ve discussed, while others occur merely to move a person from situation A to situation B, such as if a person’s animal tripped an broke a leg, leading the owner to unearth a buried treasure. Sometimes something inconvenient happens and we later see that it saved us from a tragedy, like missing a plane that crashes. These are also potential causes for things that may happen in a person’s life. [II, 3.12]