1452) God’s Justice (part one of two)

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A Jewish legend, translated from a small volume published in 1929, Judische Legenden, as told by Else Schubert-Christaller; printed in The Plough Reader, Summer 2001 (adapted).

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     Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi was a good and just man, always diligent in his prayers and obedient to God.  So when he prayed that he might see the prophet Elijah, God granted his request.  Seeing the prophet appear before him, the rabbi spoke thus:  “Allow me to accompany you on your wanderings, to see what it is you do for God’s cause.  For my heart longs to see God’s justice and to rejoice in it.”

     “Rid yourself of your longing, for you will neither understand what I do nor will you be able to bear it,” Elijah answered him.

     But Rabbi Joshua replied, “I read and meditate on God’s Word every day.  Do I not know God and understand his justice?  I will certainly be able to rejoice in his work.”

     And he begged until the prophet permitted him to follow, but Elijah warned, “Take care not to question why I do as I do, for the moment you ask, your wandering with me will end.”

     So they went and wandered the bright, green earth, back and forth the whole day.  At evening, they approached a small hut, from which a poor farmer emerged.  He hurried to meet the two wanderers and invited them into his dwelling.  Once inside, he bid them sit down while he fetched water so they could wash.  His wife wasted no time in setting before the wanderers fresh milk, bread, and fruit; and with her husband, honored their guests.

     When the prophet and the rabbi wished to sleep, the poor man spread out his own blankets for them; and then he lay down beside his wife on the cold, bare dirt floor of the hut.  Rabbi Joshua’s heart was glad at the hospitality of the poor man, and he thought, “Elijah will surely reward him through God’s justice, so that he will no longer have to spend his life in poverty.”

     But when morning came, Elijah got up and killed the cow, the poor man’s sole possession.  Rabbi Joshua stared in shock at the prophet, who only looked past him with stern eyes, so that the rabbi dared not say a word in question.  The two went on, leaving the poor couple to lament their great loss.

     The prophet and the rabbi passed another day wandering the length and breadth of the bright, green earth.  As the sun dipped low, they entered the gates of a large, beautiful house.  They approached the well-dressed owner to ask if they might rest under his roof.  “Why should I bother with you beggars?” he scoffed.  “You can sleep in the stable.”

     They settled down beside the animals, their hunger unsatisfied, their dusty feet unwashed.  Anger stirred in Rabbi Joshua’s heart and he thought, “Elijah will not let this hardhearted man go unpunished by God’s justice.”

     But Elijah awoke at dawn and went into the stable yard, where an old, dilapidated wall looked ready to collapse.  The prophet straightened the stones so that the wall stood firm again.  Watching, Rabbi Joshua thought, “God sends Elijah to bring trouble to the good people and show favor to those whose deeds are evil.  How am I to understand this?  Is this justice?”  But seeing the prophet’s dark look, he suppressed his bitter questions, and the two went away from the grand house and passed another day wandering here and there over the bright, green earth.

     At day’s end, they entered a bustling city and made their way to its synagogue.  There, the wealthy men of the city sat, dressed in their finest clothes and seated for prayer in order of rank.  When the time of prayer had ended, the men turned to one another and asked, “Who should take in the two wanderers?”  None wanted to invite them into his house of give them a meal.  “Let them stay the night in the synagogue,” they all agreed, and the matter was settled.

     So the prophet and the rabbi, unfed and unwashed, spent the night in the synagogue.  When the men returned to pray the next morning, Elijah took leave of them, saying, “I know that in your hearts you all want to become city officials.  May your wishes come true.”  At this Rabbi Joshua could feel his heart fail within him, and he covered his face with his cloak, despairing over God’s justice.  Yet he still did not question the prophet.

     Again they wandered the whole day over the bright, green earth.  When it was evening, they came to a home where a kindly old man welcomed them in.  He brought water for them to wash themselves, and served them food until both the prophet and the rabbi had eaten their fill.  Then the kind host prepared beds for the two travelers, and wished them a good night.

     But Rabbi Joshua did not sleep.  Fear and sadness kept him awake the whole night, and he did not know how to still the clamor of his conscience.  What kind of God had he worshiped and obeyed all his life?  And the good rabbi feared what would happen in the morning.  Who knew what to expect on such a journey?

     At daybreak, Elijah rose and told Rabbi Joshua they must be on their way.  The rabbi said, “But shall we not thank our wonderful host?”      

     “That will not be necessary,” said Elijah.  “Our host is dead.”

     At this, the rabbi could no longer keep his thoughts to himself any longer.  He turned and shouted at Elijah, “I tremble before you, but is this God’s justice, that the devout suffer pain, while the evil receive love?  If so, woe is me, for my heart has lost God.”  (continued…)

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Jeremiah 12:1  —  You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you.  Yet I would speak with you about your justice:  Why does the way of the wicked prosper?  Why do all the faithless live at ease?

Psalm 73:3  —  I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

Habakkuk 1:3  —  Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?  Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

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How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?

–Habakkuk 1:2

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