After Moses succeeded in petitioning God to forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf, he made an additional request from God: “If You are indeed pleased with me, allow me to know Your ways” (Ex. 33:12).
What exactly did Moses desire to know? The Talmud (Berachot 7a) explains that Moses wanted to understand the age-old problem of reward and punishment in this world:
“Master of the Universe, why is it that some righteous people prosper, while others suffer? Why do some wicked people prosper, and others suffer?”
According to Rabbi Yossi, God fulfilled Moses’ request. The Talmud initially explains that anomalies in divine justice in this world are the result of ancestral merit. A righteous person whose parents were wicked may undergo suffering in this world, while a wicked person whose parents were righteous may be rewarded.
However, the Sages were not satisfied with this explanation. Why should a righteous person who rejected his parents’ evil ways be punished? He should be rewarded doubly! The Sages concludes that if there are righteous who suffer, it must be because they are not fully righteous. (This is usually understood that they are punished in this world to atone for their sins so that their reward in the next world will be complete.) Similarly, the wicked who prosper must not be totally evil. They receive reward in this world for the few merits they do possess.
(The Talmud also mentions an additional factor, called ‘Afflictions of Love.’ Even a perfectly righteous individual may suffer in this world in order to gain additional reward in the afterlife.)
Upon inspection, we discover that these two mitigating factors — ancestral merit and incompleteness of righteousness or wickedness — are interrelated. All actions may be broken up into two categories. Some actions are performed purposely, by choice; while others — the majority — are done without thought, but by habit or training. For a righteous person from a righteous family, good deeds come naturally. He does not need suffering in order to refine his soul. The righteous individual born in a wicked family, on the other hand, must work harder. His good deeds are a conscious effort, going against his education and natural bent. He therefore needs the refinement that comes from suffering in order to perfect his character traits.
The wicked person who hails from a righteous family is naturally helpful to others, and may have inherited many other positive character traits. Therefore, his portion in life is good, as he contributes to the world. But the wicked who comes from a wicked family is usually an utterly evil person. His lot in life is made difficult and unstable, in order to limit the damage that he may cause in the world.
The Talmud records a second opinion, Rabbi Meir, who disagreed with Rabbi Yossi. According to Rabbi Meir, God did not fulfill Moses’ request to explain the mechanics of suffering and reward in this world. The complex calculations of how much of our actions is a function of free will, and how much is due to society, education, and family background — belong to the Creator alone. The knowledge needed in order to understand divine justice in this world is beyond the grasp of all humans — even the master of all prophets, Moses.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. A 162-163. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p.32)