Punishment vs. Guidance — Explaining Adverse Outcome of Well-intentioned Behavior

(Related podcast: Punishment vs. Guidance — Explaining Adverse Outcome of Well-intentioned Behavior (Podcast) )

“Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” is an age-old mystery that has plagued humankind for millennia. Understanding and contrasting the two principal explanations,  the Punishment and Guidance principles, may be key to better understanding adverse outcome for well-intentioned behavior.

Perhaps the ultimate source to address this issue is the biblical book of Job, not coincidentally attributed to Moses (see following paragraph). Jewish prophets (like Jeremiah) also turned their attention to the seemingly “Lack of Justice” that befalls “good people” and had “grumbled” this sentiment to the Divine. As this year’s Yom Kippur is upon us, I attempt in this post a possible solution, with a simple example. Naturally, the solution offered is not scientific, probably also not entirely original. Yet it is presented in this post as an article of faith that I believe is supported by my life-long personal experience.

Moses, wondering how God leads the world, asks: “I pray Thee show me thy glory” (Exodus 33:18). Part of the detailed response is: “…I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19).

This response is made more explicit in God’s response to King David, after the latter has expressed wish to build a temple. God’s response, via prophet Natan: “..I will raise up your off-spring to succeed you .. He is the one who will build a house for my Name .. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to me who, on perverting his ways, I would reproach with the rod of man and such plagues as befall the sons of Adam” (2 Samuel 7:12-14).

Using “Pervert” as implying walking a twisted path (instead of a straight one) is further pronounced by Job, who uses same Hebrew root (as in the preceding quote): “..I have sinned and perverted that which was straight and it profited me not” (Job 33:27).

Jeremiah, like Job, also cries out to God: “Righteous are Thou, O Lord, that I would plead my case with Thee yet I will reason matters of justice with Thee; Why does the way of the wicked prosper, at ease are all those dealing in treachery?” (Jeremiah 12:1).

For people of faith, who have abandoned the anti-biblical credo that “When randomness reigns all is coincidental”, the ancient quagmire of “Why well-intentioned behavior may lead to adverse outcome” may lead to one of two seemingly mutually-exclusive explanations:

Punishment vs. Guidance.

The Punishment interpretation is, I believe, a disruptive relic from our childhood. For some of us, the punishment/reward belief-system, instilled in us in childhood, has taken hold of our adult perception of reality and how we interpret unexplainable adverse personal experiences (internal, like physical pain or sickness, or external). Via parents and teachers who administer a system of rewards and punishments, we are conditioned in childhood to defend ourselves against harm and seek gratifying experiences. The fundamental moto of childhood education is: “Good things happen to good children” and “Bad things happen to bad children”. This system is active both in the child’s experience of the physical world and of the social world. It is hoped, by agents of education, that the reward/punishment system would instill in the educated child correct patterns of behavior that would spare her/him harmful effects caused by violating “Law-of-Nature” (like falling from a high place), while concurrently leading to appropriate integration into the prevailing social system. Growing up, some grown-up “children” of faith continue to believe that same reward/punishment system reigns supreme in all gray areas of our lives, where we are helpless providing logical explanation for adverse outcomes resulting from well-intentioned decisions and actions. People of faith then tend to resort to irrelevant past decisions or actions, explaining current adverse outcomes as belated Divine Punishment for those past events.

The Guidance principle (“Hashgachah Pratit”) is an alternative explanatory principle. It claims that to understand why “Bad things happen to good people” one should not look to past irrelevant events but rather to the present and occasionally also to the future. What matters is not past decisions and actions but rather the final outcome of the “bad” experience. This outcome is invariably the best explanation for current unpleasant experiences. The road to destiny may not always be straightforward, it might take longer than expected and perhaps even be painful; but it would eventually lead to destiny, embodied by the final outcome. What that outcome is may not always be immediately clear. It may at times require some deep personal investigation and even patience. But once the major outcome is clarified, a sense of relief and perhaps even internal joy may indicate to us that, indeed, guidance is there available to us at all times. If we only properly attune our spiritual and practical antennas to receive the clues..

There are three main reasons for why “Bad things happen to good people”:

[1] Past bad choices that we have made, when straight roads were still open to us and “shouting” clues delivered to us to choose correctly or rightly; Yet we have ignored those clues, chose wrong and “perverted that which was straight”.

[2] Straightforward paths to destination do not exist (irrespective of our past decisions): Occasionally, only twisted ways are available to reach destination. An example for this scenario is given later on.

[3] Divine scheme: This at times requires that what humanly seems humanly-adverse, needs to occur in the grand scheme of things. Yet it remains completely incomprehensible to us:

  • I will be Whoever I will be” (Exodus 3:14)
  • I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” (Exodus 33:19)
  • Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4)

For people of unshaken faith, the Holocaust is first and foremost in what may come to mind.

For those of us who believe that no reward/punishment system is active in the universe, only Guidance, the ultimate principle is this:

Look not into the past for irrelevant choices that you have made. Instead, look into the present, and at times also into the future. Find out what ultimately transpired following “Bad Experience”, what was the major consequence and final outcome. Soon enough, you would learn to realize that this outcome is the best possible explanation. At times, the searched for major outcome may be elusive or lie in the distant future; But ultimately you will find out, to your great surprise, that Guidance is much more prevalent in your life than you ever thought possible.

Is there no punishment at all, according to Scripture? Of course not. Punishment recurs often both in the Torah and in reproaches for un-righteous conduct leveled at the Israelites by the biblical prophets. Yet Punishment is not contradictory to Guidance. Rather, it is a particular mode by which Guidance materializes. Here too an effort is required to search for the final outcome of the “punishment” in order to fully comprehend what the destiny has been in the first place. “Punishment” is realization of Guidance, to be understood merely by observing end-results like improvement in character and in patterns of communicating with others. Prophet Isaiah takes this position to its extreme: “On that day you shall say, I give thanks to three, O Lord, for being angry with me, your anger has turned away and thou does comfort me” (Isaiah 12:1).

Looking back at actual major outcomes of life-events to reveal Guidance in action is clearly indicated in part of God’s response to Moses request: “I pray thee show me thy glory” (Exodus 33:18). God’s response:

“I will make all my goodness pass before thee…Thou cannot see my face for no human being would see my face and lived…I will put thee in a cleft of the rock and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by; and I will take my hand and thou shall see my back but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:19-23).

The principle of “looking back” at what ultimately transpired could not be more clearly pronounced. Pain and sorrow, “Bad things”, are invariably intermediate results preceding the ultimate, final and major outcome delivered by Guidance. And that major outcome is always good.

For several days I have prepared several elaborate examples to Guidance from my own life experience and experiences of others to which I have been witness. I have eventually decided to scrap them all. In current public atmosphere, where agents of public opinion feel that they live, due to recent scientific and technological breakthroughs, in the era of the Tower-of-Babel (“Let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven”; Genesis 11:4), any insinuation of Guidance may be a subject for ridicule. Therefore, I will do with a simple trivial example from my own recent experience. That example may be perceived as an allegory to larger events, as shall be elaborated later on.

An Example: “At last, a parking space”

The following is a real occurrence that I have recently experienced. Some weeks ago, Ruth and I were driving in Haifa towards a certain restaurant. A “bad experience” then unexpectedly happened – I missed a turn. Annoyed and frustrated, I had to drive some extra miles until I was able to return back (to the missed turn). I have finally arrived at the restaurant to find out that there were no available parking spaces around. Worst still, in that area where parking was possible no car-waiting spaces were available at all times. This meant that if a parking space had not become available right upon arrival your chance of finding parking space was extremely slim. We left the place heading home when I had decided to give it another trial. Back near the restaurant, at the exact moment of arrival, a single parking space suddenly became vacant. “Timing is all”. It immediately dawned on me that had the “Bad experience” of missing the turn not occurred, the final major outcome (available parking space exactly on arrival) could not have taken place. An article of faith? Obviously. But to a degree also statistically (evidence) based. To my family and close friends, who have traveled with me in my own car, finding parking space, where none seems possibly available, has become a highly-esteemed “expertise”, particularly given absence of any prior training…

What is the allegory? A long way, possibly loaded with intolerable delays, may at times be required to arrive at the right timing to the desired outcome of Guidance.

The Guidance principle, namely, looking at final results in order to understand the driving force, may well be applied responding to the eternal question:

Why do we live?

To comprehend the purpose of life one needs only look around and learn what has transpired during his/her own life-time. That which one observe is that for which one lives:

Connecting to reality (directly observable or otherwise); Experiencing reality, learning from it and passing on the learned lessons to others; Associating with fellow human-beings and with other living beings, communicating with them and assisting them to fulfill their own life destiny; Loving and being loved;

And to top it all: We are here to constantly make decisions out of free will (available to us whether we are completely free or otherwise).

These, taken together, constitute the ultimate destiny of life: Learn, develop and with the power of love overcome our inherent separated-ness.

3 replies on “Punishment vs. Guidance — Explaining Adverse Outcome of Well-intentioned Behavior”

Great article dear Professor Haim Shore! I enjoyed it very much!
I wanted to add a few notes:
“Back of Go-d” and “Face of Go-d” are terms that look odd in English and have VERY deep understanding via Torah learning. The “Back of…” means that just like when we see a back of a person we do not fully recognize him, we understand it is a person, a man or a women and we might think it is a specific person but in many cases we would be wrong. That is “Back of Go-d” guidance that is not clear to us, yet we can see it and feel it and experience it. Those who get to see “the face of Go-d” means to understand specifically everything to do with how things are happening and more importantly WHY they are happening. There is a degree of this that can be achieved to great righteous people, but it will not be complete as long as limited in our biological body on Earth.

One more note I wanted to say is that there is a very known phrase:
“אָבוֹת אָכְלוּ בֹסֶר וְשִׁנֵּי בָנִים תִּקְהֶינָה”
Which means that sons are punished for the sake of their parents’ sins. While it is true that parents educate or teach their children to behave similarly to them and therefore the sons might end getting the same punishments… There is a “Guidance” law hidden here and not just naturalistic statistical explanation as to the education and teaching effects of parents to their children. This law is explained by no other than the famous Holy Kabbalistic “Haari Hakadosh”, Rabbi Isaac Luria (Be his name glorified in heaven) this way:
A “Son” – “בן” in holy Hebrew means an image of or projection from one form to another. I.E a biological Son is called “Son” or “בן” because he is made in the image of his parents, and he has projections of his parents. HOWEVER, the right definition is wider as you can see and is not limited to biological off springs, it is a general way of saying “image of” or “projection from”, ie that the result has to do with the origin very much, just like Go-d says we are his “Sons” “בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם” – in English it would be something like: ” Ye are the children of the LORD your God”
This does not mean we are children of Go-d… like biological from biological… or from human form to human form what so ever, Go-d has no body, no shape – he is not limited to any specific image he is the boundless and unlimited being.
So, with this in mind, we can now understand easily what the Rabbi meant when he said about “Sons suffer for the sins of the parents” (“אָבוֹת אָכְלוּ בֹסֶר וְשִׁנֵּי בָנִים תִּקְהֶינָה”): A person is a Son to Himself via reincarnation. I.e on previous life he/she conducted their lives and made some sins, the soul, in many cases is being reincarnated to fix those sins, therefore it is living the outcome of the sins from past live/s in order to fix the soul in those areas. The current soul is the son of the parent soul from that past life.

Thank you very much,
Oren Evron


Dear Oren, Thank you for the wise and inspiring comment. I have learned much from it, In particular, I was unaware of Rabbi Isaac Luria interpretation of Father-Son relationship as relating to needed Tikun that will come about by soul incarnation. Very innovative indeed. And blessed be you for your tireless effort to “improve” people’s perception of reality.. Chatimah Tovah, Haim.


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