v 6.20.00
20 Mar 2021
updated 20 Mar 2021

Life's Not Fair

To the riddle "What isn't right, and isn't fair?" there are two standard answers – the first, entirely non-PC these days, is "A Hottentot's left ear". The second is simply "Life".

A common source of upset to the young and inexperienced, and indeed to the older Deep Thinkers who see it as evidence that there isn't a destiny that shapes our ends, rewards our virtues and kindly acts, and punishes our vices and misdeeds.

Deeper thinkers still, think that there is, and that it ameliorates the worst things that might have happened, although moderating the good things as well. But when really bad things do happen, that's not a comfort, as we all know.

I believe the OT Book of Job tackles this problem head-on, but meanwhile there are intermediate viewpoints to consider.


(I've ruthlessly edited this retelling of an old Jewish parable to give it – in my opinion – much greater forcefulness. I can't remember when I first heard the original story, in more or less this form, but its moral has remained with me ever since.)

The Rabbi and the Prophet Elijah

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi fasted and prayed to God that he might be permitted to gaze upon the prophet Elijah who had ascended into heaven. God granted his prayer, and Elijah appeared before him.

The two of them journeyed through the world together. They approached the house of a poor man, whose only possession and means of support was a cow. As they came near, the old man and his wife hastened to meet them, begged them to come into their house, eat and drink of the best they had, and to pass the night under their roof. This they did, and they received every kindness from their elderly hosts. But in the morning they were awoken by great lamentations from the old couple, whose cow had died during the night.

The travellers expressed their sympathies and continued on their way.

Towards evening they arrived at a large and imposing mansion, the residence of an arrogant and wealthy man. They were coldly received; a piece of bread and a cup of water were placed before them. In the morning Elijah saw that a wall of the house had just collapsed and he immediately prayed for it to be restored by God.

Rabbi Joshua could resist his curiosity no longer. "Tell me," he said to Elijah, "tell me the meaning of all these actions which I have witnessed. Those who have treated us coldly God has treated generously; those who have been hospitable to us have been treated harshly. Please explain to me the meaning of God's actions."

Elijah replied: "We first entered the house of the poor man who treated us so kindly. But it had been decreed that on that very day his wife should die. I prayed to the Lord that the cow might die instead. God granted my prayers, and the woman was saved. The rich man, whom we visited next, treated us coldly and I rebuilt his wall. For had he rebuilt it himself he would have discovered a treasure which lies underneath. Now, if you see the wicked prospering, be not envious; if you see the righteous in poverty and trouble, be not doubtful of God's justice."

With these words Elijah disappeared, and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was left alone.

Well, would you believe, I have in fact now recalled my original source – a very similar narrative and moral, but in a completely different context – the education of the young King Arthur (aka The Wart, Rex Quondam Rex Futurisque) by his mentor, the aged – but juvenescing – Welsh wizard, Merlyn. The primal myth of Arthur bites very deep into the English (ie Celtic Christian, as per William Blake's Jerusalem) psyche and you mess with it at your peril...

T H White, The Once and Future King, Chapter IX; Collins, Apr 1958, pp 84-85 [this is an extraordinary book, a tetralogy in fact, though briefer in total than The Lord of the Rings, and I think it's better]

... Merlyn had finished his breakfast, and was puffing at the meerschaum pipe which made his pupil believe that he breathed fire. Now he took a deep puff, looked at the Wart, opened his mouth to speak, changed his mind, blew out the smoke and drew another lungful.

"Sometimes," he said, "life does seem to be unfair. Do you know the story of Elijah and the Rabbi Jachanan?"

"No," said the Wart.

He sat down resignedly upon the most comfortable part of the floor, perceiving that he was in for something like the parable of the looking-glass.

"This rabbi," said Merlyn, "went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. They walked all day, and at nightfall they came to the humble cottage of a poor man, whose only treasure was a cow. The poor man ran out of his cottage, and his wife ran too, to welcome the strangers for the night and to offer them all the simple hospitality which they were able to give in straitened circumstances. Elijah and the Rabbi were entertained with plenty of the cow's milk, sustained by home-made bread and butter, and they were put to sleep in the best bed while their kindly hosts lay down before the kitchen fire. But in the morning the poor man's cow was dead."

"Go on."

"They walked all the next day, and came that evening to the house of a very wealthy merchant, whose hospitality they craved. The merchant was cold and proud and rich, and all that he would do for the prophet and his companion was to lodge them in a cowshed and feed them on bread and water. In the morning, however, Elijah thanked him very much for what he had done, and sent for a mason to repair one of his walls, which happened to be falling down, as a return for his kindness.

"The Rabbi Jachanan, unable to keep silence any longer, begged the holy man to explain the meaning of his dealings with human beings.

"'In regard to the poor man who received us so hospitably,' replied the prophet, 'it was decreed that his wife was to die that night, but in reward for his goodness God took the cow instead of his wife. I repaired the wall of the rich miser because a chest of gold was concealed near the place, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself he would have discovered the treasure. Say not therefore to the Lord: What doest thou? But say in thy heart: Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?'"

"It is a nice sort of story," said the Wart, because it seemed to be over....