The gemara (Brachos 7) writes that when Moshe realized it was a sha’as rachamim, he made three requests of Hashem, one of which was that Hashem should explain why “tzadik v’tov lo, tzadik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo, rasha v’ra lo.” Why is it that there are righteous people who have it good and others who suffer; why is it that there are wicked people who have it good and others who suffer?
The gemara quotes a machlokes Tana’im whether Hashem acceded to this request or not. The Tana Kamma holds that Moshe was answered by Hashem. “V’chanosi es asher achon,” (33:19) is the response -- Hashem rewards those who deserve reward. The tzadik who has it good is a tzadik gamur who deserves it; the tzadik who suffers is a tzadik who is not completely up to snuff. The rasha who suffers is a rasha who is completely wicked and deserves punishment; the rasha who has it good is a rasha who is not completely bad.
The Chofetz Chaim (al haTorah) uses a mashal to explain why this is so hard for us to understand. A guest who is visiting a shul notices that the gabai seems to favor one half of the room, choosing most of the people who get aliyos and kibudim from a particular section. After davening the guest goes over to the gabai to complain about the obvious bias that perhaps only he as an outsider sees. “Silly man,” says the gabai, “Had you been here last week you would have seen that the people in the other half of the shul got more aliyos, and so this week I had to balance things out.” If a person can misunderstand a little thing like the distribution of aliyos based on a mistaken inference, kal v’chomer a person cannot hope to understand the workings of schar v’onesh in the universe based on his inferences from a limited sample of 70 years in this world.
R’ Meir disagrees and holds Hashem did not answer Moshe’s question. The pasuk, “V’chanosi es asher achon,” means that Hashem will reward even those who do not deserve it.
R’ Elimelech m’Lizensk, whose yahrzeit was yesterday, explains that the machlokes here is not about how to read the pasuk (see Maharasha) -- even R’ Meir agrees that the pashut pshat is like the Tana Kamma’s reading, that Hashem will reward and favor those who deserve favor and reward. R’ Meir, however, holds that when Hashem gives a tzadik chein, it’s not for the tzadik’s personal benefit alone. A tzadik is a conduit to bring bracha into the world; there is a trickle down effect. By rewarding the tzadik, Hashem ends up bringing bracha even to those who don’t deserve it on their own merits. The net result is that everyone benefits. (You can make the connection to R’ Elimelech himself and understand why I quote this torah in particular on his yahrzeit.)
Now that we’ve seen the gemara’s answer, let’s go back and take a better look at the question. Moshe’s seems to raising the classic question of theodicy – why do the righteous suffer and the wicker prosper? But if that alone was what troubled him, then the gemara should refer only to “tzadik v’ra lo… rasha v’tov lo.” Why does the gemara include in the question “tzadik v’tov lo… rasha v’ra lo,” the fact that there are righteous people who get their reward and wicked who suffer? This is as things should be – there is no mystery about that part of the equation, is there?
The Mahari”l Diskin reminds us that there is another gemara (Moed Katan 28) that “banei, chayei, u’mezonei lav b’zechusa talya elah b’mazla.” There is a power to what the gemara calls “mazal,” what we might call genetic makeup, personality, environment. These form the frame or context within which a person receives his schar v’onesh. A poor person might be blessed and move up to the middle class; the second string player may find himself in the starting lineup; however, it’s extremely unlikely that the pauper will suddenly become a millionaire, or that a person who is 5’ 2” will suddenly be drafted by the NBA. That’s what bothered Moshe. Rare though it may be, there are cases that are the exceptions to the rule. There are poor people who suddenly become rich overnight and players like Moggsy Bogues who make it big despite a lack of height. There are tzadikim who receive reward that completely defies the norms of nature – and then there are the vast majority who do not. Moshe was as mystified by the phenomenon of “tzadik v’tov lo” despite the effects of mazal as he was at there being a “tzadik v’ra lo.” How does the system work?
The gemara answers that we have to distinguish between the “tzadik gamur” and the “tzadik she’aino gamur.” The tzadik gamur who is completely righteous rises above his natural proclivities, and is in turn rewarded outside the normal teva/mazal boundaries (genetic, socio-economic, etc.) of nature. A tzadik who does good to the extent his natural talents allow for but does not push the envelope in turn is rewarded only to the degree that mazal allows. (The inverse holds true for the rasha.)
There seems, however, to be an exception to the rule that does not fit the gemara’s answer. Hashem promises, “B’chanuni nah b’zos,” (Malachi 3:10) that we can test him in one area: if a person gives tzedaka, Hashem promises to reward the person with wealth, “V’harikosei lachem b’racha ad b’li dai.” The Navi tells us that if you give tzedaka, you can max out the credit card, because the lottery or the dividend check or the tax refund is guaranteed. But what about mazal? If you have no head for business, if your investments fail, if your job never pays a bonus, how can you expect the supernatural to happen in defiance of your nature just because you gave tzedaka? Isn’t it only for the tzadik gamur who is a oveid Hashem in a superlative way that superlative things happen for?
The Mahari”l Diskin answers by quoting a Rambam in Shmoneh Perakim. Chazal tell us that a person should not say, for example, that pork is repulsive, but rather should say that it probably tastes good, just we can’t eat it. When you see the advertisement for a Big Mac, there is nothing wrong with your mouth watering – you just have to stop yourself from eating it. The Rambam adds a caveat: this rule is true only when speaking about mitzvos that defy rational explanation. However, when we are speaking about immoral behavior, the whole point of the mitzvah is to feel repulsion. A person should not walk around wanting to steal or murder but say that he can’t do it because the mitzvah prevents him – a moral, decent person does not feel the desire to begin with.
With this in mind we can explain why the reward for tzedaka is guaranteed. When it comes to mitzvos like kashrus, where the normal, expected reaction is to have a desire for that Big Mac, the reward is for going beyond what is normal and avoiding giving in to temptation. The tzadik gamur merits a reward outside the constraints of mazal because his actions are outside what is "normal" human behavior. However, when it comes to mitzvos like tzedaka, the behavior the Torah expects is the norm of how a decent person should act. Therefore, the reward too is built into the teva and is accessible to everyone.
The gemara is amazingly meduyak when it tells is that someone who gives tzedaka even for an ulterior motive, "al menas she'yichyeh b'ni," is considered a "tzadik gamur" (Pesachim 10). Just as the tzadik gamur receives reward that transcends mazal, in the case of tzedaka a normal person acting for his own benefit can still reap that same reward.