Pirke Avot 2:7

He saw a skull floating on the water.  He said to it:

“Because you drowned others – they drowned you; and eventually those who drowned you will be drowned.”

This is a rather graphic way of expressing something we have all heard often – “what goes around comes around”.  Or  “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.”

The presumption behind the rabbi’s saying is this: had the person been good, reputable and responsible his family and community would have buried him with tender care.  This person was tossed into the river and no one went to his rescue, none brought out his body in respect for him.

In ancient times the thought was that everything that happened was at the direction of God.  Around 600 B.C. the people of Israel had been treating the poor badly and were tolerating idol worship.  In punishment God brought in the Babylonians who conquered Israel and carried them into captivity.  The Babylonians were used as God’s instrument to punish God’s people – but that does not  mean that they were not subject to punishment for their deed!  50 years later the Persians, under Cyrus, conquered the Babylonians and set the Israelites free.

The heart of the expression, then, is confidence in the goodness and justice of God who will reward those who are good and do good, and punish those who are evil and do evil.  Perhaps in this life, perhaps not until the next life.

How do we see this wisdom operating in our own lives, in these days and times?  At least a primitive form of retributive justice comes this way – those who steal from others to amass possessions often spend a lot of time and worry trying to protect what he or she has stolen from other thieves!  (Whether it’s stuff taken in burglaries or money taken in through stock manipulation or real estate scams.)  Those who bully others fear running into the bigger bully.  There is always another out there who is bigger, stronger, craftier etc. – and the one who commits crimes and appears to be profiting from them cannot go to the police or appeal for justice in the community!

In many ways we can also see that those who commit crimes are punished more subtly.  Each crime / sin changes us as people and diminishes us, isolates us, and burdens us.  There is no need for God to keep a record of what we have done for we become that record!