Perhaps the greatest theological quandary is "רשע וטוב לו", that wicked people have it good in this world. Why does God allow them to live long and prosper?
There are several reasons for this:
1. God is rewarding the person in this world for his few merits so he will have none remaining after his passing. Since all the pleasures of this world are not worth one moment of reward in the next world, his reward in this world is actually a curse.
2. God is using them as a rod of punishment. He brings heavenly judgment on the world through wicked people, after which He punishes them for their wickedness.
3. If wicked people were zapped with lightning the instant they sinned, there would no longer be free choice, and one's service of God would lose all meaning. When we see wicked people seeming to profit from their crimes, the righteous being oppressed, and we still choose to serve God, we have made a choice that really means something.
Of course, it is impossible to know the depth of God's judgment; even Moshe Rabbeinu and the angels themselves were troubled by the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. Ultimately we can only keep these general principles in mind and have faith that God's ways are perfect.
That said, I'd like to offer a small twist to this age-old discussion.
The wicked don't have it good in this world, either.
Chapter 15 of Iyov describes the life of the wicked – not what you see on the outside, but what their life is really like:
All the days of the wicked he lives in terror, and the number of years that are hidden for the oppressor. Frightening sounds are in his ears, that in a time of peace a plunderer will come upon him. He does not believe that he will return from darkness, and he is visible [destined] to the sword. (Verses 20-22)
Imagine the life of a Mafia boss or a world leader (but I repeat myself). On the outside they appear supremely confident, secure, untouchable. They do whatever they want and enjoy the best of everything. They are admired by many and feared by everyone else. As much as the average person loathes the people on top, they envy them. They wish they could trade places with them.
The book of Iyov teaches that it's all a facade. They are actually miserable, terrified people. They surround themselves with security at all times because they wouldn't last a day without it. They can't trust anyone, even those closest to them – especially those closest to them.
Their underlings resent them and want to take their place. Their confidantes and associates know too much. Even their security people can be infiltrated or turn against them. Everyone is jealous of them, or bears a grudge, or would turn on them to save themselves. Almost no one would be sorry to see them go.
Honestly, who really loves any of these people?
Even if they manage to keep their enemies at bay, they know deep down that, eventually, they will have to face God. This torments them beneath their smiles and pressed suits. They know they can't evade the sword forever.
We tend to think the lives of the rich and powerful are more expansive, but they are actually quite constrained. Yes, they hobnob with other rich and powerful people, but those are the only people they can hobnob with – a tiny sliver of the population, who happen to be their rivals.
The higher they rise, the greater their fear. They know how vulnerable they are, to justice finally catching up with them, or betrayal, or their dark secrets being exposed, or the oppressed masses rising up all together. They know it can all come crashing down at any moment. Their escape islands and underground bunkers give them little comfort.
Their lives are a first-class hell. Not only shouldn't we envy their lot in the next world, we shouldn't envy their lot in this world.
This lesson from Iyov is not just a philosophical insight; it has actual ramifications in Jewish law. Consider the following Gemara from Yerushalmi Sheviis 27B:
המשעבד שדה לחבירו והלך ומכרה ר' אחא אמר מכורה לשעה ר' יוסי אמר אינו מכורה לשעה חיילי דר' יוסי מן הדא שורו מצוי הוא להבריח שדה אינו מצוי להבריחה הגע עצמך שהיתה מכורה לבעלי זרוע אמר ר' יודן אבוי דר' מתנייה מצויין הן בעלי זרוע ליפול
If one subjugates a field to his fellow [allows him to place a lien on it] then goes and sells it: Rabbi Acha says it is sold for the time being. Rabbi Yossi says it is not sold for the time being. Rabbi Yossi brings a proof from the following: one can readily chase away his ox [to prevent a creditor from seizing it] but one cannot readily chase away a field. [Therefore, he can sell the rights to work an ox that has a lien on it, but not a field.]
[The Gemara challenges this proof.] Consider for yourself, that [the field] was sold to powerful people. [In such a case, the owner could also “chase it away” from the creditor, since he would be unable to seize it. Thus, the creditor would give up hope, and the owner should be able to sell it in the interim and keep the profit.]
Said Rabbi Yudan the father of Rabbi Matanya, powerful people are ready to fall. [Since they can readily fall at any time, the creditor does not give up hope of seizing the field, and therefore the owner cannot sell it for the time being, according to Rabbi Yossi.]
Incredible! Jewish law takes it for granted that even the most powerful people are ready to fall at any time, and it is normal to anticipate this.
Oh, how I anticipate it.