This mishnah presents a very straightforward version of rewards and punishments. Those who perform commandments are rewarded and those who do not are not rewarded. Obviously, this mishnah is expressing an ideal which often does not match reality. The problem of good people not being rewarded, or the problem of an omnipotent God in control of a random and often cruel world is called “theodicy” and was recognized well by the rabbis. There are many other answers in rabbinic literature to the problem of theodicy, including an extreme statement such as “there is no reward in this world.” Our mishnah persists with what I perceive to be a very optimistic outlook. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary the world in which we live is ordered and good. It is a reward in which the righteous receive reward and the wicked are punished.
Another issue worth pointing out, is that the language used here of “merits” is a metaphor. This is the language the rabbis use when they want to talk about how critical it is to perform mitzvoth, and in particular certain mitzvoth. It does not mean that the rabbis had a literal view of this being how the world worked.
The peculiar language of the mishnah “he who does not perform one commandment” is a euphemism for “he who commits one transgression.”
“Days are prolonged” is understood to refer to a long life in this world and “inherit the land” is typically understood to refer to a reward in the world to come.
This well-known baraita states that one receives a reward in this world only for particular mitzvoth, not for every mitzvah, as our mishnah seems to teach.
R. Judah interprets our mishnah so that it teaches not that one mitzvah earns one a long life, but that if one has more merits than sins he earns a long life and the world to come. In other words, any one mitzvah can “put one over the top” in the overall reckoning. Since one does not know how many mitzvoth and transgressions one has performed, the wise course would be to continue to try to perform mitzvoth.
The mitzvoth listed in the baraita must have some sort of special power, for if not, what does this baraita teach us? But, the Talmud asks, is one rewarded with a long life just for performing one of these mitzvoth!
Since that seems absurd, the Talmud interprets the baraita to say that if one’s merits and faults are even and one of these mitzvoth is part of one’s merits, it tips the scales. But alone, these mitzvoth are not that powerful.
Today’s section is a fascinating and important dispute about the view of the mishnah, that when a person does good deeds (mitzvoth) he is rewarded. Is there really a reward, at least in this world, for the performance of mitzvoth?
The baraita quoted here seems absolutely absurd at face value—if one has more merits than sins he is punished severely, and if one has more sins than merits he is rewarded. How can we even begin to make sense out of this utterly strange baraita, especially in light of the Mishnah which offers a much more positive view of the world?
According to Abaye, the Mishnah does not mean that life will always be good for one who does more good things than bad. It means that some days will be good and some days will not. The bad days serve as punishments to cleanse him of his sins.
Rava brings in the view of R. Ya’akov—rewards are reserved for the world to come. In this world, people who perform good deeds can die, as is illustrated by the tragic story of the boy who performs the very two mitzvoth that promises a long life and yet nevertheless dies.
The Talmud tries to find some justice in the world, but is ultimately unsuccessful.
Perhaps such things do not really happen. Nope, this really happened.
Perhaps the person had bad thoughts, and was being punished for them. Nope—God does not punish for bad thoughts.
Perhaps he was thinking about idolatry, and there is a verse in which God seems to say that he will trap (meaning punish) Israel even for thinking about idolatry.
If there was a reward for observing mitzvoth in this world, than at a minimum they should have protected him from thinking about idolatry. So even if this man was thinking about idolatry, his death is still proof that there is no reward in this world.
In general, those going to perform a mitzvah are not injured. However, if there is human negligence involved, meaning the ladder was rickety, then one cannot rely on divine intervention.
Note that this resolution still resolves the notion that the world makes sense—while we cannot rely on a miracle, we might be able to rely on our own abilities to make sure that our ladders are safe. Theoretically, if the ladder had been checked, this damage could have been prevented.
“Aher” which means “the other one” refers to Elisha ben Abuya, the famous rabbi who left rabbinic Judaism to lead a life of sin. According to our sugya, what lead him to sin was the problem of theodicy. He saw good people’s lives ended in tragic death. He did not realize, as R. Ya’akov would have told him, that the reward for leading a good life was waiting for the world to come.
According to the mishnah, one needs to perform a mitzvah to receive a reward, but according to the baraita, all one has to do is not transgress in order to be rewarded.
Simply sitting and not transgressing will not bring one a reward. But if the temptation to transgress arises and one does not transgress, then he will be rewarded.
The rabbi tries to resist sexual temptation by making himself disgusting, but this does not work for the woman magically heals him. He then escapes and spends the night in a bath-house haunted by demons where a miracle is performed for him and he is healed. In the end we learn that it was his resistance of temptation that protected him.
We should note here the interplay of human initiative and divine intervention. The rabbi is protected because he himself resists temptation. But his ability to resist causes him to be strong enough to be immune to the demons lurking in the bath-house.