Virtue Is Its Own Reward – Mattot-Massei 5780

D'var Torah | Numbers

The extraordinary outcome of the war against the Midianites was not the victory of the relatively few over the many but the fact that there were no Israelite casualties! As the commanders of Israelite forces relate: “not one of us was missing” (Numbers 31:49). Eleventh century Spanish commentator Bahya ibn Pakuda notes that this was remarkable. In fact, the startling revelation of the narrative can only suggest that it was a “great miracle.” Rabbenu Bahya ends his observation with an explanation: “because they were full of merit.”


On Rabbenu Bahya’s view, miracles are not what David S. Ariel’s describes as “unpredictable and disproportionate results of the incursion of the transcendent God into the world.” Rather, miracles are eminently predictable and directly proportionate to the virtuousness of the beneficiaries of the miracles. What exactly counted as their virtue, he does not say. And Nahmanides (d. 1277) is only slightly more helpful. He asserts that the qualifications for selection as part of the expeditionary force against Midian were that the chosen Israelites were righteous and well known within their respective tribes (Numbers 31:6). But here again the nature of their “righteousness” is undefined. All that can be said is that their merits earned them special protection that accounts for all returning safely.


Needless to say, this theory of the righteous enjoying divine protection is questionable at best. Throughout Jewish history enmity and persecution directed at Jews was indiscriminate. Rabbis, scholars, benefactors of communities were no less likely to suffer from persecution, depredation, and death than others. And, of course, the same can be said about victims of the Sho’ah. In fact, within their own lifetimes both Bahya and Nahmanides were witnesses to the suffering of the righteous either as victims of a resurgent, fundamentalist Islam or as victims of Disputations. It seems that their bold assertions fly in the face of their own experience.


One way to resolve the difficulty is to understand the linkage of righteousness with God’s protection is not to see it as a guarantee but as an aspiration. Living a virtuous life may or may not earn God’s protection but even so makes one worthy of God’s protection. Or, to put it somewhat differently, the reward of virtue is virtue.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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