To the casual reader, this statement by the talmudic sage Rava seems to dismiss skill and effort in the face of fortune. Why bother with exercise and diet when your genetics might kill you anyway? It’s a troubling conclusion but, fortunately, it’s not what Rava is saying. “Merit,” here, really means “religious virtue.” Rava continues with a story about two rabbis — both men of such great merit that their prayers brought rain to end a drought. And yet, one of the rabbis lived to the extraordinary age of 92, while the other died at 40.
Rava’s teaching affirms the value of prayer for the welfare of the community while discouraging reliance on prayer to effect indirect change in our personal lives. He also dispels the dangerous notion that personal fortune indicates moral character. Rava’s perspective is similar to that of an anonymous voice in a different talmudic passage. (Kiddushin 39b) In that passage, a father asks his son to climb up a tree to a bird’s nest, send away the mother bird, and take her eggs. Though the Torah promises long life for honoring parents (Exodus 20:11) and for sending away a mother bird (Deuteronomy 22:6), this boy falls from the ladder and dies. Our anonymous scholar concludes that the ladder must have been unstable. The boy did not deserve to die, but you can’t count on miracles, so don’t climb rickety ladders!