The Wisdom of Israel, by Edwin Collins, , at sacred-texts.com
What is the difference between the death of the aged and the death of the young?
Rabbi Judah says:—"When a lamp goes out of itself, it is good for the lamp and good for the wick, for the lamp is not broken and the wick does not form coal; but when men extinguish it, it is bad for the lamp, and bad for the wick."
Rabbi Abahu said:—"When you pluck figs at their proper season, it is good for the figs, and good for the fig-tree. But if figs be gathered before their time, it is bad for the figs and bad for the fig-tree."
Then why do we often see the righteous die young?
A story told of Rabbi Chiya bar Aba and his disciples, and according to others of Rabbi Akiba and his disciples, and of Rabbi Joshuah, and also of Rabbi Josi ben Chalafta and his disciples, explains this, by a parable.
It was their custom to rise early in the morning, and to sit and teach under a certain fig-tree. And the owner of the fig-tree used to rise early and gather the figs. The scholars thought that they were suspected, and that the figs were gathered early lest the Rabbi and his disciples might eat some of them. What did they? They changed their place of meeting.
Then the owner of the fig-tree went after them, and when he found them he said:
"My masters, You were wont to confer a Mitzvah * upon me. You used to show me
honour, and give me a share in your reward for the study of God's word, and give me the privilege of contributing my share to your deeds of piety, by coming and studying under my fig-tree. Will you now rob me of this privilege, this honour, this religious duty; and so make void all your former kindness? Why have you changed your meeting place?"
Then they told him that they thought perhaps he suspected they might eat some of the figs, because he always rose so early in the morning to gather them.
"God forbid," exclaimed the owner of the fig-tree; "I rise early to gather the figs because, if the sun shines brightly upon them, they breed worms."
So he persuaded them to return and study under his fig-tree. That morning he did not gather the figs, and the sun shone on the fig-tree, and the ripe fruit bred worms, and was no longer fit to gather.
Then said the Rabbi and his students:
"The master of the fig-tree knows the season of each fig, and when it ought to be gathered, and gathers it. Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, knows the season of the righteous, and when it is best to remove them from this. world."
19:* Mitzvah, from tzivah, to command, to permit (comp. Æthiopic use of the root), is quite untranslatable by any single word, in the sense in which it is here used, and in which it is commonly used by modern Jews. Mitzvah means here something commanded by God, or sanctioned by tradition and religious practice, which it is an honour and a pleasure to do; something that benefits the doer by giving him an opportunity for holiness; some ethical or ceremonial activity pleasing to God, or imparting a proud sense of self-satisfaction to the doer. Thus a rich man will thank a beggar for the Mitzvah of giving the latter a Sabbath meal; and, when the Warden of a Synagogue calls on a congregant to carry the Bible up to the reading desk, this is "conferring a Mitzvah on him."