"Shluchey Mitzva Ayn Nizukin"
(Emissaries of Mitzvah are not Harmed)
Moshe Ben-Chaim
There are a few gemaras which deal with Rabbi Eliezer's principle: "An emissary of a commandment cannot be harmed." (Pesachim 8, Kiddushin 39, Yuma 11)
What type of statement is this? Is Rabbi Eliezer teaching that there are protective forces guarding one who is enacting a command, unconditionally shielding him from any evil which might normally befall him? This clearly cannot be the case, as Rabbi Eliezer continues further, "In a place which is known for danger (i.e., on a ladder or in a town with marauders) this principle will not apply."
The Talmud cites one case where someone was checking mezuzos - a mitzvah - and he was robbed of a large sum of money. Another case was cited that one sent his son to perform the command of sending away the mother bird, and on his descent on the ladder, he fell and died. In both cases, it is stated that in a situation of danger this principle does not apply, hence, tragedy struck.
These two cases show that one who is involved with a command is not guaranteed safety. We must now compare this with the statement that emissaries of commands are in fact "immune to danger".
So, are or aren't emissaries of commandments procured safety?
If we think into the statement, I believe the answer readily shows itself: Rabbi Eliezer said, "emissaries of commands aren't prey to harm". I believe this means that when one is involved in God's commands, (activities which are for man's perfection), there is no negative aspect to the performance of such commands. "Toras Hashem temima", "God's Torah is perfect". Also, "vchol darkeha, darcei noam", "all her ways are pleasant". Rabbi Eliezer is teaching that the act of mitzvah - commandments - are Divinely designed activities which only afford good to the performer. The inherent act is pure from harm, as it is in fact a vehicle for man to raise himself to higher levels of perfection.
While this is true, this is only a statement about the act of mitzva per se. This in no way means that if one gives charity at the mouth of a volcano that he will not be scorched, or killed. Rabbi Eliezer's statement is addressing the act of the command itself, and nothing else. This is why the gemara says that in a place where danger is readily found, meaning external circumstances, mitzvah has no bearing on such normal phenomena.
We now see two distinct issues: 1) The command itself, that which is truly perfect and has no negative aspect, 2) Phenomena which are external to the act of performing commandments, phenomena which follow natural laws, and affect people whether they are doing mitzvos or not.
To clarify the point, if both the performer of a mitzva and one standing idly by are together at the mouth of a volcano, they will most definitely be scorched equally. True, one doing the commands gains metaphysical perfection by doing so, but it does not shield him from normal, physical phenomena. This is what Rabbi Eliezer meant by, "that in a place which is known for danger this principle will not apply." Meaning, external circumstances have nothing to do with what Rabbi Eliezer addresses.
The gemara in both citations proves the point that in a dangerous places, commands do not shield. It does so by quoting Samuel I, 16:2. After Saul was dethroned for not obeying God's command to slaughter Agag, God instructs Samuel to stop mourning Saul and anoint a new king. Samuel says to God, "Saul will hear this and kill me". God gives Samuel a method for avoiding Saul's onslaught. Interestingly however, although Samuel is now given a Divine directive from God Himself, Samuel nonetheless does not feel he will escape Saul's wrath. Amazing! God Himself tells Samuel to do a commandment, yet Samuel feels he is still under natural law (of Saul's jealousy flaring up and placing Samuel's life in peril). The gemara wishes to teach from this case that commandments are not protective devices - even those commandments uttered by God Himself. Samuel was right, he must not rely on miracles. God as well does not respond to Samuel saying that He will perform some miracle to save him. God's advice is to deal with the situation following natural order. Samuel does not endorse reliance on miracles, and certainly God does not endorse this.
We see from Rabbi Eliezer that the principle derived is much different than on face value. A cursory reading of Rabbi Eliezer's principle lures one into a false belief that mitzvah affords physical protection. But one must continue reading the Rabbi's statement. And when he finishes reading, he must reason that dangerous places do not apply to this principle. We end up with a new understanding of exactly how a mitzvah affords us some good, and the answer is perfect:
In the mitzva itself the good benefits us in two ways:
1) The knowledge our soul gains enhances our perfection.
2) There is moral value inculcated by the performance of the mitzva.
I urge you to read the Radak on the passage in Samuel I, 16:2. I will quote a brief portion here:
"Even though God performs miracles and wonders with His fearers, the majority of time He operates within natural law. And so in accordance with natural law did Jacob fear Esav (he sought to kill Jacob), and David feared Saul if he was anointed king in Saul's lifetime. And he rightfully had to find recourse to tactics so as to save himself. This is also what Samuel asked of God..."
Mitzvah is not a panacea for physical gain, Samuel and David rightfully didn't believe so, and God doesn't teach so.

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