[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: If you have studied much in the Torah much reward will be given you, for faithful is your employer who shall pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come. (m.Avot 2:21)
Sometimes we may wonder how our sages derive teachings such as this. Where do concepts like these stem from? Are they made up out of thin air or do they have some root in the Scriptures. First, the Scriptures are filled with the principle of reward and punishment. The righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will suffer punishment. In our present case the principle of reward is connected to the study of Torah. This may be derived from the proverb that states, “Whoever despises the word brings destruction on himself, but he who reveres the word will be rewarded” (Proverbs 13:13). According to this passage, a person who reveres the Word—i.e. the Scriptures—will be rewarded. Therefore, to labor over the words of Torah is a means by which a person reverences the sacred text. The theme of labor and reward is also a frequent theme of the Apostolic Scriptures. Hebrews 11:6 says that God “rewards those who seek him.” Yeshua often speaks in terms of reward for the faithfulness of his disciples.
In Matthew 20, Yeshua tells the Parable of the Day Laborers. In this parable the owner of the vineyard hires day laborers at different points throughout the day, presumably to help with the harvest. At the end of the day he begins paying the laborers in the reverse order of their hiring. But rather paying out varying wages based on how long they had labored, they all receive an equal salary. As soon as he finishes, the ones who had worked the longest began to grumble that the ones who had only worked a few hours had received payment equal to their own. The vineyard owner reminds them that he had hired them at a set wage and if he paid everyone equally it was not because he was miserly, but because he wanted to be generous to those who only worked a few hours.
In this parable, the characters are day laborers in a vineyard. However, Yeshua did not intend for his teaching to be applied to manual labor. He was speaking of the reward of the righteous in the world to come, just as Rabbi Tarfon. He introduced the parable in classic form by saying, “For the kingdom of heaven is like …” (Matthew 20:1). And his conclusion was simply, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). In other words, in the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven things are not how we may expect. Yes, rewards will be paid out, but most likely in a manner which will not be immediately understood. The reward of the righteous who labor over the words of Torah may be a little different than we expect also.
In a commentary on Genesis 1:4 Rashi speaks about the first light of Creation that existed before Hashem created the luminaries and hung them in the heavens. When this light was spoken into existence and Hashem beheld its goodness He immediately separated it from the darkness. Rashi explains this by saying:
He saw that the wicked were unworthy of using it (the light); He, therefore, set it apart (ויבדל), reserving it for the righteous in the world to come.
Rashi bases his comments on the midrash. According to two separate midrashim, this is indeed what happened to the Light of Creation:
When he [God] saw the wicked [who would live in the future], whose deeds are rotten, he stood and hid it, as it is said, “And from the wicked ones the light is withheld” (Job 38:15). And for whom was it hidden? For the righteous in the World to Come, as it is said, “And God saw the light that it was good” (Genesis 1:4). And there is no good other than the righteous, as it is said, “Say of the righteous, that they are good” (Isaiah 3:10), and it is written, “Light is sown for the righteous” (Psalms 97:11). (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 4:4)
Then where is it [the light of Creation]? It is stored up for the righteous in the Messianic future, as it says (Isaiah 30:26), “Moreover the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of the seven days.” (Genesis Rabbah 3:6)
The nature of the righteous is to study and apply the words of Torah, and the reward for the righteous—those who labor diligently over the Holy Writ—will be paid to them in the world to come. Will that reward be the bestowal of the Hidden Light of Creation stowed away since the beginning of time? We will never know until that day is upon us. But in the meantime we will toil over the words of Torah, praying that Hashem would make a new light shine upon Zion and that we all may soon be worthy of its light.