"One who serves [G-d] out of love studies Torah, [performs] the mitzvos
(commandments), and goes in the paths of wisdom not because of any factor in
this world, nor because of fear of the consequences or to receive good.
Rather, he does what is right (lit., 'the truth') because it is right, and
in the end the good will come regardless.
"This is an exceedingly high level; not [even] every wise man achieves it.
This was the high level of our forefather Abraham, whom God called "the one
who loves Me" (Isaiah 41:8), because he served only out of love. This is the
high level G-d commanded us [to aspire to] via our teacher Moses, as it is
stated, 'And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all
your soul and with all your possessions' (Deut. 6:5). And once a person
loves G-d appropriately, he will naturally (lit., 'immediately') perform all
the mitzvos out of love."
In the last class the Rambam discussed the motives a person should have in
serving G-d. He wrote that only a relatively shallow person serves G-d in
order to earn reward or avoid punishment -- even in the next world. Rather,
the true servant of G-d serves out of love -- out of the simple devotion to
fulfill the wishes of his Creator.
Last week I diverged from the Rambam's basic point to introduce a critical
counterpoint. We must serve G-d entirely for His sake -- out of a love for
and devotion to Him rather than for anything we receive in return. This is
true, but if we would not at least *know* that G-d rewards us in kind, it
would all be for naught. As my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig explains, doing for
another when the other does not do for me in return is no relationship. It
is self-sacrifice. If we would not be aware of the fact that G-d *does*
reward us, our service would not be a building of a relationship with G-d --
which we will fully enjoy in the World to Come. It would be a pathetic,
slavish obedience to an uncaring Deity. Subjugate yourself -- crush yourself
-- before G-d's will just because He said so. And much as in an unhealthy,
unrequited human relationship, such self-sacrifice would neither build us as
people nor increase our closeness to G-d.
Thus, although we must not serve G-d *because of* the reward, it is
critically important that we know that G-d *does* reward. Only with that
underlying foundation can our love-relationship with G-d even begin.
Looking now at this week's law, this principle relates to the Rambam's text
in two important ways. The Rambam writes that one should serve G-d out of
the strong sense of commitment that it is the right thing to do. And, adds
the Rambam, "in the end the good will come regardless." This is as we wrote
-- and in fact employs almost the exact language of the Talmud and Midrash
we cited last week. No matter how noble and lofty your intentions are in
serving G-d, you had better know that He will reward you -- big time.
Otherwise, a two-way relationship could never happen.
The Rambam concludes that this level is exceedingly difficult to achieve;
even greats fail to reach it. This is in part because serving another --
even G-d -- so selflessly is daunting. But it is also because of the dilemma
we discussed last time. If we *do* know -- as we must -- that G-d rewards
us, it is very difficult to utterly remove that awareness from our
consciousness. Closeness to G-d in the World to Come is our souls' greatest
desire. How can we be told that the reward for keeping the mitzvos
(commandments) will be all we could possibly dream of -- and then forget it
all when we serve G-d? Thus, for the vast majority of it -- unless we're so
completely overwhelmed with love of G-d that we can think of nothing else --
it's almost not possible to serve G-d entirely for His sake.
This is likewise why the Rambam writes this week that serving G-d out of
love requires an extremely strong sense of doing what's right because it is
right. It requires a very strong ability to control our emotions --
following truth because it's truth, and not for any other reason in existence.
The Rambam points to Abraham as the quintessential example of a man who
served G-d out of love. Scripture itself ascribes to Abraham the accolade
"My beloved." Abraham loved G-d and G-d loved him.
Now if we would venture why Abraham deserved such a distinguished honorific,
no doubt one act would come to mind -- the binding of Isaac. We can imagine
no greater act of love and devotion to G-d than that Abraham was willing to
sacrifice his own son because of G-d's command. Abraham's love for G-d was
greater than his instinctive love for his own son; he was willing to part
with his entire future simply because G-d told him so.
But as a matter of fact, what I just wrote is completely false (though it
probably had you all going...). And it will give us an important insight
into the true meaning of love when we examine just why.
At the end of the story of the binding, after Abraham successfully passes
his challenge, G-d sends His angel to Abraham to tell him, "...for now I
know that you are one who *fears* G-d" (Genesis 22:12). The binding of Isaac
was a test of Abraham's fear of G-d, not his love. What is the difference?
We will define more fully what love of G-d means in coming weeks, but I will
start with the following simple definition. We love a person (or G-d) when
we like and admire everything we get to know about him. Love is built on
common feelings and values -- when we can relate to the other's sentiments
and emotions. They are our type: they share our feelings, emotions and
(Note that I'm describing love in a more platonic sense. In male-female
relationships, some of the same emotions are at play but with a powerful
complementary aspect. But beyond our scope -- and also something I've never
quite figured out...)
Abraham, initially through his intellect but ultimately through personal
experience, discovered a perfect G-d -- one who was merciful, caring,
exacting but entirely fair in judgment, and who created the world as a
complete act of kindness. G-d naturally possesses all of the perfect
qualities imaginable to man. Everything Abraham was able to discover about
G-d he loved. G-d's inner qualities are perfect. His governance of the world
are an ideal mixture of justice and forbearance, specially geared to enable
man to discover G-d without being overwhelmed by Him.
As Abraham came to discover and know G-d, his love and admiration for Him
only grew. What was not to love? G-d's essence and His laws are absolute
perfection. Abraham felt an inner yearning to know and draw closer to this
Being of ultimate sublimity.
But then came the Binding of Isaac -- which turned everything Abraham knew
about G-d on its head. G-d commanded Abraham to do an act which ran contrary
to everything Abraham understood -- and had been preaching to the world --
about G-d. "Do a cruel and senseless act -- simply because I said so. No
caring G-d who values human life above all. No merciful G-d who abhors human
sacrifice, who wants man to *live* for Him rather than die for Him. And in
fact, ruin your entire career of teaching mankind about G-d. Instead of the
loving G-d you have been preaching to mankind, I want you, the very
preacher, to perform the most abhorrent, despicable act of moral debasement
before me -- to serve Me as an angry god demanding human sacrifice -- just
because I commanded it."
This was not a G-d man could love. Man could crush himself and slavishly
follow such a G-d. But he could not love Him. If religion means demoralizing
self-effacement -- "Crush yourself before Me and obey My every wish" -- man
could perhaps do that for his G-d. But that was not a G-d man could love.
But it was all a test. And Abraham passed.
In truth, such was not the G-d of Israel. He does not desire human sacrifice
nor that man perform senseless, destructive acts just because He said so.
But Abraham, in passing his test, demonstrated a willingness to follow G-d
under all circumstances. We do not serve G-d only because His commandments
make sense to us or their observance makes us feel good. We do so from a
sense that He is our Master and we must obey Him no matter what. We are His
slaves, created by Him only in order that we serve Him in the manner He
wishes. We may love Him in all His perfection and as a child loves his
parent, but we also fear Him as a slave fears his master.
At the start of the story of the binding, G-d says to Abraham "*Please* take
your son" (Genesis 22:2). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b) explains the "please"
as G-d urging Abraham to pass this final of his ten tests (see Pirkei Avos
5:4 -- http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter5-4.html), for if
not, the first nine would be meaningless. Why would they be "meaningless"?
Isn't receiving a final grade of 90 pretty good?
The answer is that up until now Abraham had demonstrated only his love of
G-d. His trials were difficult, but none of them changed his basic
understanding of who G-d is. And passing tests because of love only goes so
far. I love and am devoted to G-d -- and so I will do difficult acts for
Him. But say my love wanes -- as love always does -- or I am asked to
perform acts which I don't feel demonstrate my love? Is my dedication to G-d
unwavering, or does it depend on what makes sense or feels good to me?
Abraham, in passing his final challenge, showed his undivided devotion to
G-d. Neither this trial nor the first nine were passed out of love: because
serving G-d made Abraham feel good about himself or they were just agreeable
to his personality. Such service ultimately stems from the doer -- *I* love
G-d and cleaving to my perfect Creator is my ultimate pleasure. They may
even be seen as sensible, understandable acts once one gets to know G-d in
all His greatness. But more fundamentally, they are *my* acts of devotion,
not true acts of submission.
Rather, Abraham -- with all of his love, served G-d out of a total obedience
-- out of fear. He submitted to G-d whether it made any sense to him or not
-- not because he saw in G-d perfect wisdom and commandments, but simply --
or not so simply -- because G-d said so. And when we think about it, one
without the other is meaningless. Love is wonderful but it stems from myself
and does not carry with it the total, unquestioning obedience we must have
for our Master. Conversely, fear is necessary but does not engender the
love-relationship we must ultimately have with our Creator. Beneath it all
Abraham feared G-d. And because of that he was able to love Him as well.