"The early Sages said: Perhaps you will say, 'Behold, I will study Torah
so that I will become rich, so that I will be called 'rabbi', or so that I
will receive reward in the Word to Come.' The Torah comes to teach us, '[If
you surely listen to My commandments...] to love G-d" (Deuteronomy 11:13).
Whatever you do, only do out of love. The Sages further said, '[Fortunate is
the man who fears G-d;] His mitzvos (commandments) he desires greatly'
(Psalms 112:1). [The Sages note that the verse states] 'His mitzvos' and not
'the reward of His mitzvos' (meaning, one should love G-d's commandments
themselves, not the reward he receives for observing them).
"So too would the greatest sages privately instruct their most understanding
and perceptive students: Do not be as servants who serve the Master in order
to receive good. Rather, be as servants who serve the Master not for the
sake of receiving anything (Pirkei Avos 1:3;
http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter1-3.html.) Rather, [simply]
because He is the Master it is appropriate to serve Him. This means to say,
serve Him out of love."
This week's law is a clear continuation of the theme of this chapter. The
Rambam has been discussing the motives we should have in serving G-d. We
must ideally serve Him for no other reason than love -- so consuming a love
that we can think of nothing else -- not even the reward we know He will
give us in return.
In this law the Rambam elaborates further, paraphrasing several statements
of the Sages on the matter. We must not serve G-d to enhance our own
standing in this world or in the next, in fact not for any other motive than
Although this week's law reads perfectly well, it actually contains some
surprising redundancies. In Law 1
(http://www.torah.org/learning/mlife/LOR10-1.html) the Rambam made the same
basic point, but in a totally different manner. He stated that only a
hopelessly shallow person serves G-d in order to receive reward or avoid
punishment. This is how we motivate children and ignoramuses to behave --
until they gain a little more understanding. We should not serve G-d because
we're looking out for number one, as a self-preservation mechanism. Judaism
teaches us that life is about building a relationship with G-d, about caring
for Someone outside of ourselves. We serve G-d because we want to please
*Him* -- not to please ourselves.
In this law, by contrast, the Rambam seems to seriously entertain that such
motives aren't all that bad. As he paraphrases from the Talmud (Nedarim
62a): "Perhaps you will say, 'Behold, I will study Torah so that I will
become rich..." Although the Rambam warns us not to, he certainly seems to
have conceded that one might have rightly thought so.
Even more striking is the second half of the Rambam, in which he states that
leading sages privately told their most astute students to serve G-d not for
reward. Clearly, serving G-d for reward is not relegated to the ignorant. It
is acceptable for the vast majority of us. Only the wisest and most
perceptive student can strive to serve G-d for higher motives.
In fact, as we discussed in Pirkei Avos (1:3;
http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter1-3.html), this teaching
was so esoteric that it was misunderstood altogether by two students, who
resultantly broke from tradition to found breakaway religious sects. If so,
once again, is serving G-d for ulterior motives understandable for almost
all of us or is it the realm of the unlearned?
I believe the answer to this lies along the lines of what we discussed in
Law 1 of this chapter (http://www.torah.org/learning/mlife/LOR10-1.html).
Although we are not supposed to serve G-d *for* the reward, it is very
important that we be aware that G-d *does* reward us. (In fact, the Talmud
we just quoted, which said not to serve G-d for ulterior motives, concluded
"and in the end the honor will come.") Why is this? Because if we would
really imagine that there *is* no reward for our good deeds, it would not be
possible to develop a relationship with G-d. Relationships by definition are
two-way. If I am doing for G-d and I know He will reward me in kind, my
service of Him strengthens my connection to Him. We are both doing for one
another in symbiotic relationship (if such could be said of G-d), and our
bond ever grows.
Say, by contrast, I do for another and he does nothing for me in return. I
may feel some sense of connection to someone I invested so much of myself
into, but it is no relationship. It is what my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig
called self-sacrifice. If I give to you and you give nothing back, it does
not make us close. I feel wasted and resentful. Eventually I will abhor that
which took so much of myself away from me and never reciprocated.
As a result, even though we are taught not to serve G-d *for* reward, we had
better be aware that reward is forthcoming. It is humanly impossible to
truly serve G-d any other way.
Based on this, we can understand why one might have reasonably thought we
should focus on the reward G-d will give us. Wouldn't we love G-d so much
more and serve Him so much better if we kept in mind how much good He does
for us? Are we expected to love G-d simply because He is so unknowably
perfect? Wouldn't it be so much more meaningful to love the G-d who rewards
us so immeasurably for our every good deed? It is true that only an
ignoramus serves G-d for no other reason than to get reward for himself. But
even if we serve G-d in a healthy, loving relationship, one could well
imagine that the more we focus on the reward G-d gives us the more we will
want to do in return.
And in fact, based on the Rambam this week, it sounds like for most of us
this is a perfectly understandable way to think. We should preferably not
serve G-d specifically for riches or honor, but only the most insightful
student serves G-d not for reward at all.
There is an interesting analogy which sheds additional light on this. The
Sages see marriage as a very apt metaphor for our relationship with G-d. In
fact, the Revelation at Sinai is viewed as G-d's "marriage" with Israel. We
have likewise pointed out that in a marriage the two parties must both give
to one another. If one gives and the other only takes, there is no marriage,
only a miserable takeover. Each spouse must both give and receive for a
healthy relationship to develop.
Now let us imagine the following scenario. A husband wants to give entirely
selflessly to his wife, and so he says as follows: "I really don't enjoy
your company, but let's go on a walk together entirely for your sake -- so
*you* can enjoy spending time together." Or: "I really don't find you
attractive, but I will fulfill my conjugal duties to you entirely for your
sake -- to give *you* pleasure." Well, we can well imagine the wife's
reaction: "What? You don't like my company?" Or, "What? You don't find me
Needless to say, even though husband and wife must try their best to give to
each other, they had better be takers as well -- and they had better enjoy
it. If I do not take -- say by really enjoying the dish my wife prepared, or
by really enjoying her company and the intimate times together, the other
will be unfulfilled. If I give to you and you enjoy it, I feel the warm
sense that I have made a difference to the person I love. If you attempt to
ignore it and only focus on what you give me, my own giving will be spoiled.
Giving is only meaningful if there is a taker to enjoy it.
At the same time, the taker in the above relationship should not just be
taking. He should ideally be taking in order to give -- to give the giver
the pleasure of knowing that his giving is appreciated -- and not simply
because he enjoys taking. A very delicate equation is in play here:
precisely the same mechanics, yet it all depends on the underlying motives
of the two parties. Are they taking to give or giving to take? And if this
delicate balance is seriously upset, terrible heartbreak and disappointment
Now, what about with G-d? Is the same dilemma possible? If I do not
appreciate the reward G-d gives me, does that not "ruin" the giving? Should
we really downplay and attempt to ignore G-d's good for us (at least in this
world), focusing only on what we do for Him? We are taught that G-d created
the world because He wanted creatures to bestow His reward upon. Now
philosophically, it's impossible for us to understand how an infinite G-d
can have a "want". Yet such a concept exists. And if we try our best to
block out G-d's part of the bargain, are we not somehow denying Him the
pleasure of giving?
Thus, once again, we can appreciate that this is a dilemma even Israel's
greatest students grappled with. Relationships are a tricky animal indeed --
even human ones, let alone our one with an unknowable G-d. And regardless of
any analogies we might suppose to draw from our human relationships, with
G-d, we are taught, we should not focus on His reward at all. Our love of
G-d should be perfect and unblemished. We should think of nothing else. And
somehow, that will earn us the highest love imaginable.