Preparing for the Secret
Chapter 10, Law 5
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<"Anyone who occupies himself in the [observance of the] Torah in order to
receive reward or avoid punishment is [considered as] one who occupies
himself [in the Torah] insincerely (lit., 'not for its sake;' Heb: 'shelo
lishma'). And anyone who occupies himself in [the Torah] not out of fear nor
to receive reward but out of love for the Master of the whole world (lit.,
'land') who commanded [us to observe] it, he is occupying himself sincerely
(lit., 'for its sake'). The Sages said, 'One should always occupy himself in
the Torah even insincerely, since from insincerity comes sincerity' (Talmud
"Therefore, when we teach children, women and the unlearned, we teach them
only to serve [G-d] out of fear and in order to receive reward. Only when
their understanding increases and they become exceedingly wise do we very
slowly reveal to them this secret and do we gently get them accustomed to
this matter -- until they comprehend and understand it and serve out of love."
This week's law (the second to last of the entire Laws of Repentance)
continues the theme of this chapter. Thus far we have learned that serving
G-d for our own selfish motives is for the unlearned and the superficial.
Before a person is ready to have a love-relationship with G-d, he will at
best serve Him for his own self-serving reasons -- to receive reward or
avoid punishment. At the same time, only the most discerning among us will
serve G-d out of pure selflessness -- for nothing other than love of G-d and
with no thought of what he receives in return.
In past weeks we recognized, from careful reading of the Rambam, that there
is actually a middle level -- one in fact the vast majority of us are on.
Most of us do care about and want a relationship with our G-d. We do not
observe the mitzvos (commandments) simply to serve ourselves. But we can
hardly be expected to ignore the fact that G-d grants us in return all our
souls desire and could possibly imagine.
In fact, one might well have thought that by focusing on the reward G-d
grants us in return, we will serve Him even *better*. Taking the example of
a marriage, each party not only does for the other. He also appreciates what
the other does for him. And this is critical. If I ignore what my wife does
for me because I want to be a giver, I wouldn't be giving *her* the chance
to give. And that would ruin it for her. Her own giving would be spoiled,
would go unappreciated. Thus, in a marriage I must be a taker as well as a
giver for a true, healthy two-way relationship to flourish.
As we saw, this is in fact the level the vast majority of us are on -- and
one perfectly acceptable for virtually all of us. Even so, as the Rambam put
it last time, great scholars would teach their most perceptive students to
put even that aside. Serve G-d without the slightest consideration for the
superlative rewards we will receive in return. Our love for G-d should be so
strong we cannot even think of the gifts He will give us in return, nor do
they matter to us in the slightest.
In this law, the Rambam ties this all together. Every one of us must start
at the lowest level -- serving G-d for entirely self-serving reasons.
Because guess what? Human being by their nature are selfish animals. We all
start out as babies who want our every need fulfilled. We just want to be
taken care of -- no strings attached. We don't want to share our toys, clean
our rooms, or have to say "thank you." We want everything our way -- and
we'll resort to temper tantrums if we do not get it. (Yes, many of us never
outgrow this stage.)
As a result, writes the Rambam, we do not even ask beginners to serve G-d
for any reason other than completely selfish ones. That just can't be
expected of them. Only very slowly do we begin to teach such people about
the higher levels of serving G-d -- for His sake rather than our own.
It's interesting that the Rambam describes serving G-d selflessly as a
"secret". We do not even *tell* beginners about it until they have
sufficiently grown and matured in their divine service. It is true that the
level is lofty, but why don't we want beginners even to *know* about it? Why
not learn up front how high a relationship with G-d is ultimately possible?
I believe the answer is along the lines of what we discussed earlier.
Serving G-d out of love alone -- a love so overwhelming we can think of
nothing else -- is an enormously elusive level. But it's more than elusive.
It would be downright frustrating to one who has never experienced it.
Imagine telling a young man shortly before his marriage that the ideal love
is truly platonic. In order to strive for a true soul bond with your wife,
you should try your best not to pay any attention to the pleasurable aspects
of marriage. Set your goals -- today -- on growing beyond the physical and
finite to build an eternal, spiritual bond.
As we could well imagine, for a newlywed this is not merely a lofty,
spiritual goal. It would take all the fun out of it. Even to be told that a
selfless relationship is the long-term goal would take much of the zest out
of the marriage. Sure, if you're there you know exactly what that means.
There is no greater joy than being infinitely close to another human being
whom you love, one who touches and complements your soul in every way. But
if you're not there, it sounds almost dreary. A prospective groom might not
even care to embark on his new relationship if he were asked to focus on
this so strongly.
The same is true regarding our relationship with G-d. If a person is
self-centered by nature -- as we all are at first, he is not conditioned to
hear about doing for others for their own sake. He is still looking out for
number one, to see what he can get out of the deal. Telling him that he
should ultimately sacrifice everything that turns him on today -- or even
worse, that he'll grow to not even care about such things -- would turn him
off to religion before he ever got a taste of it. It requires quite a bit of
maturity to outgrow such a selfish worldview. In fact, man seems to have a
built-in resistance to doing so.
(Incidentally, as we've discussed, such is not even viewed as the ideal in a
marriage. Marriage must be a healthy, two-way relationship of giving and
taking for it to truly blossom, and intimacy binds the couple together on
the most profound level. It *is* true, though, that a true soul bond will
transcend all the physical and emotional attractions which initially brought
the couple together. Those of us who merit to build a lasting relationship
with our spouses till old age will find that the bond grows rather than
shrinks as the physical drives wane.)
There is a second important message contained in this week's law. The
Rambam, quoting a statement found several times in the Talmud, states that
one should serve G-d insincerely, for from insincerity comes sincerity. If a
person studies Torah and observes the commandments for self-serving reasons,
that is fine, because ultimately he will begin to do so for love of G-d alone.
But why is this true? Why would wrong motives engender right ones? Say I
study Torah because I want reward. Shouldn't this increase my
self-centeredness? Aren't I reinforcing my wrong attitude? Where does this
magical principle come from that serving myself will ultimately cause me to
The answer is simply that the Torah is magic. One who studies it -- even for
the most selfish of motives -- cannot help but be moved. The Torah is the
word of G-d; the mitzvos are His instructions for fulfillment. All we have
to do is study and observe the Torah. It is impossible to do so and not
become a different person -- and not fall in love with G-d and His commandments.
A phenomenon I regularly observe in yeshivas (rabbinical colleges) is the
effect Torah study has on its students. Young students often enter their
institution's hallowed halls with little interest in the Torah and its
study. And not long after they become enamored with G-d and spirituality;
they start studying with fire. And they not only become wiser. They become
more selfless, more sensitive, and more giving. Most interesting about this
is that such students typically learn topics almost completely irrelevant to
personal growth and even to practical law. Yet they discover the Torah --
and the G-d who gave it. For a person almost cannot study G-d's law and be
the same person. You can be for it or you may even be against it. But once
you get that taste of G-d's word you can never be the same.
Text Copyright © 2014 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org