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Acute angles: How does G-D reward us – 2

  • Dear Rabbi. Pirkei Avot teaches that we should not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of a reward. Why then do we say every day: “May we keep Your statutes in this world in order to be worthy of the Messiah and the World to Come”? Shouldn’t we be doing them for their own sake? Thanks 
  • Rabbi Ingram. We are bombarded from certain quarters with the message: “Do one more mitsva – and bring Mashiach!” But I thought we were meant to do the mitsvot altruistically, not for any end result! Am I wrong? Jonathan H.

Miri and Jonathan, your questions are echoed by many.

First and foremost we must know that there is reward for mitsvot. It is vital that we appreciate this because it assures us that there is a just G-D who ultimately metes out reward and punishment according to our deeds.

I believe we are dealing with fine distinctions here. Antigonos of Socho’s axiom to which Miri alludes (Avot 1:3) not to serve G-D for reward was distorted by a couple of his students to supposedly mean there is no reward. Sadly they ended up denying the Afterlife altogether. When we say towards the end of our daily prayers: “May we merit to live to see…Messianic times and the life of the World to Come” we are voicing our conviction in the existence of the great eternal reward of which G-D has assured us. Nevertheless our attitude should not be that we are doing His mitsvot for the sake of this reward; rather we pledge our allegiance to His mitsvot no matter what!

In the Talmud (Pesachim 50b), a slightly different perspective is presented: A person should always engage in Torah and mitsvot even if not for its own sake because mi-toch she-lo lish’mah ba lish’mah, through doing not for its own sake, he will come to do it for its own sake!

The author of this dictum (the Talmudic sage known simply as Rav) appears to take a somewhat more indulgent approach than Antigonos. He is confident that as a Jew comes to a mature appreciation of the beauty of mitsvot, s/he will graduate to doing them with no ulterior motive, deriving all satisfaction from the mitsva itself (I relate my own personal example of this in the foreword to my new book Lattices of Love).

The concept of intrinsic satisfaction is not confined to the Torah world. I was fascinated to look online at several surveys taken around the world. In every one, the majority of respondents rated job satisfaction more important than the size of their salary package. We often think of the Western world as uber-materialistic, yet most people are mature enough to understand that their job or career needs to provide fulfillment, first and foremost. Earning big bucks is an added bonus!

Doing stuff for ulterior motives ultimately will yield no satisfaction. Mitoch she-lo lish’mah bah lish’mah isn’t merely a moral exhortation, it’s excellent practical advice, a recipe for true contentment.

Pirkei Avot declares (4:22) that “better is one hour of spiritual elevation and good deeds in this world than all the life of olam ha-ba!” Then, paradoxically, it continues “better is one hour of spiritual bliss in olam ha-ba than the entire life of this world!”  It is actually no paradox. The former statement is how we are to view matters in the here-and-now where we can continue to grow through mitsvot. The second statement we will grasp only with the exalted lens of the next world whenever G-D is ready to transport us there – hopefully after 120 healthy years downstairs.

Addressing Jonathan’s specific question: I believe that the reason we must anticipate Mashiach every day – indeed the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) informs us that “did you anticipate the Redemption?” is one of six questions we shall be asked  at the heavenly gates – is that a post-Mashiach world will be a world where, in the words of Isaiah (11;9) with which the Rambam closes his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah, “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-D as the sea fills the ocean bed!”

We ought to long for Mashiach not as our reward (although it is), rather as vindication of our abiding faith in G-D in the eyes of the world. If we are on a yet more refined level, we long for Mashiach as an outgrowth of our selfless love of G-D and our desire to hear His name on all lips. “May all the inhabitants of the cosmos know that to You every knee should bend, every tongue should declare allegiance!” Words we articulate three times a day in Aleinu, hopefully with at least a smidgen of passion! If we are on an even higher rung, we yearn for the mystic reunification of Him and His Shechina, of the Yud-Hei with the Vav-Hei. – the ultimate tikkun olam.

But of course we still continue to do mitsvot simply because they are “our life and the length of our days”, they are for our intrinsic betterment and they forge deep and powerful connections with Him regardless of the coming of Mashiach and olam ha-ba!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation
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