Mordechai Silverstein

Climbing the Ladder of Service to God

The second paragraph of the Shema, “V’haya im Shmoa”, found in Parshat Ekev, is recited twice daily. It is one of the foundational texts of the daily liturgy and is fundamental to Jewish faith. Its focus is on a Jew’s commitment to God’s mitzvot or commandments. While it recounts that service to God is based on love: “And it shall be if you indeed heed My commands with which I charge you today to love the Lord your God and to worship Him with all your heart and with all your being” (Deuteronomy 11:13), it also makes explicit that proper service and loyalty to God is guided by reward and punishment.

These two seemingly contradictory rationales for service to God, one selfless and the other self-serving present a religious dilemma. One midrash proposes a definitive answer to this question, focusing on the word “love” found in the above quoted verse:

To love the Lord your God (11:13): You might say, ‘I am going to study Torah in order to become rich,’ or ‘in order to be called Rabbi,’ or ‘in order to receive a reward in the world-to-come’; therefore, Scripture says: To love the Lord your God—whatever you do should be done only out of love. (Sifre Devarim 41, Finkelstein ed. p. 87)

This midrash chose one side in the conflicting message found in this “well prayed” passage. According to it, service to God must be without self-serving motivation. Of course, this so called “purity of heart” would rule out most human devotion since most behavior is inspired by an admixture of reasons.

Rambam (Maimonides) seems to have realized this and saw in this conflict between self-interest and selflessness a didactic ladder intended to guide people toward ideal service to God. He notes that when children are young, they are inspired to educational goals with rewards – candy, nut, new shoes, new clothing… At some point, when a person matures, hopefully they will be inspired to realize that education and study is a goal in itself – something we call “lishma – for its own sake” (See Rambam’s Mishnah commentary on Perek Hahelek)

This same ascending ladder of religious maturity applies to the observance of God’s commandment as well. At times, we respond to doing the right thing “lishma”; while, at other times, we respond on account of “reward and punishment”. Still, ideally, we should see ourselves climbing Rambam’s ladder not only as a means for better serving God but, also for making better selves as well.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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