The sages were aware that certain of the mitzvot of the Torah do not have a rational explanation. This was particularly so of ritual commandments. The sages labeled these commandments “hukkim”, sometimes translated as statues. Among these, the sages saw the commandment of the “Parah Adumah – the Red Heifer” as a paradigm, but one might include any number of the ritual commandments in this category. Still other mitzvot raised questions because the Torah commanded certain actions which carried rewards which seemed out of place.
In principle, we can easily understand why the Torah might associate a grand reward with a mitzvah like honoring one’s parents (even though such a promise might seem out of place because such an obligation should be a given), but why should the very same reward be granted for performing a less lofty commandment like:
If along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, do not take the mother or the young. Let the mother go and take only the young, in order that you may fair well and have a long life. (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)
The sages saw this anomaly as an opportunity to examine the significance of “sakhar v’onesh – reward and punishment” and theodicy, the vindication of divine goodness in light of the existence of evil. To do this, the sages used a story about a famed sage, Elisha ben Abuya, who allegedly became a heretic after having being confronted by an episode which seemed to contradict the promises of the above mitzvah. I have chosen to present the version of this story as found in the Talmud Yerushalmi because it presents, it seems to me, the most cogent expression of the problem:
One time he (Elisha ben Abuya) was sitting and studying in the valley of Ginosar and saw a man ascend to the top of a palm tree, take a mother [bird] along with her young and descend from there in peace. The next day, he saw another man take the young and send off the mother bird. When this man descended, he was bitten by a snake and died. He (Elisha) said: ‘It is written: ‘Let the mother go and take only the young, in order that you may fair well and have a long life.’ Where is the good of this one? Where is the length of days of this one? And he was unaware that Rabbi Yaakov had already interpreted: ‘in order that you should fare well’ – in the world to come which is totally good and ‘length of days’ – in the future which is totally long. (Talmud Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:1, Venice ed. 77b)
Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya is confronted by a situation where a man who committed a sin which, according the above verse, called for, at the very least, no reward, came out unscathed while in the second case, a man who carefully followed the Torah’s instruction, instead of being rewarded, was seemingly punished. Is it any wonder, under these circumstances that Rabbi Elisha was confounded and distraught? The story continues by alluding to an interpretation, unknown to Rabbi Elisha, which might have removed some of the sting from this religious dilemma, and would have allowed him to remain loyal to the tradition. Still, for many a sage even Rabbi Yaakov’s solution was inadequate and did not remove the bite from the dilemma.
This quandary led two divergent modern interpreters to draw similar radical theological conclusions based on this story and its various versions. For Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (20th century Israel), this story represents the ultimate religious challenge:
Every believing person, [he states,] must make an awesome decision, whether to worship God for its own sake (lishma), which finds its expression in the Shema… with all your heart, with your life, and with your all your being (b’khol levvkha, bekhol nafshikha, u’vkhal miodekha) – even if He takes your life, or, lest one’s faith depend on what happens in reality as its basis, namely, on benefit and goodly compensation (shelo lishma)… This [second type of faith] is what led Elisha into becoming “Aher” – the “Other”.
In other words, Leibowitz not only sees the promise of reward or the threat of punishment as irrelevant to true religion and detrimental to service to God and, as a consequence, ignores the promises in this verse, as a sign of “lower religion”.
Rabbi Yehudah Arye Leib Alter (19th-20th century Poland), the third Gerer Rebbe, comes from a very different worldview, but nevertheless, reached a similar conclusion:
And so, in truth, though God blessed be He is merciful, in any case, a person should not do the mitzvot only for the sake of God’s decrees [of reward], as it says in the Mishnah: ‘One who recites in his supplication: Just as Your mercy is extended to a bird’s nest, as You have commanded us to send away the mother before taking her chicks or eggs (Deuteronomy 22:6–7), so too extend Your mercy to us…they silence him (Mishnah Berakhot 3:5), for a person should not say this even though it is true… for a person’s comprehension of God’s decrees from the vantage point of mercy is limited… (See Sefat Emet Ki Tetzei 5631, Or Etzion ed. p. 166)
For Rabbi Alter (also known by the name of his work – The Sefat Emet), the reward should not be the focus of our concerns when performing service to God because we, as human beings, are unaware of the larger picture and should not assume an understanding of God’s ultimate plans.
The bottom line for both of these religiously observant Jews is that our service to God, and I might add, all of the good we do in the world, should be as selfless as possible if we truly want it to be an act of worship.