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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Serving God Ideally

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on May 8, 1998)
Topics: Bechukotai, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Mitzvot, Sefer Vayikra, Torah

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In parshat Bechukotai, God tells the Israelites that if they obey His commandments they will be blessed with all kinds of material blessings: rain in the right time, bountiful crops, children, health, and peace. If, however, they disobey Him and reject His commandments all types of tragedy will befall them: disease, famine, death in battle, and, finally, exile from the land.

The idea of reward and punishment, central to Jewish faith, raises serious questions regarding divine justice. I would like to focus on the centrality of this concept: Why is there such emphasis on reward? Shouldn’t we do the mitzvot for no other reason than because God commanded them?

The Talmud answers these questions by distinguishing between two types of motivations: lishma, motivation to do the mitzvot for their own sake; and shelo lishma, motivation to do the mitzvot for ulterior purposes. Ideally, what should drive us to do God’s will is the fact that is the will of God. The only question we should ask ourselves is: “What does God want from me?” and not “What do I get out of this?” The problem is that, as humans, we tend to be self-centered. Our primary drive, necessary for survival, is one of self-preservation and self-satisfaction. If living a Jewish lifestyle does not satisfy our needs or wants in some way, it is highly unlikely that we would bother to do it. This less than ideal motivation, shelo lishma, is one that the Torah recognizes and legitimizes: “If you follow my edicts… I will give you the rain in its proper season…” Why is such flawed motivation acceptable? For two reasons. First, some actions are valuable in themselves, regardless of what drives them. Second, and perhaps more important, because our actions influence how we think and mold our character. Mitokh shelo lishma ba lishma: doing the right thing for the wrong reason can lead to doing the right thing for the right reason.

These two types of motivation, indeed two ways of relating to God, can be seen in the two stages of the Sinaitic covenant. It is significant that the blessings and curses of Bechukotai are presented as the culmination of the covenant of Mount Sinai. A covenant is a type of a contract and, like a contract, spells out the conditions for each side. To account for the eventuality that the contract might be broken, a penalty clause is put in at the end: the blessings and the curses. But this penalty clause is only there to ensure compliance. It is not to be confused with the contract itself. Indeed, the covenant of Mount Sinai, where it appears in Yitro, has no penalty clause, no blessings and curses. Originally, God gave us a covenant of the ideal relationship: one pursued for its own sake. We were not able to live up to this, and quickly broke the covenant and fashioned a Golden Calf. Now, in our parsha, God seals the covenant with blessings and curses. We cannot be trusted to do the right thing just because it is right; God needs to provide us with self-interested motivation.

If asked why we choose to live as Jews many of us would give answers like: “It gives my life depth and meaning,” “It gives me a sense of identity,” “It is how I was brought up,” or even, “I want to get a portion in the World-to-Come.” All of these answers, although not as crassly self-interested as “the rain in its proper season” are forms of shelo lishma – serving our own needs. This is legitimate, and, as Miamonides puts it, is the level almost all of us, rabbis and prophets included, operate on. But we must realize that we fall short of the ideal – serving God merely because it is His will – and that we must strive to do what is right merely because it is right.