By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear David W.,
Last week, we discussed your question concerning performing mitzvot out of love and not out of fear, not for the sake of reward, and why the Torah elaborates upon the retribution. We explained that most people are not at the level of serving God purely out of love and need more of an impetus.
Furthermore, everyone needs to have the retribution in the back of their minds to keep us in place during the more trying times. I also promised a deeper perspective, which we shall attempt to explain herein. (This may get a bit complicated, but we’ll take it slow.)
The Mishna we mentioned in the previous column states, “Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward … ” What is a reward?
The word used for reward in this Mishna is p’ras. One should not serve God to receive a p’ras. This is an unusual Hebrew word for the Mishna to employ in this context; the common expression for reward is the word s’char. For lack of a better word, most translations render p’ras as reward, but literally, it means a separate portion.
What does this mean, and why did the Mishna choose such a strange word in describing what one should not use as their motivation to serve God?
To answer this, we need a paradigm shift in the concept of reward in Judaism and Torah. Our understanding of the notion of reward and punishment is jaded by their meaning in the cultures that surround us, where we have picked up most of our understanding of spiritual concepts more than from Judaism itself.
When one is rewarded for a positive behavior in the secular world, there is usually no basic connection between the act and reward. The gift, money or plaque was arbitrarily chosen as a way to recognize the hard work of the recipient.
Since the reward is essentially extraneous to the act done, laudatory it is to perform the service with no thought of reward. This is reflected in the word p’ras, a separate portion, which is a reward not of the essence of the mitzvah performed. The Mishna is saying one should not perform mitzvot for that type of reward, which is like the secular rewards mentioned above.
In Torah, however, the true concept of reward is not extraneous to the act; the reward is the act itself. Every mitzvah contains a certain amount of spiritual illumination from above. The Kabbalists explain that when we perform a mitzvah, we are surrounded by that light.
After completion of the mitzvah, that light goes up toward heaven and combines with the light of all the other mitzvot that individual has performed — it is another “brick” in the building of one’s own next world. That light represents the illumination of connection to the almighty, the ultimate bliss and reward for which we were created to receive in the next world.
This is the meaning of s’char; the true, positive and eternal reward that is inseparable from the mitzvah itself. The Mishna was careful not to exhort us to not hope for s’char; this is exactly what we are striving for, a deep and profound connection to God for eternity.
That type of reward is completely positive. To hope for it is to appreciate the true meaning of what mitzvah is and what it accomplishes in purifying its performer and making him or her into a vessel fit to receive all that spiritual light.
There is a level even above this: to transcend even the hope of that connection and performing a mitzvah completely for the sake of fulfilling God’s will.
The story is told of a great Chassidic rabbi who asked a chasid to travel to Italy to purchase an etrog fruit for Sukkot. It was a drought year and none were available in all of Eastern Europe, so he instructed Yankel to buy it at any cost.
The only etrog he could find was owned by a very wealthy Jew who didn’t want or need the rabbi’s money. No matter how much gold Yankel offered him, he would only agree to part with it for the price of the portion in the next world the rabbi would receive for shaking the etrog.
The chasid thought; the rabbi told him “any price,” so this must be included, and signed on the deal. Yankel became very distraught on the way home, so much so that he was embarrassed to see the rabbi. Who gave him the right to give away his rabbi’s eternal reward?.
Arriving, he quickly put down the etrog on the rabbi’s table and ran out of the room. “Yankel,” cried the rabbi, “where are you running? You brought me such a beautiful etrog.” Deeply embarrassed, Yankel explained what he had done. With that, the rabbi began to sing and dance around the room with intense joy. When Yankel questioned him, the rabbi said he finally has the chance he’s hoped for his entire life — to perform a mitzvah with no hope of reward, rather purely out of the love of God.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.