By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
We are instructed to perform the mitzvot strictly because the almighty commanded us to. Yet the Torah tells us there is reward and punishment for the performance or violation of these mitzvot. In performing these mitzvot, I am “guilty” sometimes of thinking about the consequences and not performing them with completely pure motives? Why would the almighty establish a reward and punishment system for these mitzvot? It seems to me that this can impair the motivation to perform mitzvot.
— David W.
Your feelings are reflected in the teaching of a Mishna that states, “Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward; instead be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.” (Avos 2:3).
The renowned scholar R’ Moshe Maimonides explains this Mishna to mean that one should ideally serve God and fulfill the mitzvot out of love of God and the desire to do what is right and proper, not out of fear of retribution.
Maimonides then poses your question: Why is there such a stress in the Torah and rabbinical writings on reward and punishment? Although it is a basic tenet of our belief system that there is reward and punishment for our actions, and, in fact, it is one of Maimonides’ 13 core principles of Jewish belief, why the stress on this if one should be serving God out of love and not out of fear of punishment?
Maimonides answers that to serve God for purely altruistic reasons is a tremendous level of purity to achieve after a lifetime of Torah study and dedication to service of God. The vast majority of Jews, however, do not operate on that elevated level and need more of an impetus to dedicate their days and years to the fulfillment of a system of laws and beliefs that encompass one’s entire life.
Like young children, to whom we offer candies and other rewards for studying well or heeding their parent’s wishes to do their chores, most Jews need that kind of stress to stick with the rigors of Jewish life. Although one serves God out of fear, their service is still beloved in the eyes of God and their mitzvot are certainly accepted, just not of the highest order. One should strive, however, to rise above the need for this and fulfill the mitzvot for one’s own sake.
I believe this goes a step deeper: The Mishna cited above seems to be inherently contradictory. It begins by stating we should serve God not for the sake of reward and ends by exhorting us that the “fear of heaven be upon you,” implying that one should serve God out of fear.
I once heard an explanation of this from a rabbi in Jerusalem: Although one should strive to serve God altruistically and out of love, still, one should keep in the back of his or her mind that there is retribution for his or her actions.
The notion of retribution should not be the motivation for the performance of mitzvot, but the belief in reward and punishment should never be forgotten. This is because even one who has attained the highest level of service and truly serves out of love has ups and downs and better and worse times. Even the greatest believer is human and at times cannot or does not feel the emotions of love, joy and ecstasy in the performance of mitzvot or prayers.
If their entire motivation has become an elevated service of love with no thoughts whatsoever on the fact that there is, in fact, a reckoning of their actions, that person could very well slip away from the service of God during times like that, perhaps never to return.
For this reason, the Mishna reminds the one who serves God the right way, out of pure love, never should forget that the fear of God should be upon them. Hence, the need for the Torah to stress the notion of reward and punishment.
Since we are out of space, we shall continue next week to see a third, more profound insight in the understanding of this Mishna and in answer to your question.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.