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For Heaven's Sake: Ethics of the Fathers 1:3

May 9, 2009 | by Yaakov Astor

What's your underlying motivation for doing good?

"Antignos of Socho received (Torah) from Shimon HaTzaddik. He used to say: Be not like servants who serve the master on the condition of receiving a reward; rather, be like servants who serve the master without the condition of receiving a reward. And let the fear of Heaven be upon you."
Ethics of the Fathers 1:3

This pithy teaching of a Sage we otherwise know nothing about1 immediately raises some questions, among them:


The first thing to understand is that Antignos is not telling us that our efforts to do good will not be rewarded.4 They will be. However, as the Talmud teaches:

"The [true] reward for doing a mitzvah [good deed] is not given in this world" [Chullin 142a; Kiddushin [39b].

In other words, doing God's will in the challenging circumstances of this earthly life is such a great act that the reward could never be properly compensated in this world. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto tells us that the soul is so intrinsically holy and brilliant that under normal circumstances it would never let the body choose evil over good. God therefore had to hold it back by a special decree,5 imprisoning it, so to speak, in the darkness of this world in order to create the possibility of free choice. The ability to freely choose between good and evil gives life meaning. The reward we earn through our choices cannot be satisfied with the matter of this dark world. The soul -- our true inner selves -- is too bright. True reward can only be experienced in the boundless light of the World To Come.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, of blessed memory writes that paying a physical reward for a mitzvah is analogous to "rewarding" someone for saving your life by giving him 50 cents. No matter what physical reward one can receive in this world, such as robust health, abundant wealth, children, fame and success, it is not adequate payment for even one mitzvah.

Therefore, while in this world, we do God's will in the absence of true reward. That's not to say our acts here cannot be rewarded in "this-worldy" fashion. They can be, and often are. However, the rewards in this world are likened to dividends, while the real reward -- the principle -- is reserved for the World To Come.

There is a deeper reason, however, why Antignos implores us to serve God without the expectation of reward. He wants to hook us into the attitude of mind that can bring us true peace and happiness, a lesson we can learn from our forefather, Jacob.


And Jacob served seven years for Rachel. And they seemed to him but a few days in his love for her (Genesis 29:20).

If you're in love with someone and you can't be with him or her for seven years, time should move painfully slowly. Why, then, does the verse say, "and they seemed to him but a few days"? How can it be that the time went by fast for Jacob?

Time moves slowly when you're expecting, waiting, pushing for something to happen -- and it's not happening. But when you're focused on the process -- independent of the result -- time flies.

When you're focused on the process, even manual labor becomes an exercise in spirituality.

If Jacob were waiting to have his physical needs satisfied, then those seven years would have seemed forever. The fact that they flew by is testimony that he was not preoccupied with this. Rather he was focused on the process -- the process of preparing himself spiritually to marry the wife who would help him commence 3,000 years of Jewish history. When you're focused on the process, even manual labor becomes an exercise in spirituality.

This is one of the deeper things Antignos comes to teach us. Do good without expectation of reward because when you focus on the process, you enter the zone. And even if the desired results don't follow right away, the frame of mind that you get when working for pure motives becomes its own reward. When you get in that zone of doing good for the sake of good, a special feeling immediately lifts you beyond the scope of your normal state of mind, even if the expected reward of that deed is delayed.


Intimately connected to this idea is one of the great teachings of Torah: serving God.

The vast corpus of Jewish law, touching on literally every aspect of a person's life, implies that there is no mundane activity that doesn't have the potential to create a state of connection, an intimate union between the human and Divine. In Judaism there is no compartmentalization between the "religious" and the "secular." We're not religious one day a week, and secular six days. We're not religious when we go to synagogue and secular when we go to work. Every situation is a way to strengthen our relationship with Him.

We do one thing: serve God -- 24/7.

In this light, there's really no such thing as the mundane. God presents each of us with billions of carefully laid out moments, each an opportunity to ask: "What does He want me to do now? How does He want me to behave? What attitude am I supposed to have?"

The scholar immersed in a book, the businessperson in the office, the parent changing a diaper -- all serve God. This is what Antignos suggests by telling us to see ourselves as servants. Every act, every moment potentially becomes part of one long chain of serving God.


The last question is why Antignos concludes his aphorism with the exhortation to let fear of Heaven be upon us. What does this have to do with anything?

Every act can be an opportunity to serve God… or our selves. And it's not so simple to always tell the difference.

The answer is: Everything.

Every act can be an opportunity to serve God… or our selves. And it's not so simple to always tell the difference.

You can eat to fill your stomach, for instance, or to fulfill God's will. You can work to become rich, or to enrich the lives of others. You can study to gain accolades, or to acquire true knowledge.

Any act or emotion can be holy or unholy, including love. A man or woman, for instance, can become involved in a physical relationship but care little or nothing about the other. A divorced parent can lavish affection and gifts on a child only to win the child's allegiance in order to strike an emotional blow at the other parent. These are unholy acts of love.

"Let the fear of Heaven be upon you," Antignos says, because fear has a way of cutting through our rationalizations like nothing else. And when it comes to activities related to earthly life, it's easy to rationalize.

The Hebrew word for "fear" shares the same root as the word meaning "to see." In the simplest sense, fear means "seeing" the reality of the consequences. A person can feel it's perfectly fine to do something wrong, but refrain from doing it because he realizes the consequences will be more painful. While fear of consequences can be an effective weapon in one's arsenal of spiritual growth, it is ultimately a low level motivational tool, one we should strive to transcend.

This higher level of doing good comes from "seeing" God Himself, so to speak, not just the consequences of one's action. God cannot be literally seen, of course, but His Presence can be felt or intuited. The human being can go from a moment of "blindness" into a moment of epiphany, or the sudden realization of God's presence and majesty. This is what David experienced in the following psalm:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have established -- what is man, that you are mindful of him? …O God our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! (Psalms 8:4,10)

What first inspired David to come to this humbling yet uplifting realization? When I look…. He looked upon the heavens. (The word "look" used here shares the same Hebrew root word as fear.) Fear means looking and "seeing" God engenders a sense of awe and reverence -- a more appropriate translation for the Hebrew word used here.

Antignos' aphorism is a unified whole. It reminds that we're here to serve God and that we should focus on the process of serving God, not the reward. This leads to a true, unshakable contentment independent of external circumstances. Therefore the saying concludes with advice on how to insure that every moment and every act become a part of serving God, and not serving oneself.

1. After Alexander the Great conquered the Holy Land, and showed great benevolence toward its Jewish inhabitants, it was not uncommon for even otherwise pious Jews to take on Greek names. Perhaps one can see in the name Antignos a reference to his devotion to Torah ideals. Antignos is a combination of anti (against) gnos (knowledge, as in Gnostic). Perhaps that indicates his stance against the Greeks, who valued Reason over Revelation. While Torah scholarship always placed high value on reason and intellect the Revelation at Sinai is the ultimate source of knowledge. Reason divorced of that revealed knowledge can lead to distortion of the Truth.
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2. E.g. the command to honor one's father and mother it is qualified with the reward [Deuteronomy 5:16], So that your days may be lengthened, and so that it may go well for you. (See also: ibid. 22:7.)
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3. “Torah and good deeds are a shield against bad happenings.” (Avos 4:13). “One who says, 'I am giving charity so that my son will live, or that I will receive my portion in the World to Come,' is considered completely righteous.” (Pesachim 8a).
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4. Two of his disciples made this mistake. One of them became the founder of the Sadducees, the Jewish sect who denied the World To Come (the entire Oral Torah, in fact) and tormented the Jewish People until they were wiped out with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.
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5. The Way Of God, 1:3:13.
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