> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Between the Lines

Who Are We Serving?

Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's Torah reading says:

"When your children ask you: 'What is the nature of this service to you?' you shall say: 'It is the sacrifice of God's Passover.' " (Exodus 12:26)

In the Passover Haggadah, we read about four sons, and we find that the wicked son asks this exact question.

The commentator Kli Yakar explains the real question of this wicked child. He is asking, "What is this service lachem (for you)?" In other words, the wicked son thinks that the whole reason we eat the Passover offering is for our own sake. We are doing it because it tastes good, because we enjoy it!

We find a proof for this when God tells Abraham: "Lech lecha m'artezcha" (Genesis 12:1), which means "go for yourself from your land." Based on the Midrash, Rashi explains: "Go for your own pleasure." God is promising Abraham wealth, fame, and power. The word "lecha" means "for your benefit and pleasure."

So too, in our case, the word "lachem" (the plural of lecha) means the same thing. The wicked son it asking: "what is this service lachem?" It is for your own enjoyment. He says: "Stop kidding yourselves into thinking that you are doing the will of God. You are really just hiding behind your religiosity as you go about fulfilling your own desires." The wicked son simply cannot understand how it is possible to do things that are pleasurable completely for the sake of Heaven.

Sure, we want to serve God better and improve ourselves. Yet, how can we know if what we are doing is really for God, or because of some ulterior motive? Maybe we do it all for our own sakes. Even when it comes to Torah and mitzvot, maybe we are thinking, "What's in it for me?"

This is a serious question which we have to ask ourselves. This is what bothers the wicked son.

* * *


The Ba'al Shem Tov offers three pieces of advice to help clarify whether we are really serving God or ourselves:

  1. Remove all pleasure.
  2. Meditation.
  3. The light of God.

To explain: The Ba'al Shem Tov first recommends that we imagine that all pleasure has been removed from a mitzvah. In reality, it is a good thing to derive pleasure from mitzvot, but for the purposes of this exercise we should imagine that we have no taste buds and we're not getting anything out of eating matzah. Would we still spend the time, effort and money to do this mitzvah? We have to honestly ask ourselves this question. If the answer is "yes," this is an indication that we are indeed doing it completely for God.

The Ba'al Shem Tov gives the second piece of advice: We need to ask ourselves whether what we are about to do is really a mitzvah. One should meditate and consider that maybe the opposite of what you are about to do is the really the will of God. It requires patience before we jump to do a mitzvah. Are we really doing it for the sake of God, or for ourselves?

The Ba'al Shem Tov gives us the third piece of advice on how to check our motives. He calls it "the light of God." Sometimes after we have removed all pleasure, and we have done some deep meditation, we still find ourselves in the dark and can't decide what to do. At that time we need God to reveal Himself, and light the path for us. God hid His light in the Torah, and that is where we can access it. We have to turn to the Torah, or to those who know the Torah, for guidance.

* * *


We could suggest that the Ba'al Shem Tov's three pieces of advice correspond to the three plagues mentioned in this week's parsha. The numerical value of the name "Bo" is also three. Three plagues are placed in this week's parsha, separate from the other seven, because they correspond to the three pieces of advice, as follows:

First came the plague of locusts, which removed all pleasure. They ate up all the food in the land. Then came the plague of darkness, which was the perfect opportunity for meditation, for asking oneself, "Am I living by what I want to do, or by what God wants me to do?"

Then came the final plague, the Death of the Firstborn. This came in the middle of the night, and in that darkness God revealed himself. He passed over the homes where Jews were eating the Passover lamb, for the sake of Heaven. Those who perished were those who fooled themselves into thinking that they were really doing the will of God, but in reality they were basically serving themselves. The light of God made the truth clear.

May we all have the clarity to know the true path, so that we are not fooled by the yetzer hara, who sometimes tries to paint negativity as something spiritual. And may we merit to see the light in the darkness, all the days of our lives.

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