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Serving God For Pleasure

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9 )

by Rabbi Boruch Leff

If someone approached you and guaranteed that you would receive 100 million dollars if you simply follow what they asked of you, would you agree to the deal? You may be cautious because you never know what this person has in mind for you to do (something evil perhaps) or if he can really deliver.

But what if you knew with absolute clarity that this person would only ask you to carry out acts of kindness and good deeds in return for 100 million? It seems like the decision would be quite simple.

This leads us to a perplexing situation in this week's Torah portion as well as in the entire book of Genesis. God tells Isaac:

Live in this land (of Israel) and I will be with you and bless you. I will give these lands to you and your children and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham, your father. I will increase your offspring like the stars in the heavens and I will give these lands to your children. All the nations of the world will bless themselves through your offspring. (Genesis 26:3-4)

Isaac (as did Abraham and Jacob) knows that God is talking to him. He has no doubts. When God wants you to know that He is talking to you, He appears in such a way that does not leave room for any reservations. God then promises abundant and amazing blessings to Isaac if only Isaac walks in His path.

Where is Isaac's challenge? Would it not be obvious and clear to Isaac what he is to do with his life? If everything is so simple, how would Isaac earn great rewards? Reward from God is based upon man exercising his free will. Isaac's free will would be quite limited once he had heard God himself say that he would be greatly rewarded. How could Isaac's free will continue to function? What is Isaac's test?

The solution teaches us a fundamental concept in service of God. But, as is often the case in Jewish learning, we must first ask a few more questions.

* * *


Pirkei Avot (1:3) states:

"Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving reward. Rather, be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving reward." (Some texts actually say: "for the sake not to receive reward.")

We are instructed to serve God for 'the sake of heaven'. Ideally we are not to concentrate on rewards that we might attain. Yet, we are supposed to know that we will receive reward for the observance of the Torah. The Talmud tells us in numerous places that the rewards mentioned in the Torah (for example, Deuteronomy 22:7 and Talmud Chullin 142a) do not refer to life in this world but to life in the next world. This itself would be a difficult intellectual tension to live with. But not only do we study Jewish texts that constantly inform us of reward, we pray for reward daily!

"May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our fathers, that we observe Your decrees in this world, and merit to live, see, and inherit goodness and blessing in the years of Messianic Times and for life in the World to Come." (Uba LeZion prayer, end of Shacharit Morning Prayers, Artscroll Siddur, p. 154)

It is one thing to demand that we try to ignore rewards while we serve God. But how can we be expected to ignore rewards when we are praying for them? We are supposed to concentrate intently and sincerely on our prayers! Do we mean what we pray for concerning rewards or not?

* * *


Have you ever visited your mother after being away for a long time? Your mother is thrilled to see you and she makes you a feast fit for a king. As you indulge in each course she serves, you enjoy the special home cooked meal. But certainly part of you takes pleasure in the fact that you are giving your mother pleasure by eating her well-prepared meal. She enjoys watching you enjoy her food. And you eat, intending not only to enjoy the food, but to please your mother as well.

It gives God satisfaction and 'nachas' to give us pleasure.

God created the world in order to give us pleasure. The most intense pleasure is in the Next World. (See the beginning of Ramchal's Mesilas Yesharim.) It is His desire to see us receive pleasure. Our challenge in life is to perform the Mitzvot, God's instructions for living, with intent to receive the reward that God wants us to receive. Ideally we are not to have in mind selfish reasons for observing the Torah. We are not to concentrate on our rewards for our sake. Instead, we are to think of the fact that it gives God satisfaction and 'nachas' to give us pleasure. Therefore, we should listen to His laws - for His sake, not ours.

* * *


There is a legend about the Baal Shem Tov (the Besht), the founder of Chassidut, which is impossible to believe.

The story goes that the Baal Shem Tov once ascended to Heaven and received certain secrets of the Torah on the condition that he would not divulge these secrets to anyone. When the Baal Shem Tov returned to this world, he found the secrets so sweet and profound that he could not resist telling his students. Soon after, a voice from Heaven was heard saying, "Baal Shem Tov has just lost his portion in the Next World!" The Baal Shem Tov could not contain his immense joy and began dancing uncontrollably because he now had the opportunity to serve God 'for His sake' without any thought of reward. When God saw the Baal Shem Tov's reaction, a heavenly voice proclaimed, "Baal Shem Tov has earned his place in the Next World again!"

The reason why we cannot accept this story as true should now be obvious. If indeed, the Baal Shem Tov had lost his portion in the Next World, that would be one of the greatest tragedies for God! Such a holy man, and God would not be able to take pleasure in rewarding him.

It is God's greatest pleasure to give pleasure to the righteous people of the world. The Baal Shem Tov losing his place in the Next World would certainly not be a cause for celebration! Why would the Baal Shem Tov rejoice in God's pain?

In terms of serving God for 'His sake', not for ours, this does not mean that we hope not to receive reward. The Torah is replete with indications and reminders of our reward. Rather, we have to want the reward because God wants us to have it, not because we want to get it.

This most difficult task, to want personal goodness for non-personal gain, is one that Patriarchs and Matriarchs can master. This was their challenge and test. Sure, they knew they would get much reward as God had told them. But what their intent would be when they earn the reward was the issue they had to struggle with. Would they do it for God's pleasure, or their own?

This balancing act, of performing God's will for the purpose of pleasing God, and thereby earn reward but wanting the reward for God's sake, is our struggle as well.

Let us always try to think about helping God give us pleasure, allowing Him to accomplish what He truly wants for the world. He gets pleasure giving us pleasure. Let's let Him do it.


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