Impure Motives

August 30, 2009

4 min read


Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 )

Some Torah passages appear to describe severe punishments for not following the commandments. From beginning to end, the Torah emphasizes love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. Yet sometimes we see judgment:

God will put you as a head and not as a tail; you will be only above and you will not be below - if you listen to the commandments of God, your Lord, that I command you today, to observe and to do; and you do not turn away from any of the words that I command you this day, right or left, to follow gods of others, to worship them.

But if you do not listen to the voice of God, your Lord, to observe, to do all His commandments and all His decrees that I command you today, then all these curses will come upon you and overtake you." (Deut. 28:13-15)

Why is there harshness in God's words?


Maimonides writes that doing the right thing because you expect a reward or because you're afraid of punishment is a low level of observant behavior. We are supposed to aspire to do the will of God because He wills it, because it's truth, and because it's the right thing to do - not because of a personal benefit.

Whatever we do, we know there is a system of reward and punishment. (Some sages say this concept is embedded in our psyche from birth.) Yet if we are solely motivated by reward and punishment, we are not serving God anymore, we are serving ourselves. Our main motivation has to stem from our relationship with the Infinite, or else what we are doing is a form of idol worship - and we are the idols.

Pirkei Avot (2:4) says, "Make His will your will." In order to become one with God, your constant wavelength has to include His will. What does He want in this world? What does He want in my life?

Another passage in Pirkei Avot (1:3) says, "Don't be like the servant who serves the master in order to receive a reward." Maimonides mentions that serving God for a reward is for small-minded people.

We all recognize that if you act morally for personal benefit, you're not really moral, just self-serving. You could fulfill every mitzvah in the Torah and still be a bum. Your intention in fulfilling any single commandment affects the entire nature of your spiritual accomplishment. If you have proper intentions, you are doing something of infinite good. If you have improper intentions, your actions are tainted.


But what if we lack the motivation to perform a commandment we know we should? What if when its time to wake up and pray, I feel like going back to sleep? What if when the bank makes a mistake in my favor, I feel like keeping it? (We are not always floating with the angels looking for opportunities for spiritual growth.)

For those times when we are not at our best, we need an alternative motivation. Sometimes being holy just doesn't cut it as a reason for your actions.

For those times, the reward and punishment side of reality becomes quite practical. If you can't do it for the right reasons, at least do it for the "wrong" reasons. If you can't give charity to the poor out of concern for your fellow man, at least do it for the public recognition. That's better than not doing it at all.

God loves you no matter what your motivation. He wants you to succeed. He wants you to reach the highest levels your soul can reach. It's not "all or nothing." If you can't be perfect today, at least do the right thing. Maybe that will lead you in the right direction.

Spiritual Exercise:

Look at your weekly activities, and find something you don't do that you should. Invoke the idea of reward and punishment and see if that motivates you.

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