For the Sake of Reward

For the Sake of Reward

Mishna Avot 1:3

Interactive Learning Module

1. Introduction

  • In Mishna Avot 1:3, Antigonus asserts that one should not serve Hashem for the sake of reward: "אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס".
  • How are his words to be understood? Why is it problematic to desire compensation for one's deeds?
  • What is the relative value of "worship from love" and "worship from fear"?
  • This module will look at several different readings of Antigonus' statement, exploring the Biblical texts, conflicting Rabbinic sources, and philosophical motivations that might underlie the debate.

2. A Tannaitic Debate

  • Let's access the Mishnayot Gedolot to see Antigonus' words inside.
  • What two statements does Antigonus make in the Mishna? What is the relationship between the two?
  • Compare his words to the Sifre on Devarim 11:22, accessible here. Scroll down until close to the end of the comment, ד"ה: לאהבה את י"י אלהיכם. How does the Sifre's message compare to the Mishna?
  • Now contrast both sources to Bavli Pesachim 8a-b, accessible here. How does the Bavli evaluate someone who serves Hashem out of hopes for blessing?
  • How might the two sets of sources be reconciled with each other? What might be motivating each side of the debate?

3. Rambam

  • Let's return to Mishna Avot to see how Rambam understands the Mishna and where he stands on our question.
  • Begin a few lines into his comments, from: "ואמר זה החסיד" and continue until "בפרק י' מסנהדרין".
  • Rambam elaborates on the idea in his halakhic code, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:1-2. [For English press the E icon on top of the halakhah.].
  • According to Rambam, why is it problematic to worship Hashem in order to receive rewards?
  • What does he mean when he says, "אֶלָּא עוֹשֶׂה הָאֱמֶת מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהוּא אֱמֶת"?

4. Fear or Love?

  • Rambam contrasts "העובד מאהבה" with "העובד מיראה". How would you define each term?
  • Whom does Rambam single out as an example of one who serves from love? Why might he be chosen as the paradigm?
  • According to Rambam, Antigonus, too, is advocating service from love, while rejecting worship from fear. If so, though, how are we to understand Antigonus' advice at the end of the Mishna which states "ויהא מורא שמים עליכם"?
  • Let's return to Mishna Avot. What does R. Yonah in his commentary to the Mishna suggest? Scroll down to: ד"ה: ויהא מורא שמים עליכם.

5. Meiri

  • Let's now turn to the Meiri who agrees with Rambam's reading of Antigonus, but elaborates on the reasons why it is problematic to seek reward.
  • Scan the first part of his commentary, until the words "כמכיר שפלותו".
  • What does Meiri suggest is the danger in serving Hashem primarily for the sake of receiving blessings? [See the sentence beginning, "והכלל בזה שלא יפרו".]
  • According to him, why is it, nonetheless, crucial that "יראה" accompany "אהבה"? What is the danger in acting like Hashem's "בן בית" (a member of God's household)?

6. "הרי זה צדיק גמור"

  • Both Rambam and Meiri claim that it is wrong to serve Hashem in order to reap rewards. One should observe commandments because they are true and right, not for any ulterior motive.
  • How, then, might they explain Bavli Pesachim's statement that one who gives charity "so that my son shall live…" is considered a "צדיק גמור"?
  • What does Meri respond in his explanation of the Gemara? See the last paragraph of his comments which begins, "האומר סלע זה לצדקה". [For elaboration see his commentary to Bavli Rosh HaShanah 4a.]
  • One might alternatively suggest that the mitzvah of charity is exceptional. Why might that be?
  • See R"Y Bekhor Shor on Devarim 24:19, 'ד"ה: למען יברכך ה. How might his words be applied to our question?

7. Two Questions

  • Abarbanel questions Rambam and Meiri's reading of the Mishna, disagreeing with the position that it is problematic to serve Hashem for the sake of benefits.
  • Look at his commentary to the Mishna, Nachalat Avot, beginning from the second paragraph, "האמנם בדברי אנטיגנוס יראה ספק גדול" until the middle of the next paragraph, "לברוח מן המזיק".
  • What two questions, one textual and one conceptual, does he raise?
  • What verses does Abarbanel bring as proof that it is not problematic to hope for rewards and that even Hashem encourages this?

8. Concordance Work

  • Abarbanel notes that Hashem Himself says that He wishes that the nation would fear Him and observe His precepts, "למען ייטב להם ולבניהם".
  • To get a sense of just how widespread such verses are, let's go to the Concordance. Toggle the button in the upper right corner from "Basic" to "Advanced" and input מען in the first field, choosing "particle" from the dropdown. Then, input יטב in the second field, choosing "verb" from the dropdown, and press "Search".
  • How many times in Torah is the nation encouraged to observe commandments so as to merit "good"?
  • Now, input ארך in the second field, choosing "verb" from the dropdown. Press "Search". How often are we promised longevity?

9. Rambam's Reply

  • The prevalence of verses which encourage Israel to observe Torah "so that it will be good" intensifies Abarbanel's question. Given Hashem's words, how can one claim that it is problematic to hope for reward?
  • How might Rambam reply? What does he imply at the end of Hilkhot Teshuvah 10:1, where he writes, "שֶׁמְּחַנְּכִין אוֹתָן לַעֲבֹד מִיִּרְאָה, עַד שֶׁתִּרְבֶּה דַּעְתָּן וְיַעַבְדוּ מֵאַהֲבָה"?
  • The Maharal also discusses the issue. Return to Mishna Avot and scan his commentary, דרך חיים, beginning from the fourth paragraph, "אפשר לפרש".
  • According to him, how should the word "למען" be understood in the various verses which promise reward?

10. Abarbanel

  • Let's now return to Abarbanel to see how he himself understands the words of Antigonus. As his commentary is somewhat lengthy, let's look at it in the dual mode display.
  • Scroll down until about halfway through his commentary, to the paragraph beginning, "הדרך הראשון".
  • What distinction in meaning does Abarbanel make between the words "פרס" and "שכר"?
  • According to him, which types of retribution should one not desire when serving Hashem? Which types of rewards is it ok to hope for?

11. Abarbanel Continued

  • According to Abarbanel's reading, what might the Mishna be teaching about what one's priorities in life should be? What is the relative value of the material and spiritual?
  • How might he reconcile his reading of the Mishna with the Sifre's statement that one should not learn Torah for the sake of even the rewards of the next world ("בשביל שאאריך ימים לעולם הבא")? Why might Talmud Torah be exceptional?
  • What issue with Abarbanel's reading of the Mishna might emerge from the nature of most of the blessings and curses in Torah? [Scan, for instance, Vayikra 26.]

12. The World to Come?

  • Given Abarbanel's emphasis on the blessings of the next world, how might he explain why Hashem never mentions those rewards, and instead motivates the nation via material blessings?
  • In his commentary to Vayikra 26, Abarbanel gathers seven different explanations as to why the World to Come is never mentioned in Torah.
  • Scroll down to the paragrpah beginning, "התשובה הא' היא" to scan the various approaches.
  • Which of these can be applied to our discussion?

13. Maharal

  • Let's now return to the Mishna to look at one last approach, that of Maharal. [Begin from the third paragraph, "ופירוש מאמר הזה" and continue until "הוא צדיק גמור".]
  • How does he understand Antigonus' words? How might he understand the relationship between the two clauses in the Mishnah?
  • See also R. Ovadyah MiBartenura, ד"ה: וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם. According to him, following Rambam and others, how do worship from fear and love balance each other?
  • Why is one more of a motivator for positive commandments and the other for negative precepts?

14. Summary

  • We have seen three understandings of Antigonus' words, each reflecting a different attitude towards those who act uprightly only for the sake of receiving rewards.
  • Rambam and Meiri assert that one should serve Hashem without any ulterior motives, simply because that is what is true and right. Moreover, if one's whole observance is conditional on receiving, there is a danger of becoming a nonbeliever when life is not as blessed as expected.
  • Abarbanel, in contrast, maintains that there is nothing inherently wrong with desire for just recompense. Antigonus is saying only that one should not serve Hashem with an eye towards the material rewards of this world, but rather one should look forward to the spiritual blessings of the next world. Only in the World to Come is true retribution meted out.
  • Maharal goes further to suggest that Antigonus deems one who observes even for desire of physical rewards a righteous individual. He is simply setting up a hierarchy in observance. Serving Hashem out of love is a higher level than serving from fear, but the latter is not problematic.
  • The fact that Antigonus closes with the statement, "וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם", might even imply that he recognizes the need for both love and awe in one's relationship to Hashem. Each can be motivators for good, and a proper balance is essential.

13. Additional Reading