Sunday, November 05, 2006

Why we serve (Avot 1:3)

אנטיגנוס איש סוכו קיבל משמעון הצדיק. הוא היה אומר, אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת לקבל פרס, אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת שלא לקבל פרס; ויהי מורא שמיים עליכם.

Antignos from Socho recieved [the Torah] from Shimon HaTzadik. He used to say, do not be as servants who would serve their master only in return for a reward. Rather, be like servants who do not serve only for a reward. And may the fear of the Heavens be upon you.
The Hebrew word that I have translated here as 'servant' is eved (עבד), a word that can also be translated as slave.' The Mishnah and the Talmud often depict humanity as being slaves or servants in relation to God.

The message here is not that we should be like simple mechanisms who obey God -- or the ones who claim to represent God's word -- reflexively and blindly. The ancient Rabbis who passed down to us endless volumes of their arguments about what exactly is God's will would never say that.

Rather we should be like servants before God in terms of our attitude towards God and the way we feel and express our love for God. This Mishnah tells us that we should carry out our Master's commands -- that is, God's mitzvot -- with joy and out of love, and not because we expect a reward in this world or the next.

Too, often, today, people seek religion because they expect it to do something for them. That is, they expect some kind of reward, whether it be happiness or fellowship or something else.

There is nothing wrong with wanting those things -- and a life of faith can indeed yield them. But, our Mishnah teaches us, that it is false to serve God only because we are hoping for those things. We need to serve out of love.

May you find it in your heart to give -- and receive -- love in the days ahead.

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