GOOD MORNING! Unfortunately, almost every state in the USA has seen a marked uptick in new COVID cases with daily rates now double what they were a few weeks ago. According to epidemiologists, this is due to a variety of factors including the highly transmissible Delta variant, summer socializing, and unvaccinated young people.

Already the debate has begun as to whether the CDC acted prematurely by removing the mask requirements for those who are fully vaccinated (of course, certain counties in California have already reinstated indoor mask requirements). As the number of COVID cases continue to increase, the specter of new government regulations once again dictating individual behaviors will be on the horizon.

Should that happen, the country will undoubtedly once again be gripped in fierce debate over the pros and cons, the costs vs. benefits, of those regulations. This debate will inevitably spill into other areas including the science of vaccination and the claims of various medical and government conspiracies. Each side will then manage to manipulate statistics and “facts” to prove their narrative. It reminds me of the joke that surfaced a few years ago after the CDC asked their employees to “avoid” using certain terminology.

Behavioral Scientist 1: Did you hear that the White House banned the terms “science-based” and “evidence-based” from certain government reports?
Behavioral Scientist 2: Wow! You can’t make this stuff up…
Behavioral Scientist 1: Actually, now you can!

This week's Torah reading includes a remarkable lesson relating to what should govern our behaviors and the reasons for it:

And it will come to be, if you diligently listen to my commandments which I command you this day, to love Hashem your God... (11:13)

The famous medieval Biblical commentator known as Rashi explains that the rewards bestowed upon one who follows all of the Torah’s precepts come as a result of loving the Almighty. In other words, one is not supposed to observe the commandments in order to receive reward, but rather one should fulfill them out of love for Hashem.

Rashi continues, “One should not say ‘I will study Torah in order to become rich, I will study in order to be called ‘Rabbi,’ I will study in order to receive reward...’ but rather all that one does should be done out of love.” Rashi clearly articulates that we observe the Almighty’s commandments because we have a relationship with Him, not because of the reward we might receive.

Rashi's comment is in line with a very similar passage found in the repository of wisdom and Jewish philosophy known as Pirkei Avot – “Ethics of our Fathers” (1:3): “Antignos of Socho used to say: ‘Do not be as servants who serve the Master to receive reward. Rather, be as servants who serve the Master not to receive reward.’”

The trouble is that Rashi ends his comment on our verse with a very perplexing statement, “and in the end the ‘reward’ will surely come.” Thus, even though one isn’t supposed to focus on the reward for observing the Torah’s commandments, one shouldn’t worry as the reward will surely follow. This statement is problematic for Rashi is seemingly undoing the lesson that he just taught! It’s almost as if we are supposed to do all the mitzvot “altruistically” – wink, wink – knowing all the while that, ultimately, we will be rewarded for our observance of the Torah.

If, as Rashi first stated, we aren’t supposed fulfill the commandments in order to receive the reward, then what’s the point of making assurances that in the end a person will be rewarded? Aren’t we supposed to grow to the level of altruism whereby one doesn’t follow the precepts for the reward?

Oddly enough, the answer to this lies in understanding why people commit acts of martyrdom and self-sacrifice and why, to a lesser extent, so many people practice hero worship, create fan clubs, and attend comic-cons dressed as comic book and movie characters.

Subconsciously, everyone recognizes that they, quite literally, have an expiration date. The moment a person is born they are in a (hopefully long) process of dying. This is why people are referred to as mortals, which comes from the Latin word mortalis – “subject to death.” The very fact that we are going to die actually defines us.

People (wisely) avoid focusing on this reality, but even subconsciously knowing that there will be a time of nonexistence drives people to seek some sort of tangible existence – often looking for recognition as affirmation.

This is one of the reasons that there is such a powerful drive to become famous. Those who have done things to be remembered by (movie stars, recording artists, sports “superstars,” etc.) are therefore known as being “immortalized” – transcending death. In fact, the reason they are referred to as “stars” in the first place is because the stars and planets have commonly been viewed as everlasting.

There is a gnawing emptiness in people’s lives that they seek to fill, and being recognized and noticed, even in such seemingly ridiculous ways as dressing up as a “hobbit,” gives a modicum of meaning to their lives. In fact, the more marginalized a person feels the more likely it is that he will engage in this sort of behavior. True, this type of meaning is fairly shallow, but like cotton candy, it does create a fleeting moment of pleasure and causes the person feel relevant.

In an extreme situation, one may actually commit self-destructive acts to fill this void. In fact, the more seemingly altruistic and self-sacrificial the act is, the more recognition they receive. This is the driving force behind “martyrs” like suicide bombers. Paradoxically, it seems that it is the survival instinct (the drive to transcend one’s death) that causes this bizarre behavior. In other words, how does someone become immortal and live forever in the hearts and minds of others? By killing themselves and becoming a sacrifice for the cause.

Judaism abhors this behavior (which is one of the reasons why Christianity was a nonstarter alternative for Jews of the 1st century). Judaism’s whole understanding of why the world was created is based on the philosophy that God’s intent was the bestowal of good on mankind and that the highest level of good is an eternal relationship with the Almighty. Consequently, in Judaism we achieve “immortality” through a relationship with God.

This means that everything we do is out of love for Hashem, not out of a compulsion to achieve recognition for ourselves. This is evident even in our service to the Almighty. In the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem there were daily animal offerings. The Hebrew word for this is korban, which is commonly translated as “sacrifice.” But this is not really an accurate translation. The word korban comes from the root word “karov – to be close.” Meaning, the highest level of service to God was merely a way to achieve a closer relationship.

But if we are constantly doing for the Almighty, then how do we know that we are in a relationship with Him and that it isn’t merely a Master ordering His slaves to be obedient? How do we know that God doesn’t want us to act in a self-sacrificing or martyrdom way? Because, as Rashi points out, the motivation for the mitzvot must be our love for Hashem. Still, one might ask, who’s to say that this is a two-way relationship; perhaps it is like idol worship, which is entirely one-way?

Because, as Rashi points out, Hashem assures us that the reward is going to come in the end. This teaches us that we are in a loving relationship with God and that He is interested in our benefit. As we see in Pirkei Avot, we don’t do things for the reward but we still must know that there will be a reward. That’s what shows us it’s a relationship.

Similarly, in a healthy marital relationship we (hopefully) don’t act in a quid pro quo manner. A husband and wife aren’t in a business relationship of “I give in order to receive.” For example, a wife doesn’t “agree” to make dinner for her husband because he took her car to the mechanic or did the shopping and now she feels obligated. Similarly, the husband doesn’t do those things for his wife in order to receive dinner.

Rather, the husband takes her car to the mechanic and does the shopping because he loves her and wants to help and support her, and she in turn makes dinner for her husband because she loves him and wants to take care of him. But even though neither party does it for the “rewards,” knowing that benefits are coming for one’s efforts is what tells them they are in a healthy relationship and not one of self-sacrifice.

The same applies with the Almighty; we observe the commandments out of love, not obligation or expectation. But knowing that God intends to reward us is what tells us that we are in a relationship with Him and that He cares about us.

Torah Portion of the Week

Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25

Moses continues his discourse guaranteeing the Jewish people prosperity and good health if they follow the mitzvot, the commandments. He reminds us to look at our history and to know that we can and should trust in God. However, we should be careful so that we are not distracted by our material success, lest we forget and ignore God.

Moses warns us against idolatry and against self-righteousness. He then details our rebellions against God during the 40 years in the desert and the giving of the Second Tablets (Moses broke the first Tablets containing the Ten Commandments during the sin of the Golden Calf).

The Torah then answers a question that every human being has asked of himself: What does God want of you? “Only that you remain in awe of God your Lord, so that you will follow all His paths and love Him, serving God your Lord with all your heart and with all your soul. You must keep God’s commandments and decrees […] so that all good will be yours” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Candle Lighting Times

Everybody wants to save the Earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.
― P.J. O’Rourke


Dedicated In Honor of My Dear Wife

Dr. Helena Igras

From Your Loving Husband Marc

 

In loving memory of
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor
1950-2019

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

Copyright © 2021 Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig