Written by student
“Ontignos, the man from Socho… said: Don’t be like servants who serve their master to receive ‘pras’. Rather, be like servants who serve their master not to receive ‘pras’ and let Fear of Heaven be on you.”
The first difficulty in reading this Mishna is the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘pras’. Rashi explains that the term ‘pras’ means a gift. The Rambam also says that it does not mean ‘sechar’, reward, which one deserves, but rather ‘chesed’, kindness and favors that are unearned and given for free. The implication here is that though one should not serve God for a gift or a favor, which he does not deserve; it is okay to serve God for reward, which he deserves. This requires some understanding: is the Mishna allowing one to fulfill commandments in order to receive reward?
The notion of performing commandments in exchange for reward is, on reflection, illogical. Reward has a notion of owing, that we did something so that, in return, God must pay us back for it, as if God owes us something. This cannot be true in relation to God: man cannot possess a claim of being owed something as he does towards another man. Within human society, there is a system that we call justice, and within that system, man realistically makes claims on others. God, however, does not exist within our system – as such, we cannot claim that ‘God owes’ a human being anything. Unlike our relationships with man, we cannot benefit or detract from God, so that by definition any claim on God would be absurd. Thus the Mishna does not mention serving God for reward because it is unnecessary: with some thought, it is easy to see how it is wrong.
The Rambam explains that the Mishna is teaching us that we should not serve God so that He will do kindness and favors for us, but rather we should serve God out of love. According to this, the parable given in the mishna is very precise: not only does it say that the servant should not serve the master to receive benefits, but the servant should do it out of love for the master. Relative to God, this would mean that it is not only that one should not perform commandments in order to receive favors, since there is another possibility: one might still serve God for the benefits of the commandments. This is what the second half of the parable tells us not to do; the highest level one should strive for is where he carries out the Will of God out of love for Him, without any care for personal benefits. Love of God demands that the individual has the perspective of the self where his own value is obliterated: the higher the level of the person, the less importance he gives to his own self.
“…Let the Fear of Heaven be upon you”. Rashi explains that there is no reward for fulfilling commandments in this world, as the verse says “as I commanded you today”- to perform today, but not to receive reward for them. According to Rashi’s interpretation, this Mishna addresses a problem that many religious people have when they experience some type of evil. They end up losing their Fear of God because they then maintain that God is not concerned with man.
A similar lesson is learned from a Gemara in Tractate Kiddushin (39b). The Gemara records the story of a child whose father told him to go up on a roof and get the birds that were there. The child went up, sent away the mother bird (thereby performing the commandment of sending away the mother bird before taking the chicks), he took the pigeons, and then died when returning. The Gemara asks: doesn’t this seem to contradict the verses in Torah that say that one who performs these commandments will receive good and long days? The Gemara answers that these verses are referring to receiving the good of the world which is only good and having lengthy days in the world that is only lengthy, meaning Olam Haba, the world to come. This, the Gemara explains, is what is meant when we say that there is no reward for the fulfillment of commandments in this world.
When we reflect on the idea that there is no reward for fulfilling commandments, we need to consider its implications. What does this mean for the notion of Divine Providence? If the Torah says that there is Divine Providence over those who keep God’s commandments, how then could it be that there is no reward for the commandments? To be continued.