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Chapter 1, Mishna 3: “Ontignos, the man from Socho said: Don’t be like servants who serve their master to receive ‘pras’ but rather be like servants who serve their master not to receive ‘pras’ and let Fear of Heaven be on you”
We last learned how Rashi and Rambam explain that our Mishna is teaching that one should serve God out of love for Him, since there is no reward for serving Him in this world. We then left off with the following question: if there is no reward in this world, what are the implications about Divine Providence and the blessings in the Torah? If we receive them when fulfilling commandments, as stated in the Torah, then what is meant that there is no reward for serving God?
Clearly, the Torah tells us that there is the reward of Divine Providence in this world for one who serves God. However, this is a very specific type of reward: for one who lives correctly, God provides a situation where he can perfect himself to the greatest degree. The issue in our Mishna pertains to pleasures of the world, which have no effect on the soul, neither positively nor negatively. I such a case, does God reward a person with such pleasures in this world? Ontignos, in our Mishna, rejects this notion. Sensual pleasures that one receives are not part of a reward, as they are only accidental. It is for this reason that one cannot look to the physical for reward: God creates the best possible situation, but only He knows what that is. The real ‘good’ to be received cannot be translated into “this” world’s terminology. People lose their Fear of God because of this mistake: they expect that their good deeds will result in some physical enjoyment.
This idea is similar to what Rambam says concerning the story of Job. Job was a traditional Jew who enjoyed the commandments but he mistook the enjoyment for the real good. He thought the enjoyments would be secured for him because of his good deeds, and that was his mistake. People wish to translate their service of God into physical enjoyments. However, this cannot be done. As Rambam says elsewhere (in his introduction to his commentary on “Perek Chelek” in Tractate Sanhedrin) there is no spiritual enjoyment in this world.
The challenge that our Mishna presents is that most of us value that which is good to our senses and it is difficult to remove ourselves from this state. The only way we can do this by perceiving a different type of good: that which is non-physical and abstract, namely knowledge.
Rambam in his commentary on our Mishna explains that the import of the Mishna is to teach that we should serve God out of love, but at the same time still remain in fear of God, for fear of God is also a commandment, and our Sages say “serve with love, serve with fear” as well as “He who loves will not stay away from fulfilling a commandment and he who is fearful won’t transgress on a prohibition”. Fear plays great part in the prohibitive commandments. This commentary on Rambam leads us to the relationship between the two commandments, fearing God and loving God. From this statement of Rambam it sounds like they are two distinct commandments that must be upheld at all times.
However, Rambam in his Laws of Repentance 10:1 seems to contradict this, saying that one who serves God in order to avoid punishment either in this world or in the world to come is considered one who serves God out of fear and “it is not appropriate to serve God in this manner except by the ignoramuses, women, and children, that we teach them to serve with fear until they increase their knowledge so that they may serve with love”. From this statement, it seems that fear of God is only valuable as a means to loving God, as fear is just a training tool to be used for a person to reach the level of love. How are we to understand these two conflicting statements of Rambam?
In order to understand the relationship between fear and love of God, we need to also examine what is meant by love of God. Here too, Rambam seems to contradict himself: In Laws of Repentance 10:2, Rambam says that one who serves God out of love involves himself in Torah and its commandments only because he recognizes them as true and as the ultimate good. Rambam states further that this is a level of greatness that not even every wise man can reach. However, further in the same chapter, in law 5, he says that we train ignoramuses, women, and children to serve God out of fear and then increase their knowledge so that eventually they will have knowledge of God and serve Him with love. From this statement, it would seem that anyone can reach a level of love of God: even an ignoramus, after gaining a level of knowledge. How can we reconcile these two statements of Rambam: on the one hand, love of God is a level that not everyone can reach; on the other hand, with the correct education, anyone can reach the love of God! To be continued.