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Meager Rewards

by Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

  

Library » Philosophy » Consequences | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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The Trivial Reward

He graduated with honors, received his master’s degree, and was working on his dissertation when he lost interest. In an effort to motivate him, his professor said to him, “If you submit your dissertation and are granted your PhD, I will personally buy you a Game Boy.”

He was at the top of his game, competing in the Olympics and showing great promise. He was projected to win the gold medal when his coach called him in for a pep talk. “Win the gold for flag and country,” said the coach, “and I'll give you a Hershey chocolate bar.”

Do these two scenarios strike you as curious? Of course! Does a professor think that an accomplished student of philosophy can be motivated by a child’s toy? A student who contemplates Socrates and Plato should be moved by a Game Boy?

What of the athlete who spends years training to reach the peak of his game. Stretching and straining his muscles, devoting countless hours, suffering numerous injuries, all in his quest for ascendancy and fame. Will a simple chocolate bar even register as a motivating factor?

 

Material Blessings
If the very suggestion sounds absurd then I ask you to consider the following verses from the Torah. “If you walk in my statutes and if you keep my commandments, then I shall give you your rains... The lands shall yield her produce; the trees shall yield her fruit; and your threshing shall reach into your vintage... You shall eat your bread to satisfaction and you shall live in your land safely.”1

When compared to the spiritual rewards that G-d’s statutes offer, the material blessing promised in these verses seem almost trivial
When compared to the spiritual rewards that G-d’s statutes offer, the material blessing promised in these verses seem almost trivial. The Torah’s statutes are channels of communication through which the mortal human connects to the divine. They are pathways of ascent through which we climb to celestial heights; they bathe us in an uplifting halo of heavenly light and envelop us in a sanctifying blanket of G-dliness.

These celestial benefits are the greatest motivation for performing the statutes. Is it not curious that the Torah employs promises that are trivial by comparison as motivation to the performance of the statutes?

 

The Ox and the Servant
Our sages taught that these material blessings are merely ancillary benefits, not the true reward for Mitzvah observance; the true reward awaits us in the world to come.2 These benefits have been compared by some to the Torah law, “Thou shall not muzzle an ox in its threshing.”3

The ox is amply rewarded for its work. It is given a clean stall, fresh hay and all the grain it can eat. Must the master also allow the ox to eat the grain it threshes? Yes, because forcing the ox to work with grain while preventing it from eating is cruel and therefore forbidden.

In the same vein, G-d promises material blessing as the reward for performing his statutes here on earth. We will be amply rewarded in the world to come, but as long as we are at work here in this world, we are entitled to enjoy its material blessing.

In a similar vein, Maimonides has argued that as long as we serve G-d, we deserve to be treated as well as the servants of a master are treated.4 According to Torah law, a master is required to provide for his servants even better than he provides for himself. He must feed and clothe them and he must ensure their dignity at all times. He is also required to provide working conditions that are conducive to the work he expects from them.5

As long as the Jewish people serve G-d, argues Maimonides, G-d is duty bound to feed us, clothe us, and provide a comfortable working environment.6

Footnotes

  • 1. Leviticus 33:3-5.
  • 2. “There is no reward for mitzvot in this world” (Talmud Kiddushin 39b). “Today is to perform; tomorrow is for reward” (Talmud Eiruvin 22a, Avodah Zarah 50a). In the words of the Mishnah: “Dividends are paid out in this world but the principle is reserved for the world to come” (Peah 1:1).
  • 3. Deuteronomy 25:4.
  • 4. Leviticus 25:55.
  • 5. Maimonides, Laws of Avadim ch. 1 and 9.
  • 6. Furthermore, one who hires a former prince as a servant is required by Torah law to provide the kind of benefits to which the former prince is accustomed. Jews are the children of G-d, the King of all kings, and as such, are entitled to the luxurious benefits the Torah describes in addition to our reward in the world to come.

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Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Maimonides
Moses son of Maimon, born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
Mitzvot
Plural form of Mitzvah. Commandments of G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Kabbalistic
(adj.) Pertaining to Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.