Congregation Etz Hayim at Hollis Hills Bayside

The consolidated communities of Hollis Hills Bayside Jewish Center and Marathon Jewish Community Center

>Shabbat ‘Ekev 5771

Why be good? Why bother?

This painfully simple question is at the root of religious and philosophical thought. In more complex language, it raises the tension between the intrinsic and extrinsic value of our actions. In other words, do we do what is right–in this case, observance of God’s mitzvot–because those commandments are intrinsically good and worthy of observing? Or, are we only capable of being motivated by some form of reward, or at least by avoiding some form of punishment. That is, do we need some extrinsic, external reason to be good?

Last week, when we explored the idea of being commanded to love God, we sensed the intrinsic nature of mitzvot–goodness for goodness’ sake. That’s the first paragraph of the Shema. This week’s parshah includes the passage we read as the second paragraph of the Shema. We’l call it “Behavior-influenced meteorology.” Rain will fall if you deserve it, having obeyed God; if you don’t, it won’t, and you’re in big trouble. In other words, be good in order to receive goodness. There’s no more extrinsic reason for goodness than that!

As you might expect, the rabbis favor the former approach to mitzvot. In their language, particularly when the subject is studying Torah, the terms are lishmah–for intrinsic, self-evident reasons, and lo lishmah–for extrinsic, external motivations. For example: “Lest you say, ‘I am learning Torah so that I will become wealthy, or so that I will be called rabbi, or so that I will receive reward in the World to Come,’ Scripture says ‘To love the LORD your God’–everything that you do should be out of love.” (Sifrei Devarim 41)

That’s lovely. But if it’s so obvious, why did the rabbis need to say it? Or, pose the question this way: If service of God should be the result of love and other pure motivations, like in the first paragraph of the Shema, why do we have the second paragraph of the Shema at all?

To be continued…Shabbat morning!