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Ulterior Motives

Perhaps this year, the shofar has a message for us beyond a general call to teshuvah



The month of the shofar is here.

It arrives just as events seem to indicate that we’re not quite out of the Covid woods yet. As cases rise in Eretz Yisrael, restrictions have been reinstituted in an effort to avoid a fourth lockdown. Across the US, the daily average of new infections has risen above 100,000 for the first time since February. The New York Times reports that doctors working in COVID-19 hot spots across the nation say that “the new arrivals are younger, many in their twenties or thirties and also seem sicker than younger patients were last year. And they are deteriorating more rapidly…. Some have no underlying health conditions that would make them more susceptible.”

Perhaps this year, the shofar has a message for us beyond that of a general call to teshuvah.

The Michtav MeEliyahu (3:133) cites a letter of Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal, explaining why there are times when we are denied our essential spiritual resources — whether through the passing of tzaddikim, decrees against doing mitzvos, or the shuttering of yeshivos and shuls. According to the Ramchal, Hashem brings these things about to move us to address the sin of avodah zarah in our midst.

This is an internal aveirah — the uprooting of emunah in our hearts and minds — and thus requires a correspondingly internal response. Hashem removes our external spiritual supports — the teachers of Torah, the yeshivos and seforim, the shiurim and the tefillos — so that we are forced to dig deep within to find the resources to learn Torah and do mitzvos because we really want to, not because it’s what everyone’s doing or what earns us positions and plaudits.

But while the Ramchal has told us that decrees preventing us from avodas Hashem — which describes what we’ve been through recently — stem from the sin of avodah zarah in our midst, have you noticed anyone in your neighborhood surreptitiously taking out a little pocket idol for a quick genuflection, or does anyone you know have a wood or stone icon in the backyard? There’s no denying we’ve got our hands full with spiritual infirmities of various kinds. But idol worship?

Of course, Chazal (Shabbos 105b) refer to the yetzer hara as the “alien god that is within you.” But that can’t be the Ramchal’s intent, for the struggle with the yetzer is a perpetual one and the decrees he speaks of would then need to be ongoing as well. He instead seems to be addressing specific times when we suffer spiritual deficits, which he in turn imputes to the existence of avodah zarah. But how can that possibly be relevant to us?


Chazal teach that idolatry made its appearance in a monotheistic world when people began to see the heavenly luminaries as intermediaries worthy of being worshipped independent of Hashem. Rav Simcha Wasserman, as conveyed by his talmid Rabbi Akiva Tatz, explained that the mindset of these first idolaters was like that of a fellow who pines for the $5,000 diamond necklace in a glass case in the department store. It’s far too expensive for his budget, so he offers to slip the saleslady $500 to hand him the jewelry. He’s willing to pay the price of the bribe but not the full price of the object, so he focuses on the store employee, who is the one delivering the goods, rather than on the store owner, who would insist on the full price.

The idolater, too, “is prepared to pay some price for his needs but not the full price; the full price required for genuine service is all you have, and that is too much for him. He seeks to pay off the source that delivers the goods,” writes Rabbi Tatz. “Correctly understood, the heart of the difference is this: True service understands that Hashem is everything, I am only to serve. Idolatry understands that I am everything, and my gods are to serve me.”

In a word, the essence of avodah zarah is transactional religion, a selfish exchange of goods for service under a veneer of the metaphysical. Avodas Hashem, in contrast, means bittul to the Creator, a commitment to do His Will for no other reason than that He so wills it.

And so, perhaps we need to take a closer look at our spiritual lives and ask ourselves: How much of a role does the Will of Hashem play in why we do what we do, and how much are our actions driven by other, external factors that color our spiritual lives with a transactional tinge? It’s an important question to consider in a world in which everywhere we turn, we’re being urged to do this or that mitzvah as a segulah for parnassah or a refuah sheleimah or a shidduch.

Those are unquestionably important things, for which we all hope and daven. But when they become the overriding focus of so much of what one does, something precious is lost. The brilliant shining beauty of being a loyal soldier of the Master of the Universe — Who brought me into This World to do just this act in this moment, here and now — loses its sheen under layers of self-involvement with my needs.

We are inundated with stories featuring invariably happy endings in which doing a certain mitzvah or refraining from an aveirah helped make someone’s dream come true. And what if that was not to be the tale’s conclusion? Would the opportunity to fulfill the very purpose of our few years in This World and thereby ready our neshamah to bask in Hashem’s Presence forever in the Next One — to literally live happily ever after — be such a shabby way to end the story?

And then there are the instances in which limud haTorah and mitzvah performance are explicitly made vehicles to other ends — worthy ones, to be sure, like raising money for good causes — but vehicles nonetheless. While bikes are appropriate vehicles for raising tzedakah funds, couple that with the contemporary tendency of advertisers to press every manner of mitzvah into service (for the likewise good cause of making their clients profitable), and one begins to wonder just how much “He Who has sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us…” still recognizes those commandments when they come before Him On High.

But don’t Chazal teach that a person should do mitzvos shelo lishmah, even for ulterior motives? But the way that statement ends is “because out of shelo lishmah comes lishmah.” Life moves along quickly and if we don’t make a move to begin incorporating elements of lishmah into our avodas Hashem, it won’t happen on its own. This isn’t an argument in favor of pure idealism in our avodas Hashem, but one for restoring balance to it.

It is, perhaps, a case for doing for our mitzvos something akin to what my yedid Rabbi Dovid Newman has done in giving countless young bnei Torah a geshmak in Torah. When Reb Dovid created V’haarev Na, a program for Gemara learning based on constant review, he didn’t innovate anything. He merely trusted in the inherent magnetic power of Torah and in Chazal’s recipe for Torah success. Instead of offering external motivators and artificial sweeteners like tests and incentives, he showed bochurim how they could master Gemara through constant review and thereby allow its innate honeyed flavor to emerge.


Leave Torah alone, Reb Dovid said. Instead of well-meaning but counterproductive strategies to sell Torah, let it sell itself, and it will transform those who learn it. And maybe the same can be said of our mitzvos. The effort to relate to mitzvos not as instruments of our personal needs but strictly as the path to enhance our relationship with Hashem will transform our spiritual lives, too.

The Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer states that the shofar blowing on Rosh Chodesh Elul recalls the one heard as Moshe ascended to receive the second Luchos. It was a warning to the nation not to stray once again after avodah zarah in his absence.

This blast ushers in a month full of love between man and G-d, as hinted in Elul’s acronym of Ani L‘dodi V’dodi Li. And how, writes the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 10:2), does one act who serves Hashem out of love? “He learns Torah and does mitzvos… not for any reason in the world…. Instead, he performs the truth because it is the truth, and the good will follow.”

That message, broadcast all Elul long, is one we can stand to hear.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 873. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com


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