Pirkei Avos, Mishnah 1:3

This past Shabbos, we began learning Pirkei Avos. It is the custom to learn one chapter a week during the six weeks between Pesach and Shavuos. Many repeat the cycle over the summer, until Rosh Hashanah.
Avos:1:3 reads as follows:
Do not be like servants who serve their master for the purpose of receiving a reward, but rather be like servants who serve their master not for the purpose of receiving a reward.
The Maggid, in his commentary on Ruth 2:11-12, explains this Mishnah based on what the Rambam says about another Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (4:2): “The reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah.” [See Rambam’s commentaries on Avos 1:3 and 4:2, and his famous introduction to Chapter 10 of Mishnah Sanhedrin (Perek Chelek).] The Rambam explains that there is no greater reward or pleasure than the enjoyment a person’s soul will feel in the World to Come on account of a mitzvah. It is only due to the scourge of desire for worldly pleasures that a person’s soul cannot fully appreciate the sweetness of a mitzvah during his sojourn in this earthly world. Occupation with worldly pleasures causes a spiritual malaise, analogous to a physical sickness that cause a person to lose his sense of taste.
Note that the Mishnah does not merely say: “Do not serve God in order to get a reward.” Rather, it says that one should not be a person who serves God in order to get a reward. The Maggid brings out the idea behind this with a brilliant analogy.
David sees his friend Jonathan, and finds him worried and upset. He asks: “What is making you groan like this?” Jonathan answers: “My precious only son has been sick for three days.” David remarks: “Why, I saw him just today, running around outside as usual.” Jonathan replies: “So what? Still, he is sick. I can tell, because he has no appetite. He turns down with disgust even the most delicious food.”
David goes to Jonathan’s house to visit the boy. He asks: “Why are you upsetting your father by refusing to eat?” The boy says: “What can I do? I am just not hungry.” David retorts: “I see! You want a prize for eating nicely.” David offers the boy a few gold coins. After some discussion, the boy agrees, in return for this reward, to eat a little bit of kugel and a small piece of meat. David runs to Jonathan and announces ecstatically: “My friend, I have good news for you! Your son ate some kugel and meat.” Jonathan says: “Tell me exactly what happened.” David tells him the story. Jonathan cries out: “You fool! This story itself shows how sick he is. Eating delicious food is such a burden to him that he has to be paid for it.”
The Mishnah is telling us not to be like this boy. We must guard our souls and strive for purity, so that we do not become so spiritually sick that we lose our sense for the sweetness of a mitzvah and relate only to reward. Rather, just doing a mitzvah should bring us more pleasure than any other reward in the world.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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