Is it wrong to look for the “what’s in it for me” aspect of Torah observance? After all, God Himself gave the Jews selfish reasons to follow His Torah. Why shouldn’t I base my observance on what I enjoy or find meaningful?
The answer to your question is “it depends.” As you correctly note, the Torah and Rabbinic literature are full of examples of the rewards we will reap if we follow God’s commandments. Indeed, the notion of s’char va-onesh (reward and punishment for one’s deeds) is one of the tenets of Jewish faith. However, an attitude of “what’s in it for me” runs the risk of ignoring the fact that we are also held accountable for our sins and transgressions. We are bound to follow the entirety of the Torah – all 613 commandments – even if they are difficult and not necessarily enjoyable. The Gemara tells us that if a non-Jew is willing to convert to Judaism and accept upon him or herself “all of the commandments with the exception of one” we do not accept them as a convert. Judaism and Jewish practice is a commitment to the complete system of mitzvoth as written in the Torah and elaborated by the Rabbis.
Theologically, one who approaches Judaism with this approach puts him or herself at the center instead of God. Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, a leading Orthodox rabbi and thinker one wrote in Commentary Magazine “to respond to the Torah, at whatever level, is not just to undergo mystical or even prophetic trauma, but to heed a command. Or rather, to heed God as the giver of commands.” In other words, we follow the Torah and commandments because God told us so. If one observes because the mitzvot (commandments) are enjoyable or otherwise appealing, there is always the risk that one day they will no longer be appealing and then the person will stop observing.
As with most things in Judaism, things are not as straightforward as they might appear. Though there are great philosophical and theological risks in basing one’s observance on that which is personally satisfying, there are times when it is appropriate and even recommended to do so. If one accepts the entire halachic (Jewish legal) system and strives to obey all the commandments, it is okay to place a greater emphasis on those mitzvoth that resonate with the person. Similarly, whenever introducing Judaism and Jewish practice to someone it is important to present our tradition as being enjoyable and personally satisfying. Hopefully this will foster further religious growth. While observance of all the mitzvot is the ultimate goal, it is not reasonable or healthy to expect someone to take on the entirety of Jewish law at one time. In the same vein, one who has been turned off from Judaism in the past and is looking to come back should also focus on those parts of halachah (Jewish law) that he/she finds most attractive and go forward from there.
God said so as in Exodus 24:12 “The Lord said to Moses: Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tables and the Torah and Mitzvah which I have inscribed to teach them
Because of a reward Deuteronomy 11:13-If, then, you obey all the commandments that I enjoy upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season.
Because Mitzvot can refine human beings- Genesis Rabbah 44:1 Rab sad: The mitzvoth were given only in order that human beings might be refined by them. For what does the Holy One, who is praised, care whether a person kills an animal by the throat or by the nape of its neck? So its purpose is to refine human beings.”
People might do so because it connects us to our heritage in a nostalgic way, as described in Arnie Eisen’s book Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community
Fulfilling mitzvot is a moral imperative or they are all areas of personal growth.
Of course this is not an exhaustive list but rather demonstrates that engaging in mitzvot can take on a variety of meanings but one won’t know what those meanings are unless they try!
I would argue that observing Judaism in general and mitzvot in particular (not that those can necessarily be separated) should in fact be done in a way that does provide meaning. It doesn’t mean that everything will feel great all of the time but ideally by being conscious of what we are doing will elevate all that we do, to make our acts, even the smallest, meaningful.
Judaism does not ask us to apologize for feeling good-it does demand though that our behavior with ourselves and each other reflects the sense that each of us are created in God’s image and therefore how we treat each other is crucial.
In a nutshell, Don’t apologize for getting something out of mitzvot, but stretch yourself to do even those that don’t feel meaningful quite yet!
There is nothing I do for which I know all the reasons I may do it. That means that even when I may be engaged in what appears to be completely altruistic behavior, it likely will include at least a touch of the pragmatic, an element of what's in this for me. And while I would love to imagine I'm free from the "taint" of reward, there is a part of most of us that seems unable fully to eliminate a certain (forgive me) Santa Claus view of deity and our concern for any divine naughty or nice list. Curiously, the famous song does end with a coda on point for this discussion. "So be good for goodness sake," in addition to being the only honest line in the song, implies that the reward for our good conduct – unlike the presents/bribes or punishments the song describes – is principally, were it only so, our growth in self and soul. But religion in general and Judaism in particular are not only for those who live exclusively in the rarefied heights of pure motives. No matter our age or stage, what's in it for me will likely intrude, at least occasionally. No doubt that is why, especially from a perspective that includes personal autonomy in decision-making, the tradition's reminder seems of the moment. Mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma. It may be translated or interpreted as "doing something good for the ‘wrong or ulterior’ motive may eventually lead to doing it for the right reason” (literally, for its own sake). Similarly, the Jewish people's response at Mount Sinai, na’aseh v’nishma (we shall do and we shall hear or understand). Or as Nike urges, "Just do it."
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