Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Great Highway From Reward to Lishmah

We have often pointed out in these pages that Chazal were light years ahead of modern science even thousands of years ago. Rav Dovid Cohen has offered numerous examples of this phenomenon (Sefer Avrohom Yagel Yitzchok Yeranen, pages 16-47). This past week, we had the pleasure of witnessing another scientific hypothesis bite the dust, only that Chazal had preceded the event by several millennia. Conventional wisdom had always dictated that rewarding positive actions and behaviors would stimulate ongoing improvement and emendation in that area.

Pedagogic experts and leaders in the field of education indicated that students would improve and eventually become permanently better when motivated by various rewards and incentives. However, to the surprise of the experts – something called “contrary to hypothesis” – they discovered that the exact opposite is true: “When we are rewarded for doing something, we tend to lose interest in whatever we had to do to get the reward…when you promise people a reward, they often perform more poorly as a result…rewards frequently kill both interest and excellence…when people put off doing something – which often happens when a task seems unappealing – a reward offered for finishing early either didn’t help or led to increased procrastination… Nine-year-olds in a very low-income area of India whose school attendance was spotty…were offered a reward if they came to school…attendance improved [but] afterward it promptly dropped…to a level much lower than it had been to begin with.” All these studies were conducted by respected researchers from universities such as Harvard and Colby College (New York Times, Sunday Review, October 28, 2018, “Science Confirms It: People Are Not Pets.”). All of these social psychologists and educators were shocked to find that rewards and incentives were not only worthless, but often quite counterproductive.


What is the Torah attitude toward rewards and incentives?

The answer may be misleading at first. Chazal (Nozir 23b) famously tell us that “one should always engage in Torah and mitzvos even for ulterior motives, because this will lead to their performance for the ideal reasons.” This would seem to indicate that rewards and incentives have their place in the Torah configuration of inducement and persuasion. However, closer analysis demonstrates that the exact opposite is true.

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l was once asked, “How can it be that people are constantly witnessing Hashem’s providence – good people being rewarded and evil people suffering – yet it has no effect upon them?” He answered that Rav Yisroel Salanter was once asked a similar question. “Since Chazal teach that the most powerful antidote to sin is to recall that the day of death is rapidly drawing closer, why aren’t people who constantly deal with death, such as undertakers and funeral directors, the absolutely holiest in the world?” He responded with a question: “Why don’t we raise the same issue about the horses that bring the corpse to the cemetery?” The answer is that obviously they are horses, not human beings, and they can’t stop to think. We, too, gain nothing from the events around us unless we profoundly contemplate their significance. Rav Shach applied the same logic to those who may have read about or even witnessed Hashem’s Hashgacha Protis – Divine Providence – but did not absorb the lesson of applying these events to themselves (see Ohel Moshe, Devorim, page 159).

When it comes to gifts, awards or other incentives, their value is at best ephemeral, since the original inducement was neither permanent nor particularly compelling. If anything, as science has recently discovered, the peripheral value of a reward teaches nothing for the long run or permanent change of the one who receives such remuneration.

If we don’t actually use rewards as an incentive, then what exactly are all the Torah promises of happiness and success if we follow its dictates and avoid its prohibitions?

Interestingly, the world of mussar and the world of chassidus agree exactly about the guidelines.

The Alter of Kelm (see Bais Kelm, Middos 2:416) quoted Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:13) that it is extremely difficult for a person to undertake all the character traits required of a perfect Torah personality. It is part of Hashem’s ultimate kindness that He allows us to develop these middos under the guise of self-serving actions. Thinking that we will become happy, satiated, successful and serene, we engage in behaviors that then become ingrained in us through perpetuation. Eventually, they become part of our DNA to the extent that we no longer look to benevolent results for what has become intrinsic to our essence.

The Alter concludes that this is the meaning of the Mishnah (Avos 2:2) which states that “All who exert themselves for the community should exert themselves for the sake of heaven.” The word All, he contends, means that even if one accepts monetary remuneration for his efforts, he should also do it for the sake of heaven. He cites the Vilna Gaon (quoted in Maalos HaTorah) as concluding the same thing.

Furthermore, says Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l (Letters and Writings 1:65), the Alter taught that when Chazal (Brachos 54a) assert that we should serve Hashem with both of our inclinations, the good and the bad, they mean that we may include ulterior motives if we also keep in mind the ultimate ideal of total lishmah.

Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger zt”l puts faces and names on this approach in a pragmatic way: “One cannot demand that everyone be like the Achiezer (Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt”l) or the Avi Ezri (Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l) in their completely dedicated avodas Hashem, to the exclusion of all other motivations. However, at least we should be aware that there are levels for which to strive as we become ready for that pristine level.”

Rav Chatzkel Levenstein zt”l also sees the path to serving Hashem through the lure of reward and the fear of punishment as “a great boon from the Creator” (Ohr Yechezkel, Torah Vodaas 5:58). He cites the Mesilas Yeshorim (chapter 19) that even working on ourselves to accept that “whatever Hashem does is for the best” is only an intermediate level. Ultimately, we should be taking ourselves out of the equation completely and doing only whatever is best for the sake of Heaven. However, since this is onerous at the early stages of our spiritual growth, Hashem allows us to rise gradually through a lifetime process, gaining momentum throughout the various stages of existence.

The Gerrer Rebbe zt”l (Imrei Emes, Vayeilech 5671, page 73), too, utilizes this concept based upon the words we recite thrice daily in Shemoneh Esrei. In the brocha of Al Hatzaddikim, we pray that “Hashem give goodly reward to all who sincerely believe in Your name.” In the name of the Arizal, the rebbe explains that these words are “advice for becoming a G-d-fearing person.” He relates this to the mitzvah of hakhel, when Klal Yisroel arrives at the Bais Hamikdosh on Sukkos during the year after Shmittah. Everyone must come, men, women and even young children. The Imrei Emes sees these categories as representative of the various levels of trust and belief in Hashem. Children are brought “to offer reward to those bring them” (Chagigah 4a), a reference to those who do not travel totally for the sake of Heaven, only for the reward. Yet, despite this deficiency, they are listed amongst those who “sincerely believe in Your Name…and will not feel ashamed.” This follows the Arizal’s teaching that Hakhel unifies all, those with perfect and not-yet-perfect faith, into one nation serving Hashem. The implication is clearly, as taught by the baalei mussar, that avodas Hashem is a process that is aided and nurtured by a period of shelo lishmah followed by growth into total lesheim Shomayim.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, points out (Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos 6) an extraordinary chiddush of Rav Chaim Volozhiner zt”l. Rav Chaim seems to conclude that according to Rav Yehudah, one who engages in Torah for ulterior motives without the plan that it will lead to total lishmah is not granted the dispensation that he, too, is serving Hashem properly. My rebbi leaves unanswered the question that this seems to contradict the words of Chazal (Nozir 23b) that Balak merited having Shlomo Hamelech as his descendent since he offered 42 sacrifices to Hashem, although they were clearly not for the sake of Heaven. Now, Balak surely was not possibly planning to utilize this opportunity to grow into a G-d-fearing lishmah oveid Hashem, yet he was rewarded for his efforts. In any case, although there may be various ways to understand this discrepancy, we might at least conclude that for the rest of us, the ideal is that we may initially perform mitzvos with self-serving intent as long as we strive for the process to become one that leads to spiritual perfection.

Indeed, science has finally ascertained that mere reward doesn’t work in the long run. However, what they have not and cannot discover is the beautiful compassionate process Hashem has granted us. We may, as normal human beings, engage in self-preservation and somewhat self-centered activity, as long as we keep our eye on the ultimate goal. If we always keep in mind that we are striving to be the people who act solely for His sake, a short diversion is not going “off the derech,” but is actually the best road possible to serving Hashem with all our might and soul.



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