Why Serve God?
Rabbi Israel Chait
An intelligent reader from Belgium made it clear to me that my past article warrants a sequel. We have stated that one of the premises of our faith is that God has no needs and derives no benefit whatever from our serving Him. As Nachmanidies states, "all our praise is as nothing to Him." This is clear to any intelligent person. For how would God, the Creator of the universe, derive satisfaction from our praise? Would an Albert Einstein derive satisfaction from the praise of a child who says he is a great mathematician because he knows the multiplication table? Our knowledge of God is far less than that of a child's knowledge of an Einstein because a child at lest knows something of Einstein while we know nothing of God other than the little we understand of His works and that He exists. Also, we consider it an imperfection if a person is in need of praise and enjoys praise and we do not ascribe imperfection to God.
All this being clear the question remains, why do we serve God, since He gains nothing from our service? Is it for ourselves? Isn't this then hedonistic? Is our religion self seeking? Because of such questions some have maintained that the essence of religion lies in helping others. But if one's self-fulfillment is dependant upon helping others one must wish that others be in a state of need. Were everyone self-sufficient such a person would have no purpose in life. They would be like a successful General whose very success in ushering in an era of peace renders his services obsolete.
In the messianic era, we are told, no one will be in a needy state yet all will serve God. The service of God, therefore, must contain something other than helping others. There must be some other underlying good that we are helping others to attain. This underlying good is something we would necessarily occupy ourselves with even if everyone had everything attainable. It is a good we would involve ourselves with even if we were alone, as Adam the First. What is this underlying good if it is not for the benefit of God or of other people? Does the Torah provide the answer to this most important question upon which our entire worship of God depends?
The Torah states in Deuteronomy 10:12,13, "And now, o' Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to follow in all His ways, and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, to keep the commandments of God, and His statutes, which I give you this day so that it shall be good for you?" In other words, the purpose of the entire Torah, the reason why God gave the Torah to man, is that man may benefit from it. Again in Deuteronomy 6:24 we read, "And God commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, so that it will be good for us all the days, that He might preserve us alive, as it is at this day." It is clear from the Torah that the purpose of our serving God is to benefit ourselves and for no other reason. As Nachmanidies states, "It is all solely for our own benefit, (Nachmanidies on Deuteronomy 22:6)." But, we might ask, how does this differ from hedonism? Does not the Torah put down the selfish and hedonistic way of life? To answer this question we must understand what is wrong with the hedonistic way of life. What is wrong with the hedonist is not that he is interested in himself, but that he is living a way of life that is not appropriate for man. The Torah wants us to be concerned about ourselves. Moses states in Deuteronomy 4:9, "Only take heed for yourselves and guard thy soul diligently..." It is incumbent upon man to be concerned for himself, only, this must be done in the proper manner. Man must choose the life which is most appropriate for him. God wants man to fulfill his potential as man and this is the purpose of the entire Torah. The hedonist has chosen a life that is destructive to man's very essence, namely his soul. Just as it is God's will that every animal live life in line with its own nature, it is His will that man live a life in line with man's nature. Man must be concerned about himself if he is to accomplish this. Since man has free will this cannot occur spontaneously as it does in the rest of the animal kingdom. Man must have Torah so that he has knowledge of what is good and what is evil and can then make proper choices.
What is the "good life" according to Torah? It is not the life of searching endlessly for material pleasure or wealth or fame. It is the life in which man pursues truth and knowledge, in which man is involved in studying and understanding the ideas of God's Torah, in experiencing the infinite beauty of Torah and God's universe, in doing kindness and helping others when they are needy. This kind of life makes man truly happy and blessed. Ironically man is happiest when he turns away from the self and is involved in something far greater than the self, i.e., pursuit of knowledge through God's Torah. The initial motivation must always be for the self. This is natural and even necessary. But when one gets involved in truly helping one's self in the manner of Torah one finds that he or she is in the face of a reality that is so awesome that the self becomes insignificant. Knowledge of Torah draws the individual into the world of God's reality, a world of beauty and awesomeness that makes man's petty concerns seem trivial and unimportant. In this world man rises to ever increasing heights as he transcends the mundane and the temporal. This can only be accomplished through a constant involvement in the knowledge of God's Torah and God's universe. As Maimonides states, "It is known and clear that the love of God cannot be bound to the heart of man unless he toils in it constantly in the proper manner, (Laws concerning repentance, ch. 10 Law 6)." God gave us a great Torah, we can involve ourselves in its study our entire lives and never exhaust its infinite knowledge. This is the ultimate good for mankind. It is what mankind will do in the messianic era when man will be provided with all his physical needs. It is what man can do when he is alone or in the company of others. The study of Torah and appreciation of the beauty of God's knowledge is the ultimate aim of human existence. It is what gives human life its human character and provides man with the kind of existence that makes his life worthwhile. It is the aim of the entire Torah and the true benefit for mankind.