Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

“Antigonus a man of Socho received [the oral tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say: do not be like servants who serve the master in the expectation of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve the master without the expectation of receiving a reward, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”

Why do we do what we do? The topic of motivation is a well theorized and researched area in psychology. One of the most famous concepts developed in this area concerns the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation relates to doing things because we are hoping to gain some external reward that has nothing inherently to do with the activity in which we are engaging. For example, children may do their chores not because of the pleasure and sense of fulfillment they get from taking out the garbage, but to receive an allowance. Intrinsic motivation concerns doing things because we inherently enjoy doing them. Chances are, we would do them even if we were not bribed or forced.

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Generally speaking, intrinsic motivation is assumed to be much more effective and motivating than extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivators don’t necessarily lead to lasting change. When the incentives or punishments are removed, the behavior often stops. Additionally, adding extrinsic motivators to a behavior that was already intrinsically rewarding, may backfire and actually decrease the intrinsic motivations. Yet, however superior intrinsic motivation may be, extrinsic motivation can also play a vital role. As Edward Deci and Richard Ryan point out in their seminal article on the topic;

Although intrinsic motivation is clearly an important type of motivation, most of the activities people do are not, strictly speaking, intrinsically motivated. This is especially the case after early childhood, as the freedom to be intrinsically motivated becomes increasingly curtailed by social demands and roles that require individuals to assume responsibility for non intrinsically interesting tasks. In schools, for example, it appears that intrinsic motivation becomes weaker with each advancing grade.

The same is true for adults. There are many beneficial behaviors that we don’t feel an intrinsic motivation to perform. In such scenarios, extrinsic motivations such as performance incentives or avoidance of negative consequences can help us towards more healthy habits and goals.

On the surface of our mishna, Antigonus discourages serving G-d for the purposes of receiving an extrinsic reward. However, upon closer analysis, there are at least three puzzling aspects of the mishna. First, while Antigonus tells us what our motivations shouldn’t be, he doesn’t explicitly tell us what they should be. His formulation of serving G-d “without expectation of receiving a reward” is not inherently the same as encouraging an intrinsic motivation. What is the proper positive motivation of serving G-d? Second, Antigonus’ recommendation seems to contradict the general ethos of Tanach, which abounds with classical exhortations based on reward and punishment: If you follow the Torah, you will be rewarded with material goods; if not, there will be punishment and exile. Third, after exhorting us to avoid extrinsic reward, Antigonus concludes with “let the fear of Heaven be upon you,” which seems like a recommendation for considering extrinsic punishment as a motivator, seemingly contradicting the first part of the mishna. How can we resolve these three questions?

Regarding the first question, concerning proper positive motivation, the commentaries fill in the gap. One approach is to assume, like the Vilna Gaon, that the ideal motivation for Antigonus is the need to follow the Divine command. Alternatively, Rambam argues that Antigonus is teaching us to be motivated by love of G-d. While a full analysis of what the love of G-d entails is beyond the scope at this point, perhaps we can understand it along the lines of intrinsic motivation: We should serve G-d because it is what we inherently want and desire.

Yet, in our romanticization of intrinsic rewards, what are we to do with all of the emphasis of rewards in the Torah itself? One possibility is to differentiate between different classes of people. Most people need extrinsic rewards to motivate them. Antigonus’ message is for a select few – an aspiration for those who can transcend the normal bounds of psychological motivation and act without extrinsic rewards. Maharal, and his student, the Tosafot Yom Tov, take a more expansive approach. They both emphasize that there is no prohibition to serve G-d for extrinsic purposes. One can be considered an upstanding servant of G-d if he or she abides by the rules just for the sake of reward and punishment. Antigonus highlights an ambitious level, where one serves for no extrinsic reward, but rather out of love.

One more possibility can be gleaned from a close reading of Meiri, who writes that our “ikkar avodah,” our main mode of worship, should not be through extrinsic motivations. Meiri seems to leave room for even those on a higher level to sometimes serve G-d for extrinsic reasons. It is perhaps unrealistic to assume that someone can always follow all the laws purely out of intrinsic motivation. Our motivation fluctuates, and sometimes it depends on the task or challenge. As long as our “ikkar avodah” is intrinsic, there is room for incorporating some extrinsic motivation when necessary.

This understanding may shed light on our final question: after extolling avoiding extrinsic motivation, why does Antigonus close with “and let the fear of Heaven be upon you?” Perhaps the message is that while we strive to serve G-d out of love, since it is likely for our intrinsic motivation to waver, it is useful to always think about the consequences of our actions or inaction. Having a healthy dose of fear of Heaven to extrinsically motivate us, especially when the intrinsic motivation is lacking, will help us stay on the right path.

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Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Schiffman is an Assistant Professor at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School, an instructor at RIETS, and the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. He graduated YU with a BA in psychology, an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli and Rabbinic Ordination from RIETS, before attending St. John’s University for his doctorate in psychology. He has been on the rabbinic staff of Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn, NY since 2010 and practices as a licensed psychologist in NY. His book “Psyched for Torah,” his academic and popular articles, as well as many of his lectures are accessible on his website, www.PsychedForTorah.com.