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‘And let all your actions be for [the sake of] the name of heaven.’ (Avot 2:2)

The last Mishnah of Pirkei Avot explains that the world exists in order to glorify Hashem. Chapter Two teaches us that this idea is critical not only to how we ought to choose what to do, but also to setting the intention of why we choose to do so.

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Shelo Lishmah

The Mishnah in the beginning of the first perek cautions us to avoid conditioning avodat Hashem on receiving reward: “Do not be like servants who serve the master on the condition that they receive reward. Rather, be like servants who serve the master without the condition of receiving reward, and let the fear of Shamayim be upon you” (Avot 1:3). Fear of heaven should dispel ulterior motives.

Chazal describe one who serves Hashem for ulterior motives as one who acts “shelo lishmah.” Rava taught that “it would be preferable for one who fulfills shelo lishmah to not have been created” (Brachot 17a). People who serve Hashem with ulterior motives take what is meant to be focused on Hashem and make it about themselves. As this diametrically opposes the goal of creation, it would be better for such a person to not have been created.

 

L’Shem Shamayim

In addition to deterring ulterior motives (the sur me’rah perspective), Avot also directs us to serve Hashem lishmah (the proactive asei tov perspective): “All of your actions should be for Heaven’s sake” (Avot 2:12). Torah cares not only about what we do, but also about why we do it. Rava saw our intentions as critical: “Anyone who engages in Torah lishmah, his Torah study will be an elixir of life for him… And anyone who engages in Torah shelo lishmah, his Torah will be an elixir of death for him” (Taanit 7a). Our intentions can be the difference between life and death.

Rava took this idea even further by seeing proper positive intention as significant even when accompanying an aveirah. He explains the pasuk, “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths” (Mishlei 3:6) as referring even to sins. Bar Kappara (Brachot 63a) saw this verse as a “brief passage upon which all fundamental principles of Torah are dependent.” Even when a person is involved in something inappropriate, their l’shem Shamayim intention keeps them connected (at least on some level) to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Obviously, one should always do the right thing, but, even when we fail to do so, our connection with Hashem continues as long as we continue focusing on Him.

The Rambam expresses a similar idea in his explanation of the Gemara’s (Brachot 44a) interpretation of the words b’chol levavcha as teaching us that we should serve Hashem with both our inclinations (the yetzer tov and yetzer hara). The question is obvious: How do we serve Hashem with our yetzer hara? The Rambam explains that even at a time of sin, even when one acts upon the advice of their yetzer hara, they should remember their relationship with Hashem (Peirush HaMishnayot, Brachot, ch. 9). We should maintain our connection with Him at all times; it can be accomplished (even) through intention and focus.

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak took the significance of our intentions even further when he said that “an aveirah committed lishmah is greater than a mitzvah performed shelo lishmah” (Nazir 23b). The Gemara proves this with Yael, who was able to kill Sisera through the aveirah of seducing him. Since her motives were pure, it was considered a positive act. Not only are positive intentions (even when accompanying sin) valuable, they can be more valuable than even the actual (intentionless) performance of a mitzvah.

Understandably, intentions are significant not only when positive, but also when (chas v’shalom) negative. The Gemara (Kiddushin 81b) tells how Rav Chiya bar Ashi did lifelong teshuva for a sin he had intended to commit, even though his actual action was not sinful. Though he did not actually sin, he felt that his (mere) inappropriate intention required teshuva.

 

Kol Ma’aseinu

The previously mentioned Mishnah could have conveyed its message by saying, “Let your actions be for the sake of Heaven.” What does the word “kol” add? As part of his focus upon pure truth, the Kotzker Rebbe explained that it teaches that even mitzvot need to be done l’shem Shamayim. We might have assumed that because they emanate from Hashem, mitzvot are automatically l’shem Shamayim. “Kol” teaches (as we learned) that intention is important even when performing mitzvot.

Rabbeinu Yonah understands the word “kol” as extending the Mishnah’s message beyond mitzvot. He explains that it comes to include even devarim shel reshut (voluntary [non-mitzvah] acts). Even actions we generally view as beyond the purview of avodat Hashem should also be done l’shem Shamayim.

Rav Kook (Mussar Avicha, pg. 39) uses this idea to explain the Gemara’s (Shabbat 10b) explanation for why Rav Hamnuna devoted so much time to tefillah despite it being less (objectively) important than Torah learning (“chayei olam vs chayei sha’ah”). Since everything we do l’shem Shamayim (including divrei reshut) contributes to kavod Hashem, we should appreciate and fully focus upon whatever we are doing at each moment without thinking about other opportunities.

The Rambam (Shemonah Perakim, ch. 5, Yad Hachazakah, Hilchot De’ot, ch. 3) develops this idea and connects it to the word “da’ehu (know him)” used by the aforementioned verse in Mishlei. The Rambam asserts that everything we do should be done with the goal of increasing our knowledge of Hashem and growing closer to Him. Work, eating and drinking, marital relations, and even the most mundane actions should be done for the higher purpose of knowing G-d, of kavod Shamayim.

It is crucial for us to remember that our philosophical understanding of the world’s purpose ought to trickle down to our daily lives – to the intention that accompanies the actions of our individual (seemingly small and less significant than the universal big picture) lives. Every aspect of our lives (not only mitzvah performance) should be directed l’shem Shamayim, and be motivated by the goal of enhancing kavod Shamayim.

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Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and Educational Director of World Mizrachi - RZA. He lives with his wife Shani and their six children in Alon Shvut, Israel.