Servantry or Mastery?

1.3          Antigonus, of Sokho, received the tradition from Shimon Ha-Tzaddik. This was a favorite teaching of his:

Do not be like servants who serve their masters expecting to receive a reward; be rather like servants who serve their masters unconditionally, with no thought of reward. Also, let the fear of God determine your actions.

This is a teaching I’ve heard before, and it is a teaching I’ve often considered. (That I’ve probably only read this actual teaching one or two times is here besides the point; it’s the lesson that matters, to me, and it’s the lesson I’m considering.) With that said, I almost feel as if I’ve exhausted my commentary before I’ve even begun.

Life’s like that sometimes, isn’t it? You just feel tired before you even wake up. You feel exhausted simply by considering the work you’ve still got to do.

And, suddenly, hark, I am stricken! Not with pain or anguish (or stress or exhaustion, both of which are present but presently set aside), but with inspiration, a new angle, another way to perceive. Life is like that sometimes—and I feel, too often sometimes feels like always—and it’s to that monotony I think we, or at least I, can best apply this teaching.

Truth be told, I don’t follow it well. Well, I follow it…but not really. Recalling my high school catchphrase “When will I stop preparing for tomorrow and live for today?” I can honestly attest that I use the future as motivation to act in the present. When all else fails, look forward, right? According to this teaching, no.

A few examples are in order, or since I like the term, some proof text is warranted. I could pick anything from my life really, seeing my tangent already, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s stick with the school metaphor and go there. When I’ve got a lot of homework to do (and trust me, during the school year, I’ve got enough for two and then some to share), and when I’m exhausted and don’t want to do it, I look ahead to what it’ll get me: It’ll get me good grades on my next test, it’ll get me good grades in the class, it’ll get me to graduation, it’ll get me a good job that makes me good money that makes all this effort and hardship worthwhile.

(Or in short, counting thine eggs before thou buyest thy chicken.)

It’s grudging work, looking ever further forward to finally make some movement in the here and now, but it works. It gets the job done. It gets me by. But as I’ve learned throughout years of living Jewishly and years of Jewish living (not always synonymous), the sole premise of Judaism is not “getting by” but “being holy.” Part of being Jewish is seeking to imbue everything with God’s wonders; part of leading a Jewish life is striving to be “better than” not merely to “get by.” Need I not mention those 613 commandments? They’re instructions to become a holy people, not a guide for good living or better homes and gardens (though I’m sure they’re one and the same somewhere).

I digress. Somewhat. How does this all apply to the teaching? What does school and forward thinking have to do with servants and masters and rewards and unconditional working? Because in this manner, forward thinking is working for a reward. Paraphrasing the words of Hillel (which I’ll get to eventually), “If I’m not for me, who shall be?” we can take from that the idea we are our own masters. Every act we make is an act akin to that of a servant working for a master, with the small oversight that this servant and master are one and the same (but let’s not get too technical, or unduly philosophical).

By dangling the carrot of future gains in front of me, I’ve been serving myself solely in expectation of the rewards I hope these actions will bring. Yet, if not to do this is to stop getting by, what from this can I reap? The answer lies in considering why one does something unconditionally: Simply put (if such a question could be answered simply), it is because one wholly loves and believes in the act he or she is pursuing.

Instead of using the prospect of rewards to incite action, use the love of that action to propel yourself. When you hold a door for someone, you don’t do it because you’ll get tipped (unless you’re a doorman), you do it because it’s something nice to do. When you tell someone to get well soon, it’s not (usually) because they’re taking up your couch and eating you out of house and home, it’s because you care for the that person’s wellbeing.

With all this said, the lesson to be gained from Antigonus is that when it comes to it, whatever it may be at the time, if you’re not going to do it because it’s worth getting done, why are you going to do it at all? Why will I put those four hours a day into studying mathematics if I don’t love math? Why will I read all seven Harry Potter books if I don’t like Ms. Rowling’s writings? Why will I turn off the TV and run for a bit if I don’t like exercising?

In a way, it is in itself a paraphrase of Hillel’s teaching: If not for the act itself, then what for?

Of course, there’s still one last part to this teaching, that the fear of God should determine your actions. I’m at a stalemate with this one. On the one hand, I despise—and always have—the thought that being a good Jew, or a good person in general, should be based on fear and not love. It should be the love of God that compels you to act, not the fear of him. And yet, on the other hand, with my scant knowledge of Hebrew, I’m almost certain that this is not the exact translation of the text, but without knowing more than I do, I can’t translate it on my own.

I could argue hours in favor of my disposition towards this part of the teaching. In the end, however, I’m not trying to argue with the Pirkei Avot, but to learn from it. If at this time I cannot fathom what this one line might mean, then it’s in my best interest to leave this one for another day. Sometimes we’re not yet ready to learn something, and when that time comes, to learn anything, we must first learn that we’re not yet ready, to truly learn the lesson we seek we have to wait until another day.

So here’s cheers to my third consecutive week reading the Pirkei Avot. It has been unbelievably fun and enlightening so far, and even with the realization that it’ll probably take me years to get through the entire thing, I’m up for the challenge. After all, if not for the action, why act at all?

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