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Do We Do Mitzvahs for Ourselves or for G-d?

Do We Do Mitzvahs for Ourselves or for G-d?

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Question:

When we do a mitzvah, are we doing it for ourselves or for G‑d? For example, if I give a dollar to a homeless guy, am I doing it for my sake—the act makes me feel happy and compassionate—or for G‑d? Are mitzvot bringing me closer to G‑d, or to happiness?

Answer:

I enjoyed reading your interesting and well-thought-out question!

I like to think of a mitzvah as a multi-runged ladder. All the rungs are there, and the combination of all of them makes the ladder complete; the question is only which one we choose to focus on.

The word mitzvah has a dual meaning: “commandment” and “bond.” At its essential level, a mitzvah is a connection with G‑d created by fulfilling His commandment. This is the ultimate aspect of a mitzvah—the highest rung of the ladder.

That said, something that is essentially good will also be good on every other rung of the ladder.

Let’s use eating kosher as an example. When one eats kosher, he is 1) physically strengthened, 2) spiritually refined, 3) gaining satisfaction and meaning in life, 4) earning reward in the world to come, 5) making this world a better place and 6) connecting to G‑d.

And all of these are true. But first and foremost, it starts with the fact that eating kosher is being done as a commandment which establishes a connection with G‑d. The rest follow automatically.

The Torah teaches a mitzvah should be performed lishmah (for its sake)—without incentives or personal considerations. It should be done simply because this is what G‑d wants. Yet this doesn’t happen overnight. The rabbis therefore taught that one can begin by serving G‑d with a personal incentive. Indeed, the Torah itself mentions the rewards that come through following the commandments. However, the goal is to eventually reach the level where one serves G‑d in a purely altruistic manner.

And the same would apply to charity. The essential mitzvah is to give charity because this is what G‑d commanded. Will it make you feel good? Will it bring about tremendous reward? Of course! In fact, the Talmud says that one is even allowed to say, “I am giving charity in order that my son should be healed.” After all, the most important thing is that the deed should be done. Nonetheless, it is best when the mitzvah is done lishmah.

Paradoxically, however, with regards to charity, the Rebbe explains that it must be given with feeling. It is not enough to simply give the dollar because that is what G‑d commanded; we are also commanded to empathize with our fellow’s plight and genuinely desire to be of assistance. And this feeling, too, must emanate from our desire to follow G‑d’s instructions.

Yours truly,
Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar

Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar is a Chabad rabbi in Cary, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Chabad.org Ask the Rabbi team.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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ruth housman marshfield,ma May 23, 2014

why we do good things The ayes have it! There is yes in this. and it us said the eyes are the windows to the soul. We act to help, save, aid, and other 'wise' praise the sanctity of creation for the intrinsic joy and rightness of this. It's a climb as stories are for climbing too. What is clear is we're talking about the Entire World. This means other ways of being are also part of what is sacred and of G-d. Reply

Harold Bermuda May 21, 2014

Mitzvah Avot 1:14 Reply

Feigele Boca Raton FL May 20, 2014

With Ego, G-d gave us brains to reason for ourselves, thus doing mitzvoth for someone in needs is not only egoless but compassion as G-d would like us to feel for any beings on this earth. Ego has nothing to do with helping someone unless expecting rewards or bragging about it. Some people do it for the good of humanity and some for their ego—as some comments here are insinuating. Maybe those are the ones who would like rewards for their own actions and G-d’s admiration. In any case, keep doing Mitzvoth being for compassion or your ego... Reply

chuna Brooklyn May 20, 2014

G-dly ego, There's a lot of virtuous comments here, fighting against doing mitzvos for any reward etc. The issue here lies in the perception of the doer. If someone senses that the mitzvahs done 'for Gd' are lacking something, and even more, if they are done for a reward, then again, the issue lies in the perception of the doer. We have within us a completely G-dly soul and when we get in touch with it, we become egoless, in the common sense of the word- completely without selfish motives. But in fact, doing for G-d is egoless. But without that sense of egolessness, and becoming one with the G-dly ego of the soul, the mitzvah, as all these comments protest, are in some way for the self. Reply

Feigele Boca Raton FL May 17, 2014

A Mitzvah is Compassion I like this question because lots of people do Mitzvot thinking they will be rewarded, or just following G-d’s instructions to do right by other humans, animals and nature. Shouldn’t it also be because they have compassion towards all that’s on earth? Respect for other beings as they wish to receive for themselves, feeling sorry for others in need and the will to help if they can. These are the biggest Mitzvot a human can do to please G-d. G-d knows who can and who cannot or don’t want to. He instructs us what’s right and what’s wrong, he doesn’t command us. He trusts us to do the right thing on our own by showing us the way. He expects us to follow the Torah as it is in our best interest. He let us choose what directions to take providing they are based on his instructions. Reply

Rodrigo Albuquerque Belo Horizonte, Brazil May 15, 2014

Beautiful, dear Rabbi Beautiful, dear Rabbi! Toda raba min-Brazil!
Eyze tekst madhim! Reply

Allan Koven. anaheim May 15, 2014

Kosher kosher where does it say that keeping kosher will make one stronger? Reply

Anonymous May 14, 2014

When we do a mitzvah...... ....we do it neither for G-d nor for ourselves....we do it for the person who would benefit from the mitzvah most and when that person is someone other than ourselves, than we truly establish a bond with God because not only do we do it because it is commanded, but we do it because someone else needed us to. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma May 14, 2014

choosing the higher way I really don't like thinking we do mitzvoth for some higher reason, as in this places us on some totem pole of giving, and then we get back. I hate this kind of thinking, even if the cosmic answer is this is true. You do it, because your soul says, this is what you want to be doing, because to do a good deed, is about finding personal meaning, whether or not, a Higher Power says, Do it. These are Your Rewards at some later date. As to what mitzvoth qualify as mitzvoth, that seems open for grabs. I do not have to agree with all that others say is a holy way of being. What I do, is personal, and I answer only to G_d. I think telling others what G_d wants can be a very boxed in way of being. I am here, to sort the wheat from the chaff. And I already KNOW I am beloved, because my life is not just totally synchronous, but "WE" are writing a Story together, and that story is beautiful and astounding in all possible ways. It sends me to my knees. Maybe the best for last. Reply

Angela Hoffberg Richland May 14, 2014

Good Deeds When we overcome and conquer, doing good deeds is who we are. We can treat our neighbors as ourselves because we can care more about them than we do ourselves. God tells us to do good to others, but He looks at the heart. Getting in the habit of doing good, even when we don't feel like it moves us in the right direction, then, hopefully, we do a mitzvah because we want to. Eventually His will will be our will. Reply

Leah May 13, 2014

Of course we do a mitzvah because G-d commands us to. Just for Him.
But the result is a bond, a connection.
The connection of the Shechinah, with the Kudsha Brich Hu.
see Tanya end of chapter 10. Reply

chuna May 12, 2014

Anonymous from Germantown Right. Whatever we do, the deepest kevana (intent) is simply because G-d wills us to do it. Even getting closer to H-m with all of its benefits, it's because G-d wants us to get closer. The answer in the article is pretty thorough. All reasons apply when doing a mitzvah, but according to our level, we focus on the most Gdly intent that we're able to. Reply

Anonymous May 12, 2014

Since I am not very smart to say the least, still I dare to pose a desire: I'd like to read a complete explanation of what exactly is "a connection with G‑d" its implications in our daily life and in the afterlife too. Sorry for the inconvenience and for your attention, thank you. Reply

M. Gordon Melbourne May 12, 2014

Mitzvot are commandments that G-d tells us to do. If we would do mitzvot as freely performed acts on a voluntary basis, then we end up doing them on our terms, not G-d's. Our commitment to the One Above has to be greater than our logic and greater than our feelings at the moment. There is an even higher goal than connection with G-d and that is that it is not about me, but all about Him. Reply

Leah May 12, 2014

David, no. There is such a thing as a mitzvah. There is such a thing as a way to CONNECT to our Creator. And I don't think we are in a place to say what is "all that G-d can hope for". He is G-d ! He can cause things to be however He wills them to be and He does will us to connect to Him through 613 mitzvos. Reply

David Levant Emerson,NJ May 12, 2014

Mitzvahs should not be commanded. To love your fellow man is greater,and preformed freely. G-D created man and woman,and serving each other with love and compassion is all that HE can hope for. Reply

Leah May 11, 2014

I am still not clear on this...... Hashem has shown me this question and answer just as I was sending chabad.org a very similar comment/question. Hashgacha Pratis, indeed.
But I am still not clear on this subject............I think the idea of lishmah is because knesses yisroel is the Shechinah. So we are G-d's Partner and must be united with Him in His goals for this world. I do not believe He gave us hearts and minds and senses to serve him like cold, unfeeling marching soldiers who just simply obey. What about Tiferes, beauty? G-d's Garden, this world, should be beautiful, mitzvos done with the beauty of the intent to bring G-dliness and Light down into the world -not to believe that that intent is a selfish motive, no, I don't think that is right. Wanting to connect to G-d is not selfish. We do because G-d says do, but with thought and feeling. Reply

nat laval, canada March 25, 2009

serving G-D when we serve G-D isnt it us we are s erving at the same time cuz all the commandements are here to make us better recreate ourself according to his will Reply

Anonymous via chabadgermantown.com June 21, 2007

My own answer to the Question It''s both. We do mitzvos to get closer to G-d. That's great for us, but G-d wants to be close to us. Reply

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