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?


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