The Big Question

A young lady once asked me why she should obey G‑d’s many instructions in the Torah. She understood that without G‑d she wouldWhy should she agree to this plan? not exist, and felt that she owed her life to Him, but she also felt that G‑d forced her into this bargain without asking her. Why did He do this, and why should she agree to this plan?

I explained that I understood the question of “Why should I?” but that I thought that in life it is important to move from “why should I” to “why I should.” I gave her the example of a person asked to donate a kidney. This person’s first question is, “Why should I?” If he didn’t feel that way, at least a little, I would be concerned for his sanity. But if he didn’t move from “why should I” to “why I should,” I would be concerned for his humanity.

First this person says, I never asked to be this fellow’s match, or for him to be in need. I’d rather keep both my kidneys, thank you very much, and I resent the suggestion that I’m selfish. Then he rethinks and realizes that, though he has a point from the perspective of self, he has a chance to become greater than self. If he does this, a part of him will live in the other, and his kidneys will keep two people alive. Being greater than self is why he should.

When G‑d tells us how He wants us to live, He is presenting us with an opportunity to become part of Him, to become larger than self, to play a role in His cosmic plan for creation, to be a fragment of eternity, a slice of infinity, a part of G‑d! You ask, why should I; I tell you why you should.

Four Custodians

The Torah speaks of four custodians, each with a different degree of liability. There are unpaid custodians, whose sole motive is to benefit the owner of the item. There are paid custodians, who guard the object for the owner’s sake, but who are remunerated for their efforts. There are renters, who take possession for their own benefit but pay for the privilege. Then there are the borrowers, whose exclusive motive is self-gain; the owner gains nothing.

The unpaid custodians and the borrowers are at the poles. The former’s sole interest is the owner’s gain. The latter’s sole interest is self-gain. The paid custodians and renters are in between. Both of their arrangements are mutually beneficial to the custodian and to the owner.

Liability should always be proportionally inverse to benefit. Unpaid custodians, whose custodianship is exclusively for the owner’s sake, carry the least liability. Borrowers, whose custodianship is entirely to their benefit, carry the most liability. Paid custodians and renters are in between. Since they benefit from their custodianship, they carry more liability than unpaid custodians, but since the owner also benefits, they carry less liability than borrowers.1

Global Custodians

G‑d created the world and appointed us its custodians. We guard the world through prayer, Torah study and observance of the commandments. In this merit the world is preserved. Furthermore, in this merit, the world becomes holy, and G‑d’s plan for creation is realized.2

There are four kinds of custodians. UnpaidUnpaid custodians ask for nothing in return custodians ask for nothing in return. They view serving G‑d as a privilege. Permeated with love for G‑d, they feel that to do something for Him is the greatest reward. Paid custodians are happy to do G‑d’s bidding, but if they are going to work hard, they want to receive something in return. A good life, a nice house, a happy family, etc.

Then come the renters. Their primary interest is living a good life, having a nice home, a happy family, etc. But they realize that to receive all the above, they need to do something for G‑d. So, they happily pay for their reward by doing all the things that G‑d asks of the Jew. There is a subtle yet significant distinction between the paid custodian and the renter. The former works for G‑d, but seeks remuneration. The latter works for himself, but is willing to pay for it.

Then come the borrowers. They want a good life and don’t want to pay for it. As G‑d’s children, borrowers demand that G‑d provide for them as a parent for a child. G‑d does not turn these borrowers down. There is an entire category in the Torah for the borrower. One is permitted to enter into an arrangement that is exclusively self-beneficial. And if we may do this with our fellow, we may do it with G‑d.

However, once borrowers receive what they seek, they are completely liable. When they receive a loan from G‑d, they must treat it as a Divine loan should be treated. When G‑d provides us with a home, we must use it in a G‑dly way, otherwise the home loses its G‑dliness and its spirituality is damaged. When G‑d provides us with money, we must use it in ways that G‑d would approve of, otherwise the money is spiritually compromised. Although G‑d extends the loan with no strings attached, we are expected to return it at life’s end with its holiness and spirituality intact.

There is a subtle yet important difference between borrowers and renters. Renters believe that they should serve G‑d to get what they want, borrowers believe that they are entitled. Thus, renters pay for what they receive with Torah and mitzvahs. Borrowers receive for free; their Torah and mitzvahs merely preserve what they received.

The Scale

The four custodians are not distinctiveIf we want to succeed, we must work hard categories; they comprise a scale, a growing curve, that moves us from “why should I” to “why I should.”

From birth through toddlerhood we are borrowers: all we do is receive, with nary a thought of giving back. We must obey the rules, but beyond those rules, we receive for free. In childhood and our teenage years, we become renters: we learn that to reach our benchmarks, we must invest effort. If we want to succeed, we must work hard. In marriage, we transition from self to other and start thinking about how to be of service. At first, we are happy to serve so long as we are also served. I will make my spouse happy, if my spouse will make me happy. Ultimately, we reach a stage where making our spouse happy makes us happy. The effort is the reward. We no longer ask “why should I”; we say “why I should.”

If this is true in our relationships with others, it is certainly true in our relationship with G‑d.3