We have seen the Chovos Halevavos’ explanation of the compelling need to serve Hashem; that it is based on our own compelling need to acknowledge what someone (in this case, Hashem) has done for us (in this case, absolutely everything in our lives, including our very existence, the functioning of our bodies, all of “nature” that we use as we go about our day, and infinitely more) and to act upon that ‘debt of gratitude.’ We are ‘wired’ psychologically to feel that way, as we all have certainly experienced in our lives a fraction of that feeling when we are actually frustrated when we cannot think how to thank someone who has done for us a significant (and sometimes even an insignificant) favor, and in fact, when we finally come up with an appropriate response, we actually feel grateful for the very ability to express our gratitude!
The Chovos Halevavos then makes an extremely fundamental point. The ramification of that which we have stated is that the very essence and nub of avodas Hashem (and if so, of Malchus Hashem) is the act of submissiveness, of surrendering to the Benefactor of all and of everything that it takes to acknowledge His unlimited chessed towards us as we would, for instance, set aside our wishes, plans, needs, and resources to repay one who has bestowed good upon us. We acknowledge, we are makir tov, and we attempt in some small measure to repay Him for the multitude of good things He has given us and continues to bestow upon us. However, as long as our physical pleasure-seeking side has the upper hand over our seichel (see last week’s article), this ‘submission’ will be based on fear of punishment, on an anticipated reward, compulsion, and ultimately coercion. However, then, hopefully, we grow into a submission based on our own inner recognition of the compelling need to submit and acknowledge and say, “Thank you, how can I ever repay you” to the One Who gives us all. This goes very much beyond any idea of reward or punishment; this is pure gratitude.
The Chovos Halevavos continues with a remarkable insight, that the first type of submission is rooted in the dos and don’ts of the Torah. These are the Torah’s ways of telling us, in a sense, how to say ‘thank you’ to Hashem. The Torah speaks of specific rituals and specific rules, and those rules and rituals bear the benefits and consequences cited in the Torah, which is the system of reward and punishment. No matter whether we are speaking of olom hazeh or olom haba- at the end of the day, we are speaking of something external. Something —perhaps, may I suggest— artificial? But the second type of submission is self-induced; it is internal and self-motivated. It is part of human nature, part of a person’s very make-up from the time he was created.
Chovos Halevavos hastens to say that both types of subservience are praiseworthy and will lead to ultimate reward in the World to Come. However, as we have explained, the first type —the command-induced one— precedes the second type, the logic internally induced one, and is actually a level below it. In fact, the first type is a sort of stepping stone to the second, which actually brings one closer to Hashem and is more desirable (though the first remains absolutely essential, both technically [they are absolute obligations] and conceptually [as the Chovos Halevavos explains later on].
This second type of submission actually has two aspects to it. This self-induced ‘thank you’ has us acknowledging and thanking Hashem in any way that we feel self-expression in doing so. We may thank and praise Hashem, we may perform acts emulating His chessed, we may try to focus on and carry out His will and desires as we understand them. But it also shapes and gives new meaning to our being servants of Hashem, for it forces us to look beyond the rote performance of our rituals, and search for the way in which these constitute our “Thank You!” to Hashem. Shofar, lulav, succah, tefillin, challah, mezuzah, matzah, are also all ways of saying “Thank You!” This, in turn, forces us to delve into the inner meaning and rationale of the mitzvos; because it is there that we will find the logically compelling inner secrets of the mitzvos themselves.
The Chovos Halevavos goes on to list the qualities that service of Hashem that is self-induced has over Torah-induced (or, ritual- induced). Torah-induced rituals can be done out of a need or desire for praise and respect, out of a fear of punishment or an expectation of reward. They can even be performed hypocritically. Such service of Hashem is based on expectations and fears. If so, the person is not truly serving Hashem! But the self-induced variety, out of an inner compulsion to say thank you gives way to self-expression and can be nothing other than altruistic, out of a real sense of service rooted in wisdom and insight into the fact that we are compelled to acknowledge Hashem’s goodness by being in sync with the will of the Creator and the Provider of life and all things. While Torah-induced service is generally performed in expectation of a reward, self-induced service is based on a sincere desire to serve Hashem as best as one can. It inherently seeks G-d’s approval. It is actually much more attuned to Chovos Halevavos, duties of the heart, while the first way is drawn towards deeds. Chovos Halevavos actually compares Torah or ritual-induced service to the planting of a seed, and observance of rituals is at first the tilling, plowing and clearing of the ground. Hashem helps a person (this is the equivalent of rain) to grow to internally motivated service of Hashem. Furthermore, he posits, the mitzvos of the Torah are finite (613) while self-induced mitzvos can be numerous, in any manner of service, and at any time. One also becomes aware of more and more possibilities every day, since one’s level of hakaras hatov is constantly growing as Hashem continues bestowing goodness upon us. (This is the source of the oft-repeated concept of doing teshuvah every day as one reaches new levels of recognition of Hashem’s kindness, and realizes that the day before, one’s service was lacking.) Chovos Halevavos also points out that it is more difficult to ‘create’ one’s own ‘thank you’, and the more difficult is the more rewarding. Moreover, a person who reaches this level in sincere, self-induced service of Hashem is that much less likely to slip and fall, as his very soul is more clearly touched and changed.
We will discuss more about the essentials of Avodas Hashem in coming columns be’ezras Hashem.