As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we prepare ourselves not only for the yemei hadin, for the judgment of the coming year, but perhaps more primarily for the ‘coronation,’ as it were, of Hashem as our King. The theme of Hashem ‘becoming’ King over the world —indeed, over all of creation—is stated in masechess Rosh Hashanah (31a). The Gemara there states that the daily song of the levi’im in the Beis Hamikdash for Fridays is Psalm 93, which begins “Hashem has become King…” The Gemara says that this is what happened on that first Friday when Hashem completed the work of creation and reigned over it. That day was Rosh Hashanah, as popularly and correctly assumed. Indeed, the major theme expressed in our tefillos on Rosh Hashanah is Hashem’s Kingship, and how we await the climax of world history with Hashem openly governing and being recognized as the cause of all that transpires. (In fact, one of the interesting aspects of the tefillos of Rosh Hashanah is how little mention is made of it’s being a Yom Hadin.)
As such, it would be most appropriate to properly understand how we are to serve our King; how to view and comprehend our subservience to Him, and from what perspective we should approach this. I can think of no better source that teaches us how to have a healthy, cherished, role in serving a master —indeed the Master, the Master of Masters, the King of Kings, Hashem Yisborach— than the classic work Chovos Halevavos (Duties of the Heart), authored by Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekuda, almost a millennium ago. (Those attending my shiurim at BTYA know that the Chovos Halevavos is a mainstay at the shul.) The third sha’ar (lit. ‘gate’; section) of the ten she’arim (‘gates’) of the sefer is entitled “Sha’ar Avodas Elokim,” The Gate of Service to G-d. Perhaps you, dear reader, were expecting a deep, lofty, Torah thought about Rosh Hashanah. Let me assure you that the Yom Tov of the coronation of Hashem as our King deserves no less than a ‘back to basics’ study of what that obligates us to be His servants.
The Chovos Halevavos opens the sha’ar with an introduction (as he does in all ten she’arim of the sefer), in which he explicates the very need to serve Hashem. The Chovos Halevavos takes nothing for granted, you see, and so the very first question should be —why? Why should I serve Hashem? Is it simply out of fear of punishment or in the expectation of a reward (even such a reward as a share in the World to Come)? Is it just objectively so, part of a natural state of affairs, that we serve our King, our Master, and our Creator? The Chovos Halevavos is not satisfied with just these reasons, for in reality, these are external reasons that are thrust upon us. Perhaps it is right for this to be so, but the Chovos Halevavos is looking for a reason why I, from a place deep within me, should feel that I want to do this, that I am missing something from my own psyche if I do not do this.
The Chovos Halevavos explains in the preceding section, Sha’ar Habechinah (Gate of Examination, which teaches how to examine all of creation and see Hashem in it) that that ‘bechinah’ brings us to the realization that serving Hashem is the correct and appropriate, compelling thing to do. For we want to serve Hashem when it occurs to us that doing so “is appropriate for the True One, after we realize Hashem’s Oneness, wisdom, and generosity, and how He and only He is the Provider for every single aspect of our lives, every breath we take, our very existence, and how we owe Him a debt of gratitude that we can never repay…” For we must consider our own response to Hashem’s generosity, having studied and been made aware of this through Sha’ar Habechinah. After we realize just how obliged we are to be grateful to Hashem, we will feel that debt of gratitude. Moreover, just as I feel indebted to anyone who has done something for me, and certainly towards someone who has done something substantial and meaningful, and unquestionably to someone who has saved my life, and all the more so to someone who has saved my life and has provided me with all that one needs to survive and thrive in life, and I would understand —nay, feel— that I must repay my benefactor—even in some small way— how much more so do we ourselves feel compelled to acknowledge and ‘repay’ Hashem for all He has done for us.
In other words, this most famous and basic principle of the Chovos Halevavos is that our obligation to obey Hashem’s laws should stem from inside each one of us, because it is the “least we can do” for the One Who has provided us with all that we have, with all that we are! This is certainly so when we consider that whereas most beings who act generously do so because it is to their advantage to do so, Hashem is by definition (since he needs nothing) completely altruistic. Thus, all the more so do we have a debt of gratitude to Him. And so we acknowledge that debt of gratitude and feel —from a place deep within the human psyche— that we want to “pay Him back” in some small way. Actually, we could never thank Him ‘enough’, since He has given us existence itself, the capacity to recognize what He does for us, and the ability to thank Him. This is the basis of Avodas Elokim according to the Chovos Halevavos —our hakaras hatov.
However, we must induce service of Hashem into a person’s life, because of the time gap between the time when He had started to bestow His favors upon us (from conception!) and the time when we become aware of and feel the need to reciprocate. This can come from our own seichel, from within or it can be Torah-induced (initially through the system of reward and punishment, but hopefully culminating in self-realization of this debt). We need to start with the Torah-induced path, for three reasons. One reason is that our physical nature, which is with us from birth, draws us away from things spiritual. The seichel (intellect), logical as it may be, has severe limitations in a no holds barred battle with our physical desires and wants. In addition, seichel is not “at home” in the physical world, while physicality is rooted in it (a sort of home court advantage). Finally, our physical nature is always expressing itself, and thus is stronger (the more you exercise a muscle, the stronger it is); the seichel expresses itself—well, once in a while.
To be continued…