You shall safeguard and perform [them], for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who shall hear and say, “Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation.” (Devarim 4:6)
The youth leader at the neighborhood synagogue announced the upcoming carnival and all the special prizes and activities. The audience of young shul-goers excitedly squealed with each new revelation.
One of the adults waiting to gather his children for the ride home asked his fellow congregant, “Is this the right way to train them to come and pray? Shouldn’t we teach them the pure value of the mitzvah at an early age?”
“I don’t agree with you, my friend,” he replied. “We should entice them to come and reward their attendance and one day, when you and I are old and grey, the synagogue will boast a healthy membership.”
“What about Torah lishmah — for its own sake?” he retorted.
“You know that our Sages teach that something done initially for selfish reasons will ultimately be performed for pure, selfless reasons,” he answered.
There are times when we are wont to lose out on mitzvah performance, claiming we are not interested in the reward it provides or the honor and respect we may gain. To forgo a mitzvah because its intent is not purely for the sake of Heaven may seem commendable at first, but after a little consideration one might conclude that the mitzvah offers the accomplishment of the commandment’s performance as well as the reward that comes with Torah observance.
One may demonstrate a lack of interest in the rewards, but then one also misses a mitzvah opportunity totally. Careful analysis reveals that one’s desire to be so pure of intent is possibly a result of the wiles of our evil inclination working against us to prevent our spiritual achievement.
One child who didn’t have much desire to sit and learn Torah was offered a prize by his father should he excel in a school test. Rather than smile and get to work, the boy began to cry. In response to his father’s dismay, he clarified, “I’m crying because I cannot get myself to learn without the bribe of an earthly reward. Isn’t that sad?”
“I’m impressed with your attitude, my son,” his dad said. “However, it’s okay to learn with an ulterior motive for now. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll prove the truth of our Rabbis’ saying, “From ‘ulterior motive learning’ will one day come ‘for the sake of Heaven’ learning!”
Hashem told us, “You shall safeguard and perform [them], for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who shall hear and say, ‘Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation’”(Devarim 4:6). Hashem is teaching us that in spite of the fact that, in general, one should try to learn purely for the sake of Heaven and not for the reward Torah learning brings, one still must learn in anticipation of reward rather than not learn at all. We should do so even if it is only to bring the praises of the gentiles. One should not cry like the boy above, but rather persist to overcome feelings of not being good enough. It’s okay to work in hopes of impressing “them” in the short term, with hopes for l’shem Shamayim in the long term.