Most parents want their children to get ahead in life. Rabbanit Batya and I are no different. We strive to ensure our kids our top of the class and to that end we purchase workbooks for the curriculum of a grade above for them to work on. Now, no kid wants to do extra work, so we have a system of incentivizing every page they do with cash prizes. Essentially, it’s our way to have them earn their pocket money.
About a year ago, Batya tells me that she’s been speaking to Millie, our eldest, about studying French. I’m thinking to myself, “Uh oh, what’s this going to cost me?” But before I can voice my fears, Batya assures me that Millie is doing this payment-free. You see, French is Batya’s first language and so she convinced Millie that it would be a good idea for her to learn her grandparents’ language in order to converse with them around the house. Millie loved the idea (matter of fact, so did I!)
The Mishnah states: The maftir (one who reads from the Prophets) should lead the Shema and descend to lead prayers.
The Talmud asks why. Rabbi Papa explains that he leads services in order to protect his honour. Since he took the last Torah reading, we don’t want to make him feel less worthy and so we compensate him with the honour of leading the prayers.
Rabbah bar Shimi explains that we want to avoid conflict in the synagogue. If a fellow just gets the maftir, he might be jealous of the fellow leading services and so we give the same guy both.
What is the Talmud talking about? Why would someone feel bad for getting maftir? Doesn’t everyone want maftir? It’s the most coveted aliyah (call-up)!
The answer, of course, is that in the time of the Talmud, the maftir was not particularly desirable. It was just the extra appendage that nobody really wanted. It was leftovers from a time when we were forbidden by the Roman rulers to read from the Torah and so our Sages instituted that instead we should read from the Prophets. Since everyone felt that maftir is for losers, the Rabbis had to compensate the fellow who got maftir by honouring him with leading the services.
Now, watch what happened somewhere over the centuries. Some clever rabbi at some point said: Instead of compensating the maftir with other incentives, let’s rehabilitate the maftir itself and make it desirable in people’s eyes. How do we do that? We offer it to a bar-mitzvah boy, to a groom, to someone who has a yortzeit. Now, everyone wants the maftir!
The most effective way to promote positive activity is not to compensate from the outside; it’s to rehabilitate, reevaluate and strengthen from within. Instead of needing to compensate Millie for work she really wasn’t interested in doing (taking another course – French), Batya instilled within her the value of applying herself to the new subject material for its own intrinsic sake. And instead of maftir being for losers and needing external compensation, now maftir is the aliyah everyone is vying for!
And that is what we all need to do with our Jewish practice. Some of us feel that it is such a burden.
‘Oy, it’s tough being a Jew! All these obligations I’ve got to do. Hey, at least I know that G-d will compensate me for all my hard work. Hopefully He’ll bless me in this world. And if I don’t get my reward now, at least I’ll get it in the Next World.’
That’s not the way to go about mitzvos. If that’s your attitude, your spiritual life is going be pretty tiring and draining. You don’t want to do mitzvos like that, how awful! No, you want to strive to serve G-d not for the compensation, but because it’s intrinsically valuable! Because it’s the most refreshing way to live! Because serving the Almighty is the most meaningful thing you can do in this world!
And when you have that attitude, suddenly everything becomes fresh and exciting. You want to do it, it feels incredible. Serve the Almighty today because He is Awesome – you too will feel awesome!