Real Question: Why Do You Do Mitzvos?
In our last Halacha Shiur before Yeshiva break, I announced our vacation “Tefillin Challenge” to my 9th grade Talmudic. The rules are simple: Every day of Yeshiva break (that isn't a Shabbos), you need to take a selfie of yourself wearing Tefillin and post it to our group chat. Doing so for all ten days of the break will earn you a free test grade of 100% for the current quarter.
The purpose of the challenge is obvious. I want to make sure that my students feel a sense camaraderie and accountability in their Shmiras HaMitzvos. One of the guys raised his hand incredulously. “Rebbe, we're all planning on putting on Tefillin already!” I'd like to believe that that's always the case, but being a high school student comes with challenges that are not always easy to overcome.
So we discussed how everyone is susceptible to the trickery of the Yetzer Hara:
“Although you guys were all planning on putting on Tefillin already, there are days when you might wake up late, miss minyan and feel bad about yourself. You might get distracted, rush out for some activity and only get home after sunset. When you see your phone buzzing with your friends putting on Tefillin, that's exactly the kind of encouragement that will beat back the Yetzer Hara of distraction and procrastination.”
That seemed to resonate.
One of the guys started questioning the rules. “Rebbe, how will know that the picture was taken that day?! Maybe we'll take a few on one day and then just use those?” I explained “It's certainly doable. But I might catch you, and that won't be fun. But are you seriously considering going through all that to avoid putting on Tefillin, which you already believe in and agree is important?” He agreed.
Another Talmid wondered “What happens if someone doesn't put on Tefillin and post their picture? Will they get a bad grade?” I told him that their grades would be fine, no points taken off, they would simply miss out on the free 100%.
But our shiur then began to consider that perhaps there's a bigger question to ask: How should we explain ourselves, our lives and our choices if the threat of a bad grade is a greater motivation than Ratzon Hashem?
This question is not only for high school boys putting on Tefillin. It's a question that we all need to ask ourselves in every aspect of our Yiddishkeit. Are we doing Mitzvos because we're trying to avoid punishment, or do we believe in the inherent value of doing what Hashem wants us to do.
Of course, we recognize the concept of “Yiras HaOnesh” – fear of punishment. But that’s the lowest level of motivation. It’s the catch-all, the backstop, the thing that holds us back at the last moment.
Every good parent knows that a threat is the nuclear option. When a parent says “clean your room” or “brush your teeth” the ultimate goal is that the child will care about the value of having a clean room and good dental hygiene. Threats are only relevant when our values are in question, or when we need external motivation to help us prioritize our the values we know to be true.
Changing Our Motivation Paradigm
Though we might not want to admit it, this challenge is sometimes as real for us as it is for our children. It's the part of Mitzrayim that we're still working to free ourselves from.
In fact, freeing ourselves from the “punishment perspective” might well be a central theme of Yetzias Mitzrayim, as the Torah describes:
This Shabbos, Hashem reveals the entire play-book to Moshe; every step of the mission. Moshe and Aharon will engage Pharaoh, asking him to let the Jewish people go. Behind the scenes, Hashem is strengthening Pharaoh's resolve, famously “hardening his heart.” This will enable Pharaoh to withstand the pain the plagues, allowing for Hashem to “increase His signs and wonders in the Land of Egypt.” (See Sefono here.)
Nevertheless, Hashem continues, וְלֹא־יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה וְנָתַתִּי אֶת־יָדִי בְּמִצְרָיִם Pharaoh will not listen to you, and I will “place My hand on Egypt.”
This final phrase וְנָתַתִּי אֶת־יָדִי בְּמִצְרָיִם is peculiar. What does Hashem mean by “placing His Hand”? He has already described the ten plagues and the disassembling of Egyptian society. What more might this add?
The HaKsav V'HaKabalah (ז:ד) explains that this short phrase encapsulates the entirety of Moshe's mission and the lessons that we need to learn from it.
When Hashem says “וְנָתַתִּי אֶת־יָדִי”, this is not a threat. Quite the opposite. Literally, these words mean that Hashem is “extending His hand” to Pharaoh. (The HaKsav V'HaKabalah characteristically provides multiple sources in Tanach that support this reading of the text.)
To understand the message here, we should review what made Egypt the great superpower of the ancient world: From the perspective of the Egyptian monarchy, might is right, and to the victor are the spoils of war. This philosophy worked well for the ancient Pharaohs, transforming their nation into the longest surviving regional superpower in human history.
Enter Moshe and Aharon explaining Jewish theology to Pharaoh: “There is One God in the Heavens and on Earth. He has chosen the Jewish people to be His, and He requests that you free them from slavery so that they will serve only Him.”
Impressive as this all sounds, Pharaoh has one thought preventing him from entertaining these claims. “If this God is indeed unique, singular and omnipotent as you say, then why on earth are you here asking me to free his people?! If He is infinitely powerful, let Him take these slaves for Himself!”
The rationale behind Pharaoh's unwillingness to accept the reality of Hashem is not that he cannot imagine Hashem's strength; it is because he cannot understand Hashem's kindness, patience and goodness. “If He can take these people, why is he sending you to ask?”
Hashem is teaching us here that the values of Torah stand in contrast to the cruelty of Egypt. Diplomacy, patience, conversation and education is always preferable to threats and violence, even when greater power is readily available. It was this lesson that Hashem wanted to display through his sending of Moshe and Aharon.
The Ksav V'Kabalah concludes by explaining the Pasuk: “The reason that Pharaoh will not listen to you, is precisely because I am extending My Hand to Him.” To the Egyptians, kindness is weakness. The fall of Egypt is that tragically, they will only listen when kindness is replaced with a display of vastly superior power.
The Mitzvos of Yeshiva Break
More than any other, vacation is a time to consider the reason that we do mitzvos. This is true for parents and children at every stage of our growth and development. Away from the homework, tests, attendance sheets and car pool lines, do we value davening, learning and cheesed? Do we find Simcha in our Yiddishkeit when the communal and academic stakes are lowered? Or perhaps we have conditioned ourselves to engage in Torah and mitzvos only because we are afraid not to comply?
If you're not sure which side of this you're on, or if you'd like to upgrade your perspective, try this: Choose a mitzvah that you're planning on doing anyway. Spend a few minutes before thinking about why you're going to do it, what you hope you will achieve and why it's a meaningful way to spend your time. The results might be surprising, delightful or disappointing. Either way, it's a opening to grow.
Hashem should help us these weeks to refocus on what matters; the values that we are trying to live up to, rather than the repercussions if we don't. We should feel his hand reaching out to us in our lives, pulling us out of the last chains of Mitzrayim.