The Joy of Serving: Part 3

Dear Friends,


As we discussed in the last letter, we can experience an inner joy when we fulfill the purpose of our creation – to serve and preserve the world through the sacred mitzvos of the holistic Torah path. In this letter, we will begin to explore how even our “mundane” activities, such as eating, sleeping, and exercising, can be transformed into sacred acts of service which enhance our sense of joy.  The key to this transformation is kavanah - the intention or consciousness which accompanies our daily activities. The word kavanah is related to the word kiven - to direct, to aim toward a goal. From a Torah perspective, the goal of our lives is to serve the compassionate and just purpose of the Creator, as it is written: Hashem Elokim took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it” (Genesis 2:15). According to our tradition, we are to perform all our actions with a sacred and altruistic kavanah - with the intention to fulfill the compassionate and just purpose of our Creator. In this way, all our activities can become mitzvos of service aimed at one, universal goal: to serve and protect all creation.


King Solomon reminded us that all our activities should be directed towards this sacred and altruistic goal when he wrote, “In all your ways know Him (Proverbs 3:6). In this spirit, Rabbi Yose, a sage of the Mishnah, said: “Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.” (Pirkei Avos 2:17). Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenora, in his commentary on this teaching, explains that even when we are engaged in eating and drinking, we should have the kavanah that we are doing this to become healthy, so that we will have the strength to fulfill the will of our Creator. Maimonides (Rambam) elaborates on this idea in his classical work on the mitzvos known as “Mishneh Torah.” He notes that even sleeping can be for the sake of Heaven if one sleeps with the intention of gaining physical and mental strength in order to know and serve Hashem  (Hilchos De'os, 3:3). In general, adds Maimonides, “a human being must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which helps the body become healthier and stronger” (Ibid. 4:1). Maimonides then discusses specific recommendations for maintaining good health, and he stresses the importance of good nutrition and exercise. These health recommendations are included in his classical work on the mitzvos – a reminder that taking care of our health can become a sacred service.
As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, it is actually a mitzvah to take care of our health, as it is written: “Only guard yourself and greatly guard your life” (Deut. 4:9). The Hebrew term for “life” in this verse is nefesh - a term which can refer to the life-force which supports the body. In his explanation of this mitzvah, Rabbi Hirsch writes:


“Not only may you not rob yourself of your life; you may not even cause your body the slightest injury. You may not ruin your health through carelessness, you may not weaken yourself by abstinence from that which is permitted, you may not willfully bring yourself into danger, you may not lessen your powers through an irregular way of life, or in any way weaken your health or shorten your life. Only if the body is healthy is it an efficient instrument for the spirit's activity. Therefore, even the smallest unnecessary deprivation of strength is accountable to God. Every smallest weakening is partial murder. Therefore you should avoid everything which might possibly impair your health. You should not risk your health except when God himself demands it. You should not rely on a protective miracle of Providence, unless the fulfillment of duty makes it necessary to face danger; for Providence does not protect carelessness and foolhardiness. And the law (of Torah) asks you to be even more circumspect in avoiding danger to life and limb than in the avoidance of other transgressions - see Choshen Mishpat 427 and Yorah Deah 116.” (Horeb, chapter 62)
Rabbi Hirsch also conveys the following personal message to each of us: You have a responsibility to preserve your life and your health, for all creation has a claim to your beneficent activity, including “every human being whom you can serve, every animal that you have and can preserve, every tree which you can guard, and every earthly creature to which you belong” (Ibid.).
All of the above teachings can help us to understand the following statement in the Book of Proverbs:
”A person who does chesed - deeds of love - does good to himself.” (11:17)
According to the commentaries of the Ralbag and Metzudas David, the “good” that the loving person does to himself is the providing of his necessary physical needs so that he can be healthy and strong. I would therefore like to suggest that this verse is teaching us the following lesson: A person who is dedicated to chesed looks after his basic physical needs so that he can have the health, strength, and resources to give to others! With this altruistic intention, eating, drinking, sleeping, exercise, and working become deeds “for the sake of Heaven”!


Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Comments and Teachings:


1. Rabindranath Tagore, a noted poet of India, wrote:


“I slept and dreamt that life was joy.  I awoke and saw that life was duty. I acted and behold, duty was joy.”


2. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:


“The categories of enjoyment and work that are not prohibited are not only permitted and approved, but they come under the heading of “mitzvah” and assume the character of sacred, unselfish, God-serving acts…Indeed the totality of the Jew’s existence is one of great service to God - in his place of work, in the circle of his family, in his social activities, in the most mundane and the pettiest details of his life. Even his dishes and cutlery, his pots and pans, are tools of his calling: “Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah must be dedicated to the God of the hosts of creation” (Zechariah 14:21)…This is what makes Jewish life such a joyous experience.” (This teaching can be found in, “Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch,” Volume 8, the essay on Jewish Joyfulness.)


The eight volumes of “Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch” are published by Feldheim:


3. “Horeb” by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, discusses the ethical and spiritual lessons that can be learned by fulfilling the mitzvos of the Torah, including the mitzvos of the heart and the mind. It also discusses some of the “halachos” – the detailed requirements – of the path of mitzvos. Through this noted work, one gets a deeper appreciation of the Torah’s universal vision, and how the mitzvos of the Torah enable us to fulfill this mission. Horeb is published by Judaica Press:  

Hazon - Our Universal Vision