Sunday, May 11, 2008

Faithful Public Servants

The Mishnah (Avos 3:2) encourages those who are involved in communal leadership (osekim/amelim be-tzorkhei tzibbur) to do it for the sake of Heaven, telling us that the merit of their acts lasts forever. Rabbenu Yonah explains that "forever" means a thousand generations.

Where does Rabbenu Yonah get this idea of a thousand generations? My theory is that he bases it on the Gemara in Sotah 31a, which says that the reward for performing mitzvos out of fear lasts for one thousand generations, and out of love (of God) lasts for two thousand generations. However, this leads to a further difficulty.

Click here to read moreTosafos (Sotah 22b sv. le-olam) defines the performance of mitzvos for external motives -- including fear of punishment -- as doing it she-lo lishmah, not for its own sake. The Mishnah in Avos is discussing doing mitzvos for the sake of Heaven, not out of fear which is considered not for its own sake. If so, shouldn't the reward be for two thousand generations and not a single generation? Why does Rabbenu Yonah say that it lasts only one thousand generations?

I would suggest that while it is conceivable for someone to perform a single act of a mitzvah entirely for its own sake -- with sufficient preparation, one can shake a lulav with proper intent -- communal leadership is a constant involvement that is not within human ability to be done entirely and solely with proper intentions. It is inevitable that at some point in the 24/7 schedule of communal planning and activity, personal considerations of honor or the like will slip in, even if temporarily. Therefore, the Mishnah is speaking to those who are involved in public service for multiple reasons and encourages them to attempt to purify their motives as much as possible. That is why they are rewarded for a thousand generations.

People are complicated beings with multiple reasons for what they do. Despite their mixed motives, they need to strive to improve do better and to improve the proportion of proper intention. Motivation is not either all good or all bad. It is a mixture and our job is to strive to improve the make-up of that mixture.

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