Pirkei Avot 1:3

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
October 30, 2020
Parshat Lech Lecha

אַנְטִיגְנוֹס אִישׁ סוֹכוֹ קִבֵּל מִשִּׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, אֶלָּא הֱווּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב שֶׁלֹּא עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם: 

Antigonus a man of Socho received [the oral tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say: do not be like servants who serve the master in the expectation of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve the master without the expectation of receiving a reward, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.

Before looking at the content of the text, I am struck by the name of the scholar. Antigonus of Socho is mentioned only in Pirkei Avot and Avot D’rabbi Natan. He is not referenced in the Talmud or elsewhere--except as commentary to these verses. He is a Jewish teacher with a Greek name, perhaps somewhat assimilated, while serving in leadership roles. In the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, Prof. Louis Ginzberg of blessed memory, wrote:

“The first scholar of whom Pharisaic tradition has preserved not only the name but also an important theological doctrine. He flourished about the first half of the third century B.C….Thus the first known Pharisee urges that good should be done for its own sake, and evil be avoided, without regard to consequences, whether advantageous or detrimental. The naive conception dominant in the Old Testament, that God's will must be done to obtain His favor in the shape of physical prosperity, is rejected by Antigonus, as well as the view, specifically called "Pharisaic," which makes reward in the future life the motive for human virtue. “ http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/1581-antigonus-of-soko

This teaching is to do right, not for any expectation of reward--neither in this life or even in the next. Interestingly in denying the carrot, it does not deny a stick--a fear of Divine punishment. It makes me consider our motivations. Who among us make choices for intrinsic motivations vs extrinsic ones?

If we make choices only for the approval of others--even if that other is God, our choices may not be long lasting. On the other hand, if we make choices because we truly believe they are right, then we are far more likely to stick to them. In Jewish tradition we have a concept of middah k’neged middah, that what goes around comes around. In chapter four of Pirkei Avot, it teaches that mitzvah gorreret mitzvah, that doing one mitzvah leads to another, that the reward for one mitzvah is another. Our tradition is teaching us the importance of understanding our value and the value of our choices.

As we go into a new week, let us make positive choices. Let us leave the week better than we entered it. Let us work towards a better life for us all. Tuesday is Election Day. If you have not made your voice heard, now is the time. Drop off your ballot, vote in person, VOTE!