The Lishmah of Interpersonal Mitzvos

I recently noticed a paradox when it comes to mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro (interpersonal mitzvos). What is the purpose of such mitzvos? To develop feelings of love and caring toward others; to expand our natural focus on ourselves to include others. Does the lishmah (lit: for itself) mean doing the mitzvah for the sake of doing a mitzvah? If it does, then we are not focusing on caring for other people, we are focusing on Hashem. On the other hand, if we define lishmah as being “for the purpose for which we were given the mitzvah (as best we can understand it)”, we would conclude that mitzvah bein adam lachaveiro “for itself” means doing it without thought to its being a mitzvah. As I said, a paradox.(Along these lines are the Chessed Projects many girl schools require. Obviously the point is that “from doing it not lishmah, one is brought to doing it lishmah.” But what is the school trying to encourage?)The paradox seems to be addressed by the Torah by giving two overarching principles that motivate chessed. The first is “ve’ahavta lerei’akha kamokha — and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The other is “vehalakhta bidrakhav — and you shall walk in His ways”, to which Chazal comment (Sifri ad loc, among many other places), “Just as He is described as Merciful, so too must you be merciful. Just as He is described as Kind, so must you too be kind. Etc….”

(Note that the Sifri does not actually call G-d “kind” or “merciful”. The Sifri clearly is ascribing the attributes to our perception of Hashem, not to Hashem Himself. See “The Attributes of G-d“.)

Ve’ahavta obligates us to act out of love for the other. Vehalakhta, out of love for and obedience to G-d. Which one is fulfilling in a given act, which could mean both as well, could very well depend on the intent of the person.

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  1. Seth Abrahams says:

    The word “lishmah” should be used exclusively in relation to Torah Study;
    In regard to all other Mitzvoth the words that should be used are “Leshem Po’alon”.
    So writes Rabbi Chaim Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim *, Gate 4 Chapter 3
    Which Rabbi Avrahan Yaakiov Finkel Shlita translates as “ Fulfil them
    [the Torah’s commands ] for the sake of their Maker [ i.e., because
    God commanded them] and speak of them [i.e., study them ] for their
    own sake –“ – to understand their meanings, rather than gain honor
    and respect ( Nedarim 62a )
    *The Juadica Press Inc. Brooklyn,NY11218

    • micha says:

      Thank you. But even if I were to follow RCV’s nomeclature, the question I posed stands. Doing something for the sake of our Maker means being nice to others because it’s a mitzvah. Which is certainly not the way I love myself — ve’ahavta lerei’akha kamokha.

      However, RCV’s position isn’t compelling. E.g.
      ” ראשית חכמה יראת ה’ שכל טוב לכל עושיהם (תהלים קיא). לעושים לא נאמר אלא לעושיהם לעושים לשמה ולא לעושים שלא לשמה וכל העושה שלא לשמה נוח לו שלא נברא ” – Berakhos 17a
      ” לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצווה אפילו שלא לשמה, שמתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה” – Sanhedrin 105b

      BTW, Nefesh haChaim is available on line. NhC 4:3 is here.
      – מסכת ברכות יז,א

  1. February 12, 2007 – כ״ד בשבט תשס״ז

    […] on this question in my post on the lishmah of interpersonal mitzvos. Posted in Mussar by micha RSS 2.0 Leave YourComment […]

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