Skip to main content

In All Your Ways Know Him: Two Modes of Serving God

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Based on addresses by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler



In the previous lecture, we discussed the importance assigned to work in our worldview. Even prior to his punishment, Adam was placed in the garden in order to work it, thus teaching us that constructive labor is part of what a person ordinarily ought to be engaged in. This mandate can be viewed from various perspectives: as a facet of gemilut chasadim, helping others and improving the world; as simply fulfilling that which God has demanded of us, working as His agents; as essential for one’s psychological well-being and moral self-development; and as placing the human stamp upon the world. Various schools of thought have stressed each of these, and I think all of them are correct. Our hashkafa (outlook) stands foursquare behind the so-called “work ethic,” which emphasizes the moral, psychological, religious and social importance of work. In terms of two poems by Tennyson, if our choice is whether to join the indolent Lotos-eaters or “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” with Ulysses, there is no question as to where we would stand.


            However, all of this is correct and important insofar as one is dealing with the contrast between indolence and work. But of course, those are not the only choices open to us, and the question confronting us as individuals who have to make concrete decisions is: How do we want to spend our lives? How do we want to earn a living? How do we balance a profession with tal- mud Torah, or with avodat Hashem (service of God) in a narrow sense? I say “in a narrow sense” because when we think of what kind of life the Torah wants us to lead, we have to think in two contexts, and then try to understand the relationship between the two. These two contexts are serving God through devar mitzva, that which we have specifically been commanded to perform, and serving Him through devar reshut, the broad area of choice in one’s life.



We all know that there are many mitzvot we are obligated to perform. Some of these are clearly delineated, to the point where adding to them is of no substance; in fact, it may even be problematic. If a person decides that instead of sitting in a sukka for a week, he will sit for ten days, then he transgresses the prohibition of bal tosif (adding to mitzvot). Even if a person does not violate a prohibition, the quantitative addition is often neutral. For example, if a person decides that instead of eating one ke-zayit of matza he will eat two, then according to most opinions he has not accomplished anything.


            However, there are mitzvot—and these are among the most critical mitzvot—which do not have any prescribed bounds and which therefore may be viewed as laying claim to the totality of our being. Some of these mitzvot which have no specific limits relate to states of mind—mitzvot of the heart such as ahava (love of God), yira (fear of God), deveikut (clinging to God), etc. All of these mitzvot have no particular focus in terms of a specific activity. Consequently, at least in theory, they need not conflict with anything else, so that you don’t have to ask yourself whether they preempt any other sphere of human activity.


            In theory, a person can love or fear God no matter where he is and what he is doing. In practice, this is not always the case, because a person whose attention is focused upon some other activity may find it difficult to concentrate upon ahava and yira. A person may find that in order for ahava and yira to be not merely subliminal but rather consciously perceived, he may have to abandon some other activities in order to concentrate purely upon these. But at any rate, in theory there need not be any conflict between these unbounded mitzvot and anything else.


            There are, however, some mitzvot which really are in conflict, at a practical level, with other interests. This conflict can take two forms. For example, the Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 3:9) discusses two possible conflicts between governmental decrees and Halakha. The first entails a clash between governmental demands which are legitimate in and of themselves, but which in practice may entail foregoing the fulfillment of a mitzva. In this case, he says, “Divrei ha-rav ve-divrei ha-eved, divrei ha-rav kodmin—The words of the Master (God) take precedence over the words of the servant.” The second type of conflict is created by a decree which specifically bans the fulfillment of a particular law. This type of decree, says the Rambam, is totally null and void.


            The type of clash I wish to discuss is not of the latter kind, which is direct, frontal and inherent. Rather, I am referring to a clash of the first kind, where, practically speaking, a person cannot do both things. Here, one may clearly encounter a conflict between certain more general interests and the specific focus on avodat Hashem. And this, I repeat, is with regard to certain obligations which are limitless, primarily the three central areas delineated by the mishna in Avot (1:2): “The world stands on three things: on Torah, on avoda (divine service), and on gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness).” The Mishna (Pe’a 1:1) lists talmud Torah (Torah study) and gemilut chasadim as the two general categories “which have no [maximal] measure,” and similarly we find avoda placed in the same category: “to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul” (Devarim 11:13). Since these three areas are without limit, each, in effect, can make a total claim upon a person.


            Thus, as general categories, these three areas encompass the totality of one’s being; and even if you translate them into specific activities, there are different views in the Gemara as to whether these activities themselves are limited. For example, what does avoda mean? In the broader sense, it means simply to serve God, and that is a total kind of commitment. If you want to translate it more specifically, it means either the sacrificial service in the Temple or the service of the heart, namely, tefilla (prayer). With regard to tefilla, different views appear among Chazal (Berakhot 21a). Rav Elazar believes that tefilla is limited in scope, while Rav Yochanan says, “Would that a person pray the whole day!”


            This raises another question: If each of these three areas makes a total claim upon us, how do we reconcile these claims with each other? How do we draw the lines between these areas? Leaving this question for a later lecture, I would like to focus on the claim which this triad as a whole makes upon us. How does this triad stand in relation to other areas of human life? Does it negate the value of work and of other human pursuits?



Here we come to the question of devar reshut. On the one hand, we spoke of the “three things upon which the world stands” in terms of specific mitzvot and fulfillments. But on the other hand, there is also an ideal which is based on the verse, “Bekhol derakhekha da’ehu”—“In all your ways know Him” (Mishlei 3:6). A person should serve God in all walks of life; everything he does should be oriented ultimately towards avodat Hashem. This means that a person can be an oved Hashem in the broader sense of the term, not only by fulfilling mitzvot specifically defined as such, but also in the much larger area of divrei reshut. These too somehow must become part of the totality of one’s avodat Hashem.


            The Rambam made a point of this when discussing the statement, “Ha-kol bi-yedei Shamayim chutz mi-yirat Shamayim, All is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b). Following Rabbeinu Bachya, he says that indeed a person controls only yirat Shamayim, but the term yirat Shamayim encompasses the whole range of human activity. Whatever a person does expresses his yirat Shamayim or lack thereof. The Rambam speaks of this extensively in Shemona Perakim and Hilkhot De’ot:


A person must direct every single one of his deeds solely towards attaining knowledge of God. His sitting down, his standing up, and his speech should all be directed toward this goal. . . Even when he sleeps, if he sleeps with the intention of resting his mind and body so that he does not become sick—for he is unable to serve the Lord when he is sick—his sleep shall become a service of God. Concerning this, Chazal commanded (Avot 2:12), “Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.” That is what Shlomo said in his wisdom (Mishlei 3:6): “In all your ways know Him, and He will make your paths straight.” (Hilkhot De’ot 3:2-3)


            The particular formulation of the Rambam, both here and in Shemona Perakim, bears his own personal stamp. The Rambam interprets the saying, “Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven,” in terms of knowing God. The verse which he quotes at the end, “In all your ways know Him,” provides him with a certain measure of support. However, the concept per se is not dependent upon accepting his specific formulation. There are surely many who find Rambam’s formulation to be excessively intellectualistic, too narrowly focused upon knowing, as opposed to other ways of relating to God, such as the affective or the conative.


            However, this dispute about interpreting “for the sake of Heaven”—whether it refers to knowing God, or submitting to God, etc.—is irrelevant with respect to our present discussion. Regardless of how one defines the term, it denotes that the totality of a person’s existence is oriented towards his relationship with God, towards avodat Hashem.



            On the one hand, the approach of “Be-khol derakhekha da’ehu” seems to extend the demands of avodat Hashem, and therefore to delegitimize other ultimate goals. On the other hand, it also serves to give some legitimization to those other areas. In effect, it tells you that when you are outside the immediate area of Torah, avoda and gemilut chasadim, when you are outside the beit midrash and the synagogue, you are not necessarily beyond the purview of avodat Hashem. You can be an oved Hashem in the field of business or in any other profession—“in all your ways.” This is central to our whole perception of human endeavor. In a sense, devar reshut is only a relative term; no area of life is truly neutral. The Rambam even speaks of sleeping as being part of one’s avodat Hashem. But within this broad realm of “be-khol derakhekha,” one’s profession is singled out as being more directly a form of avodat Hashem, although it may not be a fulfillment of a mitzva narrowly defined.


            The view that one’s umanut (profession) is a kind of mitzva has halakhic implications. For example, the gemara (Shabbat 19a) says that a person should not set out on a boat trip less than three days before Shabbat. However, the gemara continues, this is permitted for a devar mitzva. What if a person wants to take a business trip? Rabbeinu Tam (cited by the Mordekhai, Shabbat 1:258) says that this is considered a devar mitzva, and this is the halakha quoted by the Rema in the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 248:4).


            To take another example, the gemara twice offers the same midrash on each word of the verse, “You shall inform them of the path which they shall pursue and the action which they shall perform” (Shemot 18:20). This exegesis begins, “Rav Yossi says: ‘You shall inform them’ refers to beit chayyeihem.” In one place, Rashi explains beit chayyeihem as referring to talmud Torah (Bava Kama 99b). In the other place, however, Rashi explains it as teaching one’s child a trade by which to earn a living (Bava Metzia 30b).


            From all the above, we see that work is not just significant in its own right, but can also be considered as an important part of the totality of one’s avoda. More specifically, it can be seen as a kind of devar mitzva in the narrow sense, over and above the sense in which all human activity has some significance as part of avodat Hashem.


            Thus, we have two levels of avodat Hashem. One is more specifically and narrowly defined: this is the devar mitzva. One is more broadly defined: this is devar reshut, the area of “Be-khol derakhekha da’ehu.” The former is more directly and immediately related to God, and is restricted to the area narrowly perceived as “religious.” It poses both limited demands (e.g. Shabbat and kashrut, etc.) and all-encompassing demands (Torah, avoda, gemilut chasadim). However, the latter level—“Be-khol derakhekha da’ehu”—informs us that everything a person does can and should be directed to God.


            These two levels of avodat Hashem can, in a sense, be regarded as complementary. Nevertheless, it behooves us to examine the differences between them and to determine whether one takes precedence over the other.



            King David says: “One thing I ask of the Lord, only that do I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to frequent His temple” (Tehillim 27:4). Enthusiasts of work are scandalized by this verse. How can he say, “one thing?” Is that all David wants to do? What about building the country, developing society or expanding the economy? This is a good question, but the verse remains a verse. Clearly, one has to try to understand what wish King David expresses in this verse, and how we are to understand the importance of a profession in light of it.


            One way of explaining this verse is to say simply that labor is very good if it is contrasted with indolence; but if it is contrasted with “gazing upon the beauty of the Lord and frequenting His temple,” then a person is much better off doing the latter than working for General Motors. This explanation is indeed correct. Nonetheless, it does not free us from trying to understand what attitude a ben-Torah should therefore have towards working for General Motors or the equivalent thereof.


The Yerushalmi records:


Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: Had I been present at Mount Sinai at the time the Torah was given to Israel, I would have asked God to create for man two mouths—one to engage [exclusively] in Torah and one to take care of all of a person’s other needs. (Shabbat 1:2)


            This is a different way of formulating “One thing I ask of the Lord.” Rabbi Shimon desired a personality which could concentrate wholly and solely upon “gazing at the Lord’s beauty,” upon engaging in Torah, upon the immediate and direct contact and consultation with the Almighty. One mouth would constantly engage in Torah, and more mundane concerns would be taken care of by a second, more profane, mouth.


            This remains, of course, in the nature of a wish, but its importance as a wish is very central. It presents a direction, an ultimate goal. Granted, a person who goes to work can be doing something legitimate and constructive. But if he spends so much of his time doing things which are not immediately part of the devar mitzva of avodat Hashem (even though they can be integrated within avodat Hashem in the broader sense), is this regarded with favor?



            In the previous lecture, I quoted the Rambam (Hilkhot Gezeila 6:11) who said that a person should spend all his time engaged in only two things: divrei chokhma and yishuvo shel olam (matters of wisdom and developing the world). This, of course, leads to the question of establishing the appropriate ratio between chokhma and yishuvo shel olam. This question is taken up in a famous gemara:


Our Rabbis taught: “You shall gather in your grain” (Devarim 11:14)—what is to be learnt from these words? Since it says, “This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth” (Yehoshua 1:8), I might think that this injunction is to be taken literally. Therefore the Torah says, “You shall gather in your grain,” which implies that you should combine Torah study with a worldly occupation. This is the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael.


Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: Is that possible? If a person plows in the plowing season, and sows in the sowing season, and reaps in the reaping season, and threshes in the threshing season, and winnows in the windy season, what is to become of the Torah? Rather, [this means that] when Israel performs the will of God, their work is done by others, as it says, “Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks” (Yeshayahu 61:5). But when Israel does not perform the will of God, they perform their own work, as it says, “You shall gather your grain.” Not only this, but the work of others is also done by them, as it says, “You shall serve your enemy” (Devarim 28:48).


Abbaye said: Many have acted in accordance with Rabbi Yishmael, and did so successfully, others have followed Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and did so unsuccessfully. (Berakhot 35b)


            The verse Rabbi Yishmael uses to describe normal human existence, “You shall gather in your grain,” is almost a curse in the eyes of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He regards it as a heavy burden which conflicts with one’s need and desire to become a talmid chakham, to become an oved Hashem in the more specific and narrow sense of the term.



Indeed, we have here a dispute between Tannaim, and likewise there is also a dispute among the Rishonim. The mishna (Avot 2:2) says, “Yafeh talmud Torah im derekh eretz, she-yegi’at sheneihem meshakachat avon—Excellent is the study of Torah together with a worldly occupation, for exertion in both of them causes the thought of sin to be forgotten.” How is this to be understood? Which is the main element—talmud Torah or derekh eretz—and which is secondary? Which is the main focus of a person’s activity, and which is a mere accompaniment? This is the subject of a disagreement among the Rishonim, which appears in several places.


            Rabbeinu Tam believes that whenever the Talmud says, “A with B,” this means that A is simply an accompaniment, but the main item is B. Thus, when the gemara (Yoma 85b) says that “Yom Kippur atones with teshuva (repentance),” it means that teshuva is primary and Yom Kippur secondary. In our case, he says that derekh eretz is primary, and talmud Torah is a nice addition. However, Rabbeinu Tam’s grand-nephew Rabbeinu Elchanan (son of the Ri) disagrees in all of these places. He believes that the first element—whether talmud Torah or Yom Kippur—is primary.


            The dispute between Rabbeinu Tam and Rabbeinu Elchanan is really a sharper form of the argument between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Here again we encounter different perceptions concerning how a person is normally expected to live.


            Rabbeinu Tam, however, seems to go far beyond Rabbi Yishmael’s position. While Rabbi Yishmael recognized the legitimacy of labor, Rabbeinu Tam considers it to be the ikkar (primary component). Thus, Rabbeinu Tam is the opposite extreme of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who negated the value of work entirely.


            However, we must be more precise in our understanding of Rabbeinu Tam’s position. It is inconceivable that Rabbeinu Tam, of all people, thought that working in the fields or collecting garbage is the ikkar—the main thing in human life and the purpose of one’s existence. Not that these things may not be valuable and good, but could they be the ikkar?


            One therefore needs to differentiate between two senses of the term ikkar. It can be meant in an axiological sense, in terms of value: What is most important? It can also be meant as something which is central not in qualitative, axiological terms, but rather in quantitative terms: How does the Torah expect, how do Chazal expect, a person to spend the bulk of his day? I believe we must interpret the argument between Rabbeinu Tam and Rabbeinu Elchanan in the latter sense: How does God expect a person to spend his day?



The Rambam had some very pointed comments on this question. On the one hand, he was sharply critical of people who don’t work and just try to feed upon the public treasury, even if they are spending their time learning Torah.


One who makes up his mind to study Torah and not to work but to live off charity, profanes the name of God, brings the Torah into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself, and deprives himself of life in the hereafter. (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10)


            But this very same Rambam presents the average man working three hours a day—just enough to sustain himself—and learning Torah nine hours a day (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:12). Although the Rambam himself was able to live like this only at certain stages of his life, this was the kind of existence he expected one to live.


            It is precisely the kind of life described by the Rambam that Rabbeinu Tam says is not expected of us. If, instead, a person works nine hours a day and learns three hours, he should not feel that he is not living up to God’s expectations. Rather, he should feel that he is leading the kind of life which perhaps is not the pinnacle of human existence, but is the kind of solid, decent avodat Hashem of “Be-khol derakhekha da’ehu” that God expects of a person.


            Rabbeinu Elchanan and the Rambam reject the notion that derekh eretz is what occupies most of one’s time and Torah is merely a component within the remaining time. But their argument with Rabbeinu Tam about time allotment has nothing to do with the question of values. The quantitative factor is by no means a reflection of what we value most in our lives. If a person sleeps eight hours a day and prays two hours, does that mean he thinks sleeping is four times more important than praying? If he works in an office for eight hours a day and spends only an hour with his children, does it mean that he thinks that his children are relatively unimportant?



For various reasons which a person does not always control, he may be devoting much more time to less valuable activities than to more important ones. Of course, the test of his true priorities is demonstrated by what he would do if he could somehow be freed of all these secondary pressures. What is a person’s real aspiration? For what does he truly long?


            Ideally, a person wants to be in a position to devote as much of his life as he can to his ultimate goals, and as little as possible to the things he does only because he has to, not because he wants to. There are things he does because of their inherent value, and there are things which he does only because of their instrumental value. So, although we know that “Im ein kemach ein Torah, If there is no flour, there is no Torah” (Avot 3:17), and Rabbeinu Tam posits the legitimacy of a life spent primarily in pursuit of kemach, this surely does not obliterate the qualitative and axiological difference between kemach and Torah.


            Rabbeinu Tam, too, knows the verse, “One thing I ask of the Lord.” Who is the author of this verse? King David! Was he the model of a person who spent all his time “gazing on the beauty of the Lord and frequenting His temple?” Not at all. He ran a country and commanded an army, but nevertheless saw himself rooted in avodat Hashem and his ultimate aspiration in coming close to God.


            In practical terms, this translates into trying to find those opportunities which enable you to maximize the time devoted to the significant things in your life. This is an important consideration for a person who is choosing a career. I don’t want to get involved for the moment in the question of whether one should look for a secular career or a Torah career. Even if a person is choosing a secular career, certainly one of the factors to bear in mind is giving priority to a career which will enable him to have more “free leisure time” during which he can learn Torah and pursue spirituality, as opposed to one which is more demanding of his time. I’m not saying that this should be the only factor, but it should be one factor. (I will not try to list all the factors here, but clearly among those factors should be issues such as what society needs, where one’s talents lie, what professions are inherently valuable, etc.) In terms of one’s ultimate aspirations, one should aspire to more Torah and less kemach. But this doesn’t mean that a person should aspire to zero kemach, for reasons that I specified in the previous lecture.


The Rambam expresses this idea at the end of Mishneh Torah:


[At the time of the Messiah,] there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife. Blessings will be abundant, comforts within the reach of all, and the one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the Lord. (Hilkhot Melakhim 12:5)


            Since there will be no political, military, economic or social pressures, people will be free to devote themselves to what is of ultimate importance. Of course, to most people this is merely an aspiration: King David was not able spend all his time engaged in the “one thing” he requested; Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai had only one mouth. But the questions nevertheless remain: How should a person make career choices? What kind of self-image should he have when making the choice?


            I repeat: as a general guideline, a person should be looking for a kind of life which will enable him to approach Rabbeinu Elchanan’s as opposed to Rabbeinu Tam’s ideal. And he should be content to have a standard of living which will enable him to devote more time to avodat Hashem in the direct sense, as opposed to the broader, indirect sense. But to say this is not to delegitimize the importance of umanut and of “le-ovdah u-leshomrah.”



Two final points deserve emphasis. “Be-khol derakhekha da’ehu” means that regardless of what sphere of activity a person is engaged in, he can give expression within that sphere to his relationship with God. This takes two forms: why he does something, and how he does it.


            The first of these means that a person can do something whose ultimate goal is to help him serve God, even though his spiritual self does not come into play as he engages in it. The Rambam says that “Be-khol derakhekha da’ehu” can apply to sleeping, if one sleeps in order to have the strength to serve God, to be able to learn, pray and perform gemilut chasadim the next day. This transforms sleeping, recreation and relaxation into part of one’s avodat Hashem, even though one is not thinking of God while he is doing it.


            Secondly, in many areas of human life a person’s moral and spiritual self does find expression, even when he is engaged in a “secular” activity. The gemara says:


Four matters require strengthening, and they are: Torah, good deeds, prayer and derekh eretz. (Berakhot 32b)


Rashi explains:


What do we mean by “require strengthening?” That one should continually strengthen himself in them with all his might. . . If he is a craftsman, he should be strong in his craft; if he is a trader, he should be strong in his trade; if he is a warrior, he should be strong in his martial skills. (ad loc.)


Regardless of what a person does, he should try to act in the spirit of the work ethic, namely, be-khol kocho, with maximal effort. This is a religious value.


            In parashat Vayetze (Bereishit 31:6), Ya’akov says to his wives, “You know that with all my strength (be-khol kochi) I served your father.” The Rambam (Hilkhot Sekhirut 13:7) quotes this passage as the source of the law that a laborer should always work with maximal effort. Even if a person is engaged in an activity which in and of itself does not have an immediate moral element, nevertheless, how one relates to that activity can reflect a moral, amoral, or immoral view.


            The Rambam, of course, addresses a situation where you work for somebody else, in which case it is simply theft if you are slack in your duty. But the question of whether or not a person is doing things be-khol kocho applies not only to interpersonal relationships with one’s boss, but also to one’s relationship with “The Boss.” The Almighty has commanded us to engage in yishuvo shel olam—doing something constructive within society—but one can do that either half-heartedly or with full dedication.


            Therefore, a person who works as an oved Hashem should ask himself two questions. 1) In what activity am I engaged? There are activities which are more directly related to avodat Hashem and there are those which are less so. 2) How do I approach these activities? It is entirely conceivable that a person may be more spiritually engaged in a less inherently spiritual activity, than a person who is engaged in an inherently spiritual activity but performs it in a very lackadaisical manner.


            The gemara (e.g. Berakhot 28b) speaks of yoshevei beit hamidrash and of yoshevei keranot, those who dwell in the beit midrash and those who dwell at street-corners. What is a yoshev keranot? Someone who hangs around the candy store, the pub, or whatever the current equivalent may be. He is defined by merely hanging around, by being a loafer. It is possible for a person to be seated in the beit ha-midrash as a yoshev keren, and it is possible for a person working in a store to be the equivalent, in a sense, of a yoshev beit ha-midrash.


            The significance of effort is very considerable in our hashkafa. This can find expression even in inherently trivial areas. For example, the world of sports is, in a certain sense, trivial; mature adults are running around trying to put a ball through a hole. Nevertheless, moral qualities can and do come into play: cooperation, team play, an attempt to get the maximum out of yourself, etc. The inherent effort of the person himself, or the loneliness of the long-distance runner in his isolation, are very significant moral elements. While one need not accept the British belief that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, there is no question that within the essentially trivial world of sports, real moral greatness and real moral degradation can be seen. If you see someone on the basketball court who wants only to shoot and score, and defense means nothing to him, this is not simply disturbing to another basketball player, but is morally repugnant.



Ideally, a person should strive to live a life within which there is coincidence between the two, namely, to be applying himself maximally within an area which is objectively important—subjective avoda within the objective avoda. But that is not always possible; the majority of people must spend most of their time engaged in kemach, not Torah. Kemach can be a matter of necessity on either a personal economic level or on a collective social plane. Serving in the army is also kemach, but on the level of collective necessity. However, regarding the pursuit of kemach on the personal plane, one has to honestly confront the question: How much is really necessary and how much derives simply from the desire to have a fancy lifestyle?


            Is a person really driven to a particular career because he thinks that it is necessary and important for society? Does he feel that he has a personal contribution to make? Will it bring out the better parts of himself, helping him grow? Is he doing it just for the money or is he doing it out of a sense of mission and commitment? Although not every occupation can generate the same sense of mission, it is important that a person feel that what he is doing is necessary from the social and collective point of view. This should be a major factor in a person’s career choice. Then, after choosing a career, he must ask himself whether he is giving it his maximal effort. Regardless of what he is doing, he must work with the sense of being an oved Hashem—“Be-khol derakhekha da’ehu.”



The final mishna in Menachot (13:11, 110a) points out that the same phrase, rei’ach nicho’ach (a sweet savor), is used with regard to sacrificial offerings of different value—cattle, birds and flour. From here it derives a principle: “Echad ha-marbeh ve-echad ha-mam’it, u-bilvad she-yekhaven adam et da’ato la-Shamayim—It matters not whether a person offers much or little, so long as he directs his heart to Heaven.” This mishna is quoted in a gemara which every person should learn and apply; it should be hung on the wall of every beit midrash:


A favorite saying of the Rabbis of Yavneh was: I am God’s creature and my fellow man (i.e. a non-scholar) is God’s creature. My work is in the town and his is in the field. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. Just as he does not presume to do my work, I do not presume to do his. Will you say, I do much and he does little? We have learnt: “It matters not whether a person does much or little, so long as he directs his heart to Heaven.” (Berakhot 17a)


            The Rabbis of Yavneh say that one should have a sense of the worth not only of people who sit in a beit midrash, but also of those who are “in the field,” engaged in building society, culture, economy, country, government—any of the various walks of life whose development is essential if the world of “le-ovdah u-leshomrah” is to be sustained. This is a very clear and direct critique of the kind of condescension towards balebatim (people in non- Torah professions) which unfortunately one sometimes encounters in yeshiva circles. Sometimes, yeshiva students tend to regard themselves as the salt of the earth, while considering other people to be of secondary value. This kind of arrogance has no place in a beit midrash and must be shunned by any ben-Torah. A ben-Torah must believe that Torah is important, but that people engaged in other walks of life are also part of God’s world, and are fulfilling their mission of “le-ovdah u-leshomrah” within that world. He is doing his work and I am doing my work, but what is important is the quality, intensity and scope of a person’s dedication to Heaven. Whatever a person does can be geared ultimately to fostering his relationship with God.


            Does this mean that therefore it is irrelevant whether a person is marbeh or mam’it, as long as he directs his heart to Heaven? Surely not! Surely not if we are talking about avodat Hashem generally, and certainly not if we are talking about talmud Torah. Rather, this phrase means that even if a person finds himself in circumstances where he needs to be mam’it—after all, God did not create the world as one tremendous kollel—he should attempt to serve God in whatever he is doing, and others should value his efforts. But to the extent that a person can be a marbeh, of course he is supposed to be a marbeh!



One’s ultimate aspiration should be to focus on Torah, not kemach. This receives expression on two planes. Emotionally, even when one is a mam’it, he longs to be a marbeh. Practically, it means that he should try to maximize his Torah study and his direct avodat Hashem.


            On the one hand, talmud Torah, like other mitzvot, has a certain minimum. The gemara (Nedarim 8a) says that one can fulfill the daily requirement of Torah study merely by reciting Keriat Shema twice daily. The Vilna Gaon (Pea 1:1) goes even further, asking: Why recite the whole Shema? One word will suffice to fulfill the mitzva of talmud Torah! But this is true only at one level of the mitzva. Talmud Torah is not just a daily obligation, but a general direction in a person’s life. “You shall meditate upon it day and night” (Yehoshua 1:8). Through God’s revealed word, we can come to know Him, approach Him, relate to Him. This is a value, a goal to be maximized as far as one can. In the words of the mishna, “These are the things which are without measure.” As the Ran points out:


It would seem that [by reciting Shema], one has not necessarily fulfilled his obligation [to learn Torah], for every person is required to learn Torah continually, day and night, kefi kocho— according to the best of his ability. It says in the first chapter of Kiddushin (30a): “Our Rabbis taught, Ve-shinantam means that the words of the Torah shall be clear-cut in your mouth, so that if anyone asks you something, you should not show doubt and then answer him, but rather you should be able to answer him immediately,” and reciting Shema twice daily does not suffice to attain this level. (Ran, Nedarim 8a)


            This is an axiom that has guided Kenesset Yisrael for all generations: one must try to learn Torah kefi kocho. True, there are other avenues of life which are important and valuable; true, work is a very constructive endeavor—but that means work as opposed to indolence, and not work as opposed to Torah. In fact, Torah study itself is work; we frequently refer to amalah shel Torah, the labor of Torah. Rashi, quoting the Torat Kohanim, says:


“If you will follow My statutes” (Vayikra 26:3)—I might think this refers to keeping the mitzvot, therefore the verse continues, “and if you will keep My commandments.” Since the latter part of the verse refers to mitzva observance, what does “If you will follow My statutes” mean? That you should labor in Torah.


            Unfortunately, balebatim very often have the notion that they are the ones who work, while those in the beit midrash are batlanim, idlers. A person who knows what learning is all about knows that Torah is the real amal.



Of course, there are other legitimate demands, and here the crucial question comes up. When the Ran says “kefi kocho,” what does that mean? Is it a function of one’s psychological ability, his intellectual ability, his economic ability? Probably it means all three. As much as a person can, he should try to engage in Torah, and as I said before: pay attention to the kemach, recognize its importance and significance, but don’t confuse kemach with Torah.


            It remains an unresolved dispute whether ideally one should have only Torah and not kemach, as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai felt. Everyone, however, agrees that a person should strive to reach the kind of existence within which Torah and direct avodat Hashem are maximized and other things are minimized. This is the kefi kocho that the Ran is talking about. Now, to say this does not in any way delegitimize the importance of constructive endeavors in yishuvo shel olam, nor show disrespect to those engaged in them. As I said, these people are doing something valuable, and really may be engaged in “Be-khol derakhekha da’ehu.” They may be finding the Almighty in the sphere of “le-ovdah u-leshomrah;” they may be giving expression to their spiritual selves within the context of what they do. To reiterate, at times it is even possible that a person subjectively may be more oved Hashem in an area which is objectively less avodat Hashem, if he approaches it in the proper spirit. So a ben-Torah should harbor no condescension whatsoever towards those engaged in other spheres of activity.


            Surely, there are many who eventually do find that they are in Rabbeinu Tam’s world, and one area or another of the general world of kemach becomes their ikkar in terms of how they spend their day. But what is crucial is their sense of values—that they know that the ikkar is avodat Hashem in its more narrow definition: Torah, avoda, gemilut chasadim, and that they engage in Torah “kefi kocho.” To the extent that the opportunity avails itself to bring this factor into play and to choose a new career, to the extent that after choosing a career one can divide his time in one way or another, to the extent that one can apportion priorities within his own being—it is crucial that he act out of a sense of “Achat sha’alti, One thing I ask of the Lord.” Whatever a person does, he should maintain a sense of longing, of striving to be close to God, to be an oved Hashem in the direct and immediate sense.


            Ultimately, both approaches are true. On the one hand, “Bekhol derakhekha da’ehu”—no area of life, no area of endeavor should be divorced from avodat Hashem. There is nothing neutral. Whatever a person does, wherever he is, he can strive to structure his life so that it is ultimately geared to being an oved Hashem (though he may not be totally conscious of this at every point).


            At the same time, within his total existence, his goal should be to increase that part of his life which is geared to avodat Hashem in the more direct and narrow sense. Although we believe that “In all your ways, you can know Him,” there are still some “ways” that are more direct than others. To the extent possible, we should build ourselves and our communities so that those elements more directly related to our religious lives become more prominent, with less time devoted to all the ancillary factors which service these central goals. This is the direction which is desirable and worthy of pursuit.



1 This question will be addressed in lecture #5.

2 Shemona Perakim, Chapter Eight; see also his “Epistle to Rabbi Ovadia the Proselyte,” Iggerot Ha-Rambam, ed. Shailat, vol. 1, p. 236 (=Teshuvot Ha-Rambam, ed. Blau, #436).

3 This broad conception of devar mitzva requires considerable study because it appears in many contexts and it is differently defined in them.

4 Tosafot Rabbi Yehuda He-chasid, Berakhot 35b; Hagahot Maimoniyot, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:2; Tosafot Yeshanim, Yoma 85b.


(Based on a transcript by Avi Shmidman and Reuven Lavi.

This sicha was originally delivered to first-year students at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Winter 5747 [1986-7].  It has not been reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein.)    


The lectures in this series have been collected into a book entitled, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God.  It can be ordered from here:


This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!