We all have many requests from God. We have wishes for ourselves and for others. We want aid for an illness, assistance in getting a job, help finding a spouse or having children – the list is endless. We know what we want God to do for us. The question that we have forgotten to ask ourselves is: what are we doing for God?
Even our spiritual practices are undertaken for our own benefit. The rabbis have a saying in the Ethics of the Fathers (1:3):
“Do not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but rather be like servants who serve their master without the intent of receiving a reward.”
When we do something for God, we always want something in return. It may be the desire for the fulfillment of our material wishes. It may be the desire for the reward of the world to come. Whatever our self-centered motivation may be, the rabbis are making clear in this mishnah that this is not the way to lead a spiritual life.
We need to look toward God when we act, to think of service and selflessness. We need to act out of a conviction that what we are doing is right. We need to believe in the ideals that our actions represent, to feel that it is what God wants from us. To serve without reward is to work from a desire to further God’s Plan, a wish to contribute to tikkun olam, the repair and uplifting of the universe.
To serve without reward also means to be able to labor without the usual appreciation or accolades. It means that we fulfill our task even if there is no one watching or applauding us. We act for the sake of God alone.
When Swami Ramakrishnananda, one of the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, began giving classes in Madras, he would wander from place to place in the city to teach. One rainy evening, he arrived with his assistant to find that no one had come for the class. He waited half an hour; then he opened his book and began to read and explain animatedly. He continued with his lecture for an hour; then he closed his book and said to his assistant, “Well, let’s go.” While they were on their way back to the ashram, his assistant asked him why he had given the class even though no one was there. He responded by saying, “I have not come to teach anybody. I only fulfill the vow I have made.” In other words, I give my class for God, whether anyone comes or not is His affair. 
The rabbis express this idea in another way as well: They speak of learning leshema – for the sake of God’s Name and lo leshema – not for the sake of the Name. To learn for the sake of God’s Name, is to learn in order to glorify God – in order to raise up and proclaim His Name in the world. We learn because the Torah is the Word of God, a link with the thoughts and ideas in the Universal Mind. We learn because it will bring us closer to our Beloved. Our learning is an act of devotion not an intellectual exercise.
To learn lo leshema, on the other hand, is to learn for our own benefit. It is to learn for the praise that we receive, for other’s appreciation of our intellectual prowess. To learn lo leshema is to learn for the emotional satisfaction that it brings us, for the spiritual high that we experience.
There is yet a deeper level to this process. To serve without a desire for reward, to learn leshema, is to act wholly for God without any thought for ourselves. It is to make our every action an offering of love; to do everything for Him or Her.
The Baal Shem Tov teaches that when we fulfill the mitzvot (commandments), we should pray, learn, or say a blessing, not for our own benefit, but for the sake of the Shekhinah [the Divine Presence]. In fact, everything that we do should be dedicated to Her.
“He should always seclude his thoughts with the Shekhinah, that he should only think of his love for Her, that She should bind Herself to him, and he should be constantly saying in his thoughts: ‘when will the light of the Shekhinah dwell with me?’” 
Swami Ramakrishnananda teaches that “the true devotee never thinks of himself. He is so full of the thought of God that his own self is forgotten.” 
We get a glimpse of this type of service from the reminiscences of Swami Ashokananda of the Vedanta Society of San Francisco.
“When I did worship in India – offering all the different elements to God – I felt that each had been absorbed back into the Infinite. The whole world seemed to disappear, to dissolve into a vast silence. I did not have to philosophize about it. I actually felt it. That is worship.” 
This is a profound way to go through life. If we can live in this manner, then our spiritual life will be transformed. The Hasidic Master, Shlomo of Radamsk, teaches that because of our mixed motives, we ordinarily only receive a small portion of the light and energy that is embodied in any mitzvah or spiritual act that we do. When we serve God purely out of love, however, without any thought of reward, then we are able to absorb the full emanation coming from the higher worlds without losing any of its spiritual potency. This Divine energy then enters into our heart and surrounds our soul. This or makif or surrounding light, acts as a protective aura, guarding us from all negative influences. This, Rebbe Shlomo tells us, is why the mishnah ends with the words “and let the awe of Heaven be upon you.” The awe of Heaven that is upon us, he says, is this surrounding aura that protects us from outside influence. He then brings a verse from the Torah to support his interpretation: “And all the nations of the world will realize that God‘s Name is upon you and they will be in awe of you.” (Deut. 28:10) 
Rebbe Shlomo then expands on his point. In the Ethics of the Fathers 6:1, he says, the rabbis promise us that if we learn Torah leshema, we will “become like a wellspring that flows with an ever-increasing strength and like a never-ceasing stream.” To be a wellspring of ever-increasing strength, Rebbe Shlomo explains, means that our spiritual power will grow until it is so strong that the moods and imperfections of others, as well as the negative influences in our environment, will no longer affect us. Instead, our own inner radiation will pour out on everyone and everything around us, immersing them in Divine energy and light.
To be a never-ceasing stream, Rebbe Shlomo continues, means that there will be a constant flow of wisdom and inspiration coming from us.  Because our learning is leshema, for the love of God and not for ourselves, we will live in continual communion with the supernal source of all knowledge. As a result, our words will flow forth in infinite supply. As Sri Ramakrishna declared,
“Can a man blessed with the grace of God ever lack knowledge? At Kamarpukur I have seen grain-dealers measuring paddy. As one heap is measured away another heap is pushed forward to be measured. The [Divine] Mother supplies the devotees with the ‘heap’ of Knowledge.” 
This higher consciousness is the unique state of a tzaddik or realized soul. Most of us cannot live on this exalted level of awareness. We cannot do all of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot from a place of pure love, never mind turn our every act into a Divine offering. We can, however, do one mitzvah, one spiritual act or one act of loving-kindness every day that is for God alone; that is without any thought for ourselves. We can also try to live by our highest aspirations even when no one is watching, even when there is no reward for us to gain. From this humble beginning, we can then strive to become a true lover of God whose every word is spoken, and every action is done, only for the sake of his Beloved.
- Swami Chetanananda, God lived with them, p. 284↵
- Shub, Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Torah portion Ekev 32↵
- Sister Devamata, Days in an Indian Monastery, p. 27↵
- Sister Gargi, A Disciple’s Journal, p. 56↵
- Shlomo of Radamsk, Tiferet Shlomo, Perkei Avot↵
- Shlomo of Radamsk, Tiferet Shlomo, Perkei Avot↵
- ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 376↵