The Ethics of the Fathers 1:3 declares:

“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.”

This is a hard teaching to fulfill; all of us have mixed motives in our spiritual life.

Some are serving God out of a sense of duty, others are looking for emotional fulfillment, and still others seek fame and acclaim. Even among those few that truly want God there is also a preponderance of motives. Together with sincere longing there is also a desire to be a great spiritual being, or to be freed from material obligations, or to reach spiritual highs and experience other planes of consciousness.

In trying to explain the right way to approach this teaching, the Hasidic Master, Dov Baer of Mezeritch gives the following analogy.

Suppose that there are two people. One person who has full employment, and another who only works from time to time. If the person who is used to having a steady income suddenly loses it, he will feel the lack of funds acutely. While the other person, who only works sporadically, will not feel as anxious if his funds are suddenly cut off.

The individual who only works from time to time , Rebbe Dov Baer explains, is like an ordinary person who occasionally turns towards God but is otherwise busy with his worldly life. If this person does not feel God’s presence, it doesn’t bother him. He is quite content to go about his business resting in his material state of consciousness, and will only turn to God if he is in great distress.

On the other hand, the person who is used to always earning money is like the mature spiritual seeker who is “bound at all times in his thoughts to the service of God, without a break even for a second… and all his objective and delight and joy is to occupy himself with God’s Torah and His service, and to look at the inner aspect of every holy thing without interruption in adoration and praise of God.

“It is obvious that a servant of God like this… will feel the lack if his link to God is broken for even a second. And because he feels that this is so, he will not separate himself from the service of God for even a second… And this is called to truly serve God without the intention of receiving a reward.“

In other words, a true servant of God does not serve Him/Her in order to receive a reward. All he desires is to be in God’s presence and to remain in a higher state of consciousness. Such an individual will do anything to make sure that he does not lose his precious inner link.

This pure devotion was an ideal that Sri Ramakrishna greatly cherished. He used to tell his disciples:

“Pure devotion has no desire behind it. You don’t want anything from me, but you love to see me and hear my words…You don’t want anything of God but still you love Him. That is pure bhakti (devotion), love of God with no motive behind it. Prahlada (an Indian saint) had it. He sought neither kingdom nor riches; he sought Hari (God) alone.”[1]

Sri Ramakrishna composed many spontaneous prayers to express this feeling of devotion. Here is one example:

O Rama (God), I have taken refuge in Thee

I have taken shelter at Thy feet.

I do not want creature comforts

I do not seek name and fame

O Rama, I do not crave the eight occult powers

I do not care for a hundred occult powers!

I am Thy servant

I have taken refuge in Thee

Grant, O Rama, that I may have pure love for Thy lotus feet. [2]


Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Bereditchev provides us with a different perspective on “pure devotion” and “serving without any desire for reward.” In one of his teachings, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak speaks of two different kinds of tzaddikim or holy souls:

“Sometimes”, he said, “we see that there are tzaddikim that accomplish what they want through their prayers, while tzaddikim that are greater than them, do not accomplish the matter.

“The reason for this is because when a great tzaddik comes to the courtyard of the Garden of the Palace of the King [of the World] and seats himself before the king, he forgets everything wordily that he wanted to ask for and instead only requests that he be allowed to be joined always to the king. Because what is more pleasing to him than to always serve God and to be His servant. Therefore he forgets all his worldly concerns.

“With other tzaddikim, however, who are not on this level, even when they are standing before the king, they remember their own desires and what they wanted to ask for. Therefore, their prayers work.

“And this is the meaning of the verse (in the Song of Songs, Ch. 1,6): ‘Do not gaze upon me because I am black, because the sun has scorched me.’

“‘Do not gaze upon me because I am black’, that is, do not think that my prayers are useless, it is only ‘because the sun has scorched me’, because of the power of the Divine radiance…that when I come before the Lord, the radiance of His presence makes me forget all my worldly concerns and the only thing I want to ask of God is to serve Him.”

“Serving God without any desire for reward”, according to Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, is a natural consequence of being in God’s living presence. Standing in power of the Divine radiance, all worldly concerns become obliterated from our mind.

There is a famous incident from the life of Swami Vivekananda which succinctly illustrates this truth.

Vivekananda grew up in a wealthy family. However, when Vivekananda was a student at university, his father died suddenly and left the whole family penniless. Since he was already a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna at the time, Vivekanada went to see his master to get some spiritual help:

“Naren (Vivekananda) decided to ask Sri Ramakrishna to pray on his behalf that the family’s money troubles might be overcome. Sri Ramakrishna answered that it was for Naren himself to pray…

“’Today is Tuesday’, he said, ‘a day especially sacred to Mother. Go to the Temple tonight and pray. Mother will grant you whatever you ask for. I promise you that’…

“At nine o’clock, Sri Ramakrishna sent him to the Temple. As Naren was on his way there, a kind of drunkenness possessed him; he was reeling. And when he entered the temple, he saw at once that the Divine Mother was actually alive.

“Naren was overwhelmed and prostrated himself again and again before her shrine, exclaiming, ‘Mother – grant me spiritual discrimination, grant me detachment, grant me divine knowledge and devotion, grant me that I may see you without obstruction, always!’ His heart filled with peace. The universe completely disappeared from his consciousness and Mother alone remained.

“When Naren came back from the Temple, Sri Ramakrishna asked him if he had prayed for the relief of his family’s wants. Naren was taken aback; he had forgotten to do so. Ramakrishna told him to return quickly and make the prayer. Naren obeyed, but again he became drunk with bliss, forgot his intention and prayed only for detachment, devotion and knowledge as before.

“‘Silly boy!’ said Sri Ramakrishna, when he returned and confessed this. ‘Couldn’t you control yourself a little, and remember that prayer? Go back again and tell Mother what you want – be quick!’

“This time, Naren’s experience was different. He did not forget the prayer. But when he came for the third time before the shrine he felt a sense of deep shame; what he had been about to ask seemed miserably trivial and unworthy. ‘It was’, he said later, ‘like being graciously received by a king and then asking him for gourds and pumpkins.’ So, once more, he asked only for detachment, devotion and knowledge.

“However, as he came out of the temple, he felt suddenly convinced that all this was a trick Sri Ramakrishna had played on him. ‘It was certainly you’, he told Sri Ramakrishna, ‘who made me intoxicated. Now you must at least say a prayer for me that my mother and brothers will never lack food and clothing.’

“‘My child’, Sri Ramakrishna told him affectionately, ‘you know I could never offer a prayer like that for anyone; the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. I told you that you’d get whatever you asked Mother for; but you couldn’t ask that, either. It is not in you to ask for worldly benefits. What am I to do about it?’

“But Naren answered firmly, ‘You must say the prayer, for my sake. I’m certain they’ll be freed from want if only you’ll say they will.’ At length, Sri Ramakrishna yielded to Naren’s urging and said, ‘All right – they will never lack plain food and clothing.’ And this statement was proved true.[3]

This story about Swami Vivekananda, and the teaching of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, help us to clarify the meaning of the phrase in the second paragraph of the Shma: “to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and your soul.”

We tend to think of serving God and loving Him as separate concepts, but they are in fact two parts of one whole. This phrase in the Shma comes to teach us that love is expressed through service, and pure love is expressed through total dedication and service.

On the highest level, we do not dedicate our lives to Divine service because God has commanded us to do so, but because we love Him/Her. For if we truly love someone, then we are willing to do anything for him. In fact, we are constantly thinking of nothing else but what we can do for him or her. This is what it means to serve “without any desire for reward.”

The Bhagavad Gita 3:30 describes the nature of the path of karma yoga, where one performs actions, while giving over the fruit of those actions to God:

“Surrendering all actions to Me, with your thoughts resting on the Self, freed from hope and selfishness and cured of mental fever, engage in battle.”

When we follow this way of living, all the different spheres of our life become Divine service: our communal duties, our physical duties, our family duties; even our eating, sleeping and breathing. If we do not hold on to the fruits of our actions, then our every action becomes transformed into an act of service.

This is yet another way  of defining what it means to “serve God without desire for a reward.” Which brings us back full circle to the teaching of Rebbe Dov Baer that began this piece.

To serve God without any desire for reward is to look at every event and every encounter as an opportunity for us to forge a inner link with God. If this is how we go about our life, then everything we do will lift us into a state of God consciousness. As a result, all worldly desires will be obliterated from our mind (like Rebbe Levi Yitzchak suggests), and all that will remain will be pure loving service performed before the living presence of our beloved Lord.


Copyright © 2012, by Yoel Glick


Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, ‘M’, translated by Swami Nikhilananda
  2. ibid
  3. Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples