Note: Because the second day of Shavuos fell on Shabbos this year, for the next month there will be a one week discrepancy between the Torah reading in Israel and that outside of Israel. We will be following the Torah readings in Israel.
This week we read the second chapter of Pirkei Avos in which we find, “... עֲשֵׂה רְצוֹנוֹ כִּרְצוֹנְךָ .../… Do His will like you [do] your own will …” (Avos 2:4) Simply understood, the Tanna is teaching us to fulfill God’s will with the same desire that we fulfill our own will. When I act to fulfill the mitzvos, I should do them with great desire, the same way I act to fulfill my own desires.
Obviously, one should fulfill God’s will with at least the same desire as he fulfills his own. There does not seem to be much novelty in this. However, we can understand the Tanna to be teaching us something else a bit less intuitive. The Tanna may not be referring to fulfilling mitzvos at all. Rather, he may be referring only to a person’s actions to fulfill his own desires. He then is advising us to identify so strongly with God’s will that the underlying intent of every one of our actions, even the most mundane, is to fulfill God’s will. The last half of the sentence quoted above is, “... כְּדֵי שֶׁיֵעָשֶׂה רְצוֹנְךָ כִּרְצוֹנוֹ .../… so that your will becomes like His will …” meaning, so that your only desire in all your activities is to fulfill God’s will. The saying is then translated as, “Make His desires your own, so that your desires become His.”
In the same vein it is possible to explain the next sentence in the Mishna, “בַּטֵל רְצוֹנְךָ מִפְּנֵי רְצוֹנוֹ .../Subordinate your will in favor of His will …” Conventionally, this means that if there is a conflict between our desire and God’s, we are to follow God’s. If I am tempted to transgress a prohibition, the Tanna is telling me to follow what God wants instead.
However, the Sfas Emes understands this as referring to our intent for any given activity. The Tanna is asking that we intend to fulfill God’s will in all our actions instead of our own. A classic example is eating. Many eat for the pleasure of it. The Tanna, according to the Sfas Emes, is teaching us that we should eat rather because it is what God wants of us. Another classic example is performing mitzvos for the reward or for some other ulterior motive. The Tanna advises us to perform the mitzvos instead only to fulfill God’s will. Although it is true that we should be happy that we merit fulfilling God’s will, and this happiness could be construed as an ulterior motive. Still, our primary intent should be only to fulfill God’s will.This line of thinking helps us to understand how it is possible to fulfill God’s will. As finite beings this appears to be an overwhelming task. The Tanna though, is teaching us that what is required of us is primarily the intent. To the extent that we align our desires with God’s, that we want to fulfill His will, it is considered as though we have. For this reason, Chazal teach us that if a person wants to accomplish some good thing and is prevented from doing so for reasons that are beyond his control, he is considered to have accomplished it anyway.
This is also the meaning of a Chazal in the beginning of this week’s parsha on the pasuk, “וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן אַהֲרֹן ... כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' אֶת־מֹשֶׁה/And Aharon did so … as God commanded Moshe.” (Bemidbar 8:3) This pasuk comes after the command that Aharon light the menorah. What is the purpose of telling us that he did as commanded? Would we have thought otherwise? Rashi cites Chazal’s answer that the Torah is telling us that Aharon did exactly as commanded. He did not change the command in any way. This answer seems to beg the question. Again, would we have assumed that Aharon would have changed something in the command?
However according to what we’ve said, we can understand this. It is not possible for us as finite beings to completely fulfill the will of the infinite God. However, it is possible for us to want to fulfill His will. The Torah is teaching us that since Aharon’s only desire was to fulfill God’s will as commanded to Moshe, the Torah considers him to have done so.
The Sfas Emes teaches us to cultivate a strong desire to fulfill God’s will through all our actions. May we merit it!