Here’s a typical conversation between my 8-year-old and me:
Me: Please help me unpack the groceries.
Child: Will I get a reward?
Me: Yes, the satisfaction of having helped me.
Child: That’s not a reward!
Me: Come help me anyway.
Sound familiar? Many of us have had a version of this exchange at some point in our lives — either as the child, the parent, or both. It’s a conversation that raises the question of whether we should expect, or even desire, to be rewarded for our good deeds — or if it is better to do them from a place of complete altruism. A digression on today’s daf takes a strong position:
It was taught: One who says “I am contributing to charity so that my son will live,” or if he says “I am performing the mitzvah so that I will be destined for the World to Come,” this person is a fully righteous person.
This teaching affirms that what really matters is the outcome of our actions, not our motivations. In philosophical terms, this is a consequentialist position.
But this is not the only rabbinic view on this ethical dilemma. Pirkei Avot, that famous mishnaic tractate of pithy statements and ethical maxims, offers this:
Antigonos, man of Sokho, learned from Shimon the Righteous who would say, “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward, rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.” (Pirkei Avot 1:3)
This mishnah suggests that acting in order to be rewarded is by no means laudatory, and would in fact disqualify someone from being characterized as a fully righteous person. According to this teaching, good deeds should be motivated purely by obligation to the almighty God who commanded them.
So which is it? Does Jewish tradition expect us to perform good deeds purely because it is the right thing to do, or can we factor in a dose of self-interest without counting ourselves any less righteous? The Talmudic commentators known collectively as Tosafot address this question directly in their commentary on our page:
“The statement in Pirkei Avot refers to a situation when if the good that one hopes for does not come, one regrets the charity that was given. However, one who does not regret, such a person is completely righteous.”
In other words, Tosafot understand that wanting a reward does not detract from the good of giving tzedakah (or doing some other good deed) — and doesn’t even detract from one’s character— as long as the person doesn’t regret giving the tzedakah in the event that they do not receive the anticipated reward.
Tosafot’s harmonization recognizes that human nature may often (always?) incline people to desire a reward for their actions, and that in and of themselves, these instincts and desires are not bad. In fact, the prospect of a reward can be a motivating factor that leads people to do good. Yet we must also take satisfaction in the deed itself — there is clearly something dangerous about regretting the good we have done in the world when we are not rewarded for it.
Perhaps the concern here is not about what happens in the moment, but rather how our motivations impact our character, who we are as people. Wanting a reward is not a character flaw, and may even contribute to the development of positive traits such as generosity. Hence one can ask for a reward and still be considered a full-fledged righteous person. But if we regret our good actions when they are not rewarded, we may choose not to perform mitzvot or act kindly in the future — and this means that our self-interest has morphed into selfishness. We can no longer claim the mantle of righteousness.
Back to my son: Should I give him a reward, so that he cultivates a willingness to be helpful? Or should I insist that he help me because it’s the right thing to do even though he might regret helping and refuse to do so in the future? Our daf doesn’t offer a clear answer, but it does encourage me to be a little more patient with my child when he asks to be rewarded — he’s just being human, after all.