What motivates one to live a life of Torah?
Some people are drawn to Torah for pragmatic reasons. They seek a more balanced lifestyle, stronger family ties, a warmer community, a kinder society. Others are motivated by spiritual aspirations. They seek a life of holiness and meaning; they strive for greater closeness to God. Which path is preferable?
According to Rabbi Elazar, both paths are alluded to in the verse,
“כֵּן אֲבָרֶכְךָ בְחַיָּי; בְּשִׁמְךָ אֶשָּׂא כַפָּי.” (תהילים ס"ג:ה)
“So I will bless You in my life. In Your Name, I will lift up my hands” (Ps. 63:5)
“What does this mean? “I will bless You in my life” — this refers to the Shema. “In Your name I will lift up my hands” — this refers to tefillah [prayer].
“And those who do this will merit [what it says in the following verse], “My soul will be sated, as with the richest foods.” Furthermore, they will inherit two worlds, this world and the next, as it says, “My mouth will give praise with songs of joy.” Two songs — one in this world and one in the next.” (Berachot 16b).
In what way is this verse connected to Shema and prayer? And what does it mean to ‘inherit two worlds'?
The verses of Shema speak of improving life in this world. They teach that if we follow the Torah’s teachings, we will merit a good life — rains of blessing and plentiful crops. And if not, we will suffer hardship and exile.
Rabbi Elazar taught that the Shema corresponds to the phrase, “I will bless You in my life.” When our lives are guided by a higher goal, then our presence in this world ‘blesses God,’ as our lives reflect the Torah’s demands for ethical living. ‘In my life, I will bless God.’ This is the fundamental message of Shema: accepting the Torah’s authority and living our lives according to its ethical teachings.
However, we should also live in a higher realm, a realm beyond repairing the physical world, a realm of spiritual goals and aspirations. That is the world of tefillah.
In prayer, we aspire to goals that go beyond repairing this world. We pray, standing straight like the angels, beseeching God for spiritual gifts: enlightenment and redemption, the return of the Shechinah, and the means to discover our spiritual path.
We gain awareness of the priceless nature of life when it matches ratzon Hashem, God’s Divine Will that supersedes all other goals and aspirations. Our actions acquire a deeper significance, as we recognize the greatness of their purpose.
This is how Rabbi Elazar understood the verse. “In Your name” — when I internalize a deeper awareness of God’s Name and Will — “I will lift up my hands.” My hands, my strength and power, are uplifted. This outlook awakens a greater appreciation for life, as our lives are elevated beyond the concerns of the physical world.
If we can absorb the inner content of both Shema and prayer, so that ratzon Hashem is the basis for both our material lives and our higher aspirations, then our service of God will be transformed into one of joy and meaning. It will no longer be necessary to subdue our physical inclinations. “As with the richest foods, my soul will be sated.” We will feel tremendous joy and satisfaction in our service of God.
The ultimate reward is to ‘inherit two worlds,’ to live an elevated existence in both the physical and the spiritual realms. “I will bless You in my life” — we live a life of blessing in this world when we accept God’s Will. And “In Your name I will lift up my hands,” when we elevate ourselves beyond our material existence, preparing ourselves for the next world. Then we will “give praise with songs of joy” — two songs, the song of this world and the song of the next.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, II:19)