The pasuk says:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם – You shall observe My statutes and My laws for when a man performs them, he will live by them. (18:5)

The Sfas Emes wonders what the prescribed manner to live by the mitzvos might be.

On the one hand, the Mishna in Avos (2:1) says הֶוֵי מְחַשֵׁב הֶפְסֵד מִצְוָה כְּנֶגֶד שְׂכָרָהּ – Consider the loss through a mitzvah against its reward; on the other hand, the Mishna earlier on (1:3) says אַל תִּהְיוּ כַּעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְשִים אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנַת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס – Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive reward.

This poses a dilemma – are we meant to value the reward, or not?

In order to reconcile these contradictory Mishnayos, we need to gain an understanding of what the ultimate reward for performing mitzvos. The Sfas Emes explains that the reward for a mitzva is not related in any way to anything we can experience. The next world is not physical. The next world is not even a place; it is a state. It is the state of our soul being close to God, something we cannot being to relate to, as everything we know is entirely physical.

In fact, the word for world – עוֹלָם – has the same root as the word for “concealed” – הָעֳלַם. The next world is concealed from us because it is beyond our life experience. In this world, the physical hides God from us. The truth is concealed by the illusion that there is no reality other than this physical world. This is why metaphors such as lies and darkness are applied to this world. In exactly the same way that God is hidden from us in this manner, so is the World to Come. It is the world of light, truth and reality – we have no grasp of understanding what is beyond the illusion.

The reward of a mitzva is being close to Hashem – we cannot relate to Hashem on this World, so intrinsically, the reward cannot be in this world. Performing mitzvos in order to come close to God is the reason we have the mitzvos, and the reason the world was created. It follows that the purpose of the mitzvos and their reward is one and the same. Accordingly, Chazal ask us to consider our loss from performing a mitzvah against the reward. The reward is closeness to God, which is the purpose of the mitzvah, and ultimately, life itself. We thus see that הֶוֵי מְחַשֵׁב הֶפְסֵד מִצְוָה כְּנֶגֶד שְׂכָרָהּ refers to the spiritual reward in the World to Come.

The other Mishna that warns us not to perform mitzvos in order to receive a reward does not mention שָׂכָר; it mentions פְּרָס. Here, Chazal are not referring to the ultimate reward and purpose of the Torah, mitzvos and life. Rather, they are referring to performance of mitzvos for personal gain.

The reason this is so is because the word word פְּרָס is related to פְּרוּסָה – a piece – which implies a separation. Personal benefit and gain are separations and distinctions between ourselves and others. Chazal thus warn us that it further separates a person from the source of life, from God. This is the opposite of וָחַי בָּהֶם – to live through them – as the point of life was to become close to God, but this causes a seperation.

The Sfas Emes has explained that the Mishnayos were not contradicting each other at all – the World to Come is where we become close to God, the point of existence. Everything we do should revolve around that end goal. If personal goals corrupt our actions, we become corrupt and this is what we are advised against.

In the set of laws pertaining to how sacrifices are conducted, is the set of laws about the Mizbeach – the altar:

אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה – A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out. (6:6)

This is an instruction to the attendant Kohanim, that they need to constantly stoke and fuel the fire. The Mishna in Avos says that their job was made easier – עשרה ניסים נעשו בבית המקדש (…) ולא כבו הגשמים את עצי המערכה – Ten miracles occurred in the Temple, (… and) the rains did not extinguish the logs on the fire.

Miracles are supernatural events – they are deviations from the usual expected order of events. That being said, miracles are always as simple and natural as possible – it would have been simpler for it not to rain there at all, as opposed to having rainfall on the fire but not extinguish it. Why is the miracle unnecessarily complicated?

R’ Chaim Volozhin suggests a very powerful lesson. Our circumstances are fixed, our “rain” does not stop. All we can do is try our best; אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ – the fire burnt continuously– even in the pouring rain, it would not go out.

We can have all the excuses in the world to stop and falter from what is required of us as Jews. But we have a clear model in how to conduct ourselves in the attendant Kohanim, who would fuel the fire in the pouring rain. The Mishna clearly states that God took care of what was beyond their control. Perseverance and perspiration are what it takes. People pray for miracles, when they don’t see that they need to their part – their hishtadlus. This hishtadlus is the part we play in solving our problems, and the solution is ever in our hands. Miracles don’t materialise on their own.

The fire on the Mizbeach was not activated by a miracle – it was only sustained miraculously. The fire wasn’t “magic”; it didn’t burn on it’s own. It required constant additional logs; with twenty-four hour work, over hundreds of years, it did not extinguish.

Perhaps it is worth considering that the Kohen Gadol went into the Kodesh Kadashim one single time per year, on Yom Kippur. He performed the service, and said one prayer. The sole prayer ever said in the Kodesh Kadashim was that Hashem should not listen to travellers and tourists who didn’t want rain, and that it should rain as much as possible. Literal and figurative.

Ask not for a lighter burden, but broader shoulders.