Vayishlach | What is the secret to a successful relationship?
Updated: Mar 9
“Do not be like servants who serve the Master to receive reward; rather be like servants who serve the Master not to receive reward – and let the awe of heaven be upon you.” This mishna from Pirkei Avot calls on us to emulate the example of our forefather Jacob, whose relationship with G-d wasn’t transactional, but based on love and overflowing gratitude. At the same time, it calls on us to remember the crucial ingredient of maintaining a respect and awe for the King of all kings. And it’s a formula that guides all of our relationships. Good relationships rely on mutual love and respect. If there’s only love, the relationship won’t have the boundaries it needs. And if there’s only respect and awe, then where is the warmth and passion? So every relationship – between husband and wife, parent and child, even between friends – needs to be driven by both love and respect, and freed from expectations and entitlement.
What is the secret to a successful relationship?
There is a poignant moment in this week’s parsha, Vayishlach. Jacob is awaiting his first encounter with Esau since taking the blessing of the firstborn from him 20 years earlier.
On his way to meet him, he is assailed by feelings of fear and trepidation, Esau having sworn vengeance on his brother all those years ago. In the moment, Jacob calls out to G-d with the following statement: “I am smaller than the kindness and the truth which you have done for your servant, for with my staff I have crossed this Jordan River and now have become two camps.” (Genesis 32:11) What does this mean?
According to the Ramban, Jacob is saying that he feels unworthy of all the kindness G-d has shown him, and is asking G-d to save him from the hands of Esau even though he doesn't deserve it. This feeling of unworthiness on the part of Jacob is striking. It reflects an attitude to his relationship with G-d. Jacob does not see himself in a transactional relationship, in which he merits all the good he receives. Jacob is acutely aware of all of the blessings in his life – his large family, his material prosperity – and he has a profound appreciation for the fact that these blessings spring purely from G-d’s goodness and kindness, rather than from anything he himself has done to deserve them.
Jacob’s relationship with G-d provides a model for all of us to follow. The mishna in Pirkei Avot (1:3) says: “Do not be like servants who serve the Master in order to receive reward, rather be like servants who serve the Master not in order to receive reward – and let the awe of heaven be upon you.” This mishna calls on us not to make our relationship with G-d transactional.
Certainly, one of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith is that there is a system of Divine reward and punishment – that justice ultimately prevails. But the Talmud makes it clear this system is operational principally in the World to Come – and even so, reward for the mitzvot should not be the reason we do them. If it were, then our relationship with G-d would indeed be only transactional.
What, then, should our motivation in serving G-d be? We know that human beings are driven by incentive – we pursue courses of action which offer us pleasure or reward, and avoid those that deal us pain or punishment. Says Rashi, our mishna is telling us there are higher levels of human motivation; that, ideally, we should be motivated to do the mitzvot not for the reward, but out of love for G-d.
While this love of G-d is the ideal that we strive for, it’s important to stress that we are still doing the right thing if our current motives aren’t entirely pure. The Maharal emphasises this, pointing out that the Torah itself, in multiple places, mentions that G-d rewards us for doing mitzvot. The Maharal says that it is completely acceptable, even righteous, to do mitzvot with reward in mind. He cites a statement from the Talmud as proof: “One who says I am contributing this sela [a coin of value] to charity so … that I will merit the World to Come – such a person is completely righteous.”
However, the mishna is calling on us to strive for a higher level, to do mitzvot out of love for G-d. And it is this higher motivation, this impulse that goes beyond self-interest, that should be the basis of our relationship with G-d.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe crystallises all of Torah into two words – the establishment of an olam hayedidut, a “world of loving friendship” with our Creator and with those around us. And it is that eternal “friendship”, he says, that loving connection with G-d, that lies at the heart of all the mitzvot. G-d Himself is referred to as “Yedid” – “the beloved of the Jewish people”.
The principle is clear. When we help others because we love them and care for them, without expectation of reward, and when we do the mitzvot from similarly selfless motivations – when we serve G-d out of love – we begin building real relationships. Loving relationships nurture us, strengthen us, comfort us, and bring us unimaginable joy.
Jacob expressing his unworthiness of G-d’s blessings reveals the foundation of this love – gratitude. Indeed, Rabbeinu Yona, in the context of our mishna, says gratitude is the key to loving G-d. When we reflect on all the kindnesses G-d has done for us throughout our lives – when we live with a mindfulness for all the blessings we receive from Him every day, including life itself – we overflow with gratitude and are overwhelmed with love. The very first words we utter in the morning as we wake up are “Modeh ani” – we express gratitude to our Creator for the mere fact that we are alive and able to draw breath.
Gratitude generates love in all of our relationships. The Sefer HaChinuch says that gratitude is the foundation of the mitzvah of honouring parents, which he says ultimately leads to gratitude to G-d. He says that if we recognise and acknowledge – and truly internalise – the unending kindness and love that our parents shower on us, that will spill over into a deep gratitude and connectedness to G-d, Himself.
It really is a principle for all our relationships. Relationships flourish in an atmosphere of appreciation and gratitude, and become stale in an atmosphere of entitlement and reciprocity, which makes the relationship transactional rather than loving.
There is one final lesson we learn from this mishna about our relationship with G-d. The mishna concludes: “…And let the awe of heaven be upon you.” The mishna is teaching us the importance of respect in a relationship; that a successful relationship is driven by love, but also by respect.
Importantly, when the mishna mentions “awe of heaven”, we are not, says the Sforno, talking about fear. If we are talking about fear, then we are back to reward and punishment. Doing something out of the desire to gain reward or avoid punishment is the lowest level. We are not afraid – we are awestruck by G-d’s greatness, and hence filled with love and respect, with a desire and duty, to serve our Creator.
The Maharal plays up the tension between these two concepts. Love is about unity, it brings us closer to G-d. Respect involves a necessary distance, acknowledging the unbridgeable gap between limited, mortal humankind and an eternal, infinite Being who is the Source of all life.
He shows how this is reflected in the wording of the mishna. The reference to “heaven”, says the Maharal, symbolises the unfathomable awe-inspiring greatness of G-d, Who is far beyond our comprehension. We can only marvel from an unknowing distance. The verse that commands us to love G-d, by contrast, uses an expression of closeness, “to love G-d your L-rd and to cleave to Him”.
We need to embrace this tension, this closeness and distance, these paradoxical sensations, in our relationship with G-d. Just like any other relationship, where love and respect are the axes on which true connection is built, our relationship with G-d achieves its fullest expression when these contrasting feelings are integrated.
Our mishna provides the framework for a thriving, vital relationship with G-d. It guides us on how to emulate the great example of our forefather Jacob, whose relationship with G-d wasn’t transactional, but based on love and overflowing gratitude, and at the same time to remember the crucial ingredient of maintaining a respect and awe for the King of all kings.
And it’s a formula that guides all of our relationships. Good relationships rely on mutual love and respect. If there’s only love, the relationship won’t have the dignity and respect it needs. And if there’s only respect and awe, then where is the warmth and love? So every relationship – between husband and wife, parent and child, even between friends – needs to be driven by both love and respect, and freed from expectations and entitlement, freed from being transactional, so that it can be a deep and meaningful relationship.