The first Pasuk in Parashat Lech Lecha contains a message that is fundamental to our appreciating our relationship with Hashem. The Parashah begins, “VaYomer Hashem El Avram Lech Lecha MeiArtzecha UMiMoladetcha UMiBeit Avicha El HaAretz Asheir Areka,” “Hashem said to Avram, ‘Go for yourself from your land, your birthplace, your father’s home, to the land which I will show you’” (BeReishit 12:1). This formulation seems enigmatic. Hashem could merely have said ‘Lech,’ ‘go.’ Why is ‘Lecha,’ ‘for yourself,’ necessary? Rashi (s.v. Lech Lecha) comments that Lech Lecha means “for your pleasure and for your benefit.” Hashem is telling Avram that obeying the Torah is for Avram’s benefit and pleasure. Many people believe that following the Torah’s instructions for living is somehow doing Hashem a favor. Others feel that it is for their own benefit, but with little to no pleasure. Yet some have internalized this message that the Torah not a merely a favor done to please Hashem; it is for both our benefit and our pleasure.
I remember hearing a Rav give an amazing Shiur in which he quoted many sources off the top of his head. Amazed, I asked him how he was able to remember the sources so vividly. In response, he asked me if I had ever seen a movie or read a book and remembered the details. For him, it was the same experience when he learned. Many of us have such memories; we are able to quote verbatim from either backs of baseball cards, stats, movies, or shows we have seen. Many children who have attention issues in school are also capable of such selective memory. So why is it that we are able to remember details so clearly in one area, while in another it seems impossible to remember even just a few? This is what the Rav was conveying. If you love something, if you realize that it’s for your benefit and for your pleasure, you will be able to retain and enjoy all the details.
Rav Noach Weinberg, the former Rosh Yeshivah and founder of Aish HaTorah, built an entire Yeshiva movement, focused on Baalei Teshuvah, upon this premise. The two essential fundamentals he imparted to these Baalei Teshuvah was the need to recognize that Hashem gave us the Mitzvot and Torah, and that all of it was for our pleasure and benefit.
“Judaism says that human beings were designed to have pleasure. In fact we see that every decision a human being makes is based on one final criteria: Will it give me pleasure? Whether it's what to have for dinner, what to do with spare time, who to marry, or what career to choose -- underneath it all, pleasure is the defining criterion. If it looks like pain, we avoid it. If it promises pleasure, we go for it. God designed the world - and everything in it - in order to give us pleasure. The goal of life is to get that pleasure. Just as parents want their children to enjoy life, so too the Almighty wants His children to enjoy their lives to the fullest. What pleasures does a parent want his children to enjoy? Good food, fun vacations, tennis, music. But when they turn 25 and would still rather play tennis than work, you start thinking, ‘Get on with your life, already.’ It's nice to enjoy an occasional game of tennis, but life has got to offer more than just ‘fun.’ You'd like your children to have a meaningful career, to get married, to have children. If they turn 35 and they are playing tennis day and night, you're screaming, ‘Help!’ When asked what is the opposite of pain, most people will say pleasure. But the absence of pain doesn't automatically equal pleasure! The opposite of pain is not pleasure; the opposite of pain is comfort. Many people think the ultimate pleasure is a vacation in Hawaii. Sleep and comfort is painless. But that is not the goal of living! In reality, pain is the price you pay for pleasure. If you want to graduate college and get a good job, you have to study hard. If you want to become an Olympic gold-medal champion, you have to experience the pain of sore muscles. You are not going to get there on a beach in Hawaii. Equating comfort with pleasure is counterfeit. Real pleasure comes only as a result of effort. To succeed in the pursuit of pleasure, you have to focus on the pleasure and not on the effort. Imagine a team of basketball players, running around the court, pushing themselves to the limit. Do they notice the pain they're feeling? Barely. The pleasure of playing overwhelms any other feeling. Now what if you asked them to conduct the following experiment: ‘Play basketball normally - run, jump, shoot, and defend. But this time do it without the ball!’ How long do you think they could play for? Maybe five minutes? Without the ball, there is nothing to distract them from the effort. Every step now seems painful. Give them back the ball, and they'll play for another two hours! In life, keep your eye on the ball. Focus on the goal -- and turn every effort into a pleasure. We think that pleasure should come automatically. But it's not so simple. Just like you can't fully enjoy music without taking a course in music appreciation, so too you have to learn all about pleasures.” (“The Five Levels of Pleasure” by Rabbi Noach Weinberg)
I recall hearing from Rav Noach Weinberg that, it is not Hashem who needs the Mitzvot, it is we.
This message of Rashi and Rav Noach Weinberg, that the Mitzvot are for our benefit, is an essential one. Often, this lesson is lost when children are pressured into religiosity and forced to be observant. They feel that they are merely meeting a need someone else expects of them and fail to realize the benefit they gain from it. Everyone must reach the conclusion on their own that the Torah is not a burden but a benefit. This is not a lesson that can be forcefully instilled by a rebbe or parent.
Moreover, Rashi doesn’t merely say the Torah is for our benefit but describes it as pleasurable. This too is an essential facet of this lesson. Rav Noach Weinberg was wise enough to realize that while many people have recognized a benefit in Judaism, many have not tasted the pleasure. The Mitzvot are not merely medicine only to be performed for benefits when necessary. The Mitzvot and the Torah are pleasures that we should seek. It is this lesson that has caused many Baalei Teshuvah to return to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and it is this lesson that we too should strive to internalize and practice.