Avodah: A Primer 1
The Gemara’s depiction of the oveid Hashem does not give us much cause for celebration. Most of us will have to concede that we haven’t passed the litmus test very often.
Here is what the Gemara says: “�??You will return and see the difference between a righteous person and a wicked person, between one who serves G-d and one who does not serve Him.’ …There is no comparison between one who studies his passage one hundred times, and one who studies his passage one hundred and one times.” Why should there be so much importance attached to the difference between those two numbers? How many of us can say we passed the test?
Upon reflection, however, we realize that the Gemara actually provides a compelling and useful definition. We cannot imagine ourselves getting too excited about the hundred and first round of studying anything at all. The novelty, the sense of discovery would have disappeared long before, leaving mostly tedium in their wake. That is precisely the point. Avodas Hashem means, first and foremost, serving Hashem for the sole purpose of fulfilling His Will, even when unaccompanied by any pleasure or positive feeling. The Gemara provides a hypothetical illustration, regarding someone who might still squeeze some surprise and enjoyment from his one hundredth attempt at a piece of text, but gets none at all from the one that follows. He makes that last attempt only to satisfy His expectation. This makes him an Oveid Hashem; the time before may yield him much reward, but it does not earn him that distinction.
We reach the level of Oveid Hashem only through the expenditure of extraordinary effort in fulfilling His Will, even when unattended by any other satisfaction. We find this most pointedly in regard to Moshe Rabbenu. He is described in ways that are not shared by any other human being: speaking “mouth to mouth…beholding the image of Hashem;”  “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe, whom Hashem had known face to face.” Yet it is neither of these extraordinary descriptions that capture his uniqueness and specialness, but a much simpler one. When summing him up in an economy of words, the Torah calls him simply, “Moshe, the servant of Hashem.”  This title underscores his love for Hashem, which allows him to do His bidding in the manner of a faithful servant.
The image is further amplified in a medrash.  A king decides to test the devotion of his children and servants. He wishes to distinguish between those who both fear and love him, and those who only fear him, but do not love him. He readies a narrow alley of four amos by four amos. Inside it, he constructs a courtyard of only four tefachim on a side; it in turn contains an extremely narrow doorway. The king’s children and servants stand within the alley and courtyard. He understands that only those who truly love him will push themselves through the doorway, will force themselves through with great exertion, and thereby encounter the king on the other side.
Chazal had this in mind when they declared, “�??I toiled and succeeded’ – believe him; �??I did not toil and succeeded’ – do not believe him.”  A person who attempts to apprehend HKBH using his natural gifts and talents will not succeed, even if those gifts of intelligence and insight usually afford him penetrating insight and understanding. In reaching out across the abyss of incomprehension to HKBH Himself, only toil and effort meet with success.
This, then, is the requisite first step in avodas Hashem: becoming a willing soldier in faithfully manning his assigned, holy station, and working with great effort. He is consistent in his performance, acting with the same alacrity during the dark times of his life as during the bright ones. Even when times seem oppressive to him – whether because he bears the load of weighty yitzrei ra, or because his spirit is so darkened and uninspired, that he feels that his entire facility for spiritual responsiveness has rotted away from within – he does not relent in fulfilling his obligations. He tells himself that if it is the Creator’s Will that he live a spiritually darkened experience, then he will respond to that Will with joy and happiness.
Acquiring this first step has prerequisites of its own. Chief among them is developing utter and complete confidence that victory is his if he wants it. He must know that if he struggles mightily and pushes himself through the narrow doorway, Hashem will help him achieve his goal. He must understand that HKBH does not come after people cunningly.  If He challenges a person with extraordinary tests, He also gives that person extraordinary tools and talents to be able to pass those tests. He must keep in mind that all the effort he is required to expend pales in comparison to what he will achieve, and that of all the pleasures in this world, nothing holds a candle to the feeling of being close to Hashem. Nothing could be a more worthwhile and profitable endeavor. There are no close competitors. He must hold to a steady course, never wavering, remembering the image of the menorah, literally monolithic, one continuous piece of pure gold, hammered into shape. Such must be his avodah – continuous and uninterrupted, knowing that any small break will weaken the entire enterprise.
You will come across people who have spent decades in pursuit of ruchniyus, and are bitter and disappointed. Despite many years of trying, their achievement still comes up short. These people are often victims of their own enthusiasm. They have given valiantly of themselves – but skimped on the essential preparation. Working on ruchniyus without first preparing oneself in avodas Hashem simply does not work. It is the equivalent of spending lavishly on a tall building, but doing an inadequate job on the underground foundation. A building will never last without a strong foundation. There is some natural resistance to spending freely on the foundation. No one ever sees it. Such a policy is, of course, foolish and counterproductive. Yet people do the same, jumping into the work of the seemingly more rewarding parts of the pursuit of ruchniyus, without doing due diligence to the very first and most important step – the acquisition of a strong commitment to avodas Hashem.
“Counterproductive” is not too strong a word. Chazal tell us  that whosever wisdom exceeds his positive activities, his wisdom will not last. Would it not have been more accurate to talk about someone whose actions don’t keep up with his wisdom? The problem cannot be his excess of knowledge, so much as his deficiency of mitzvos!
Yet this is the point. The Rebbe of Ruzhyn offered the analogy of a fruit. Hashem prepared the skin to protect the delicate tissue. If the tissue bulged and extended outside of the skin, many hazards would compromise its integrity. Wisdom requires the protection of significant mitzvos. Those mitzvos protect the integrity of the wisdom, of Torah learning and spiritual insight. Without protection, the wisdom itself is subject to attack by many waiting spiritual detriments, which can bring great spiritual illness to a person.
It takes a bit of insight to realize how important avodas Hashem is as the ground floor in spiritual progress. It takes some more insight to sustain the task of building that sense of avodah, of accepting the responsibility of fulfilling Hashem’s Will regardless of how much or how little fulfillment it may initially provide us. As in many areas of life, however, there are no shortcuts.
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, vol. 1, pgs. 235-238
2. Chagigah 9B
3. Malachi 3:18
4. Bamidbar 12:8
5. Devarim 34:10
6. Yehoshuah 1:1
7. Tanna d’vei Eliyahu 16
8. Megillah 6B
9. Avodah Zarah 3A
10. Avos 3:12
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org