When the Journey Can Be the Reward

I have traveled many roads. Some were straight and easy, while others were dark and winding. Some of the roads led deep underwater into long eerie tunnels, while others were narrow and mountainous, so that I feared that one wrong step would lead me over a cliff.
If I would have a choice I would only choose to travel roads that are straight, with bright sunlight lighting up the way and beautiful scenery to enjoy as I coast along. But who is given a choice? In this life, we don’t get to choose which roads we have to travel.
As I once slid into the driver’s seat of my van, my son commented on his desire to drive. “It’s so much fun to drive. It means you’re in full control – like you’re the master, and the car is the servant,” he told me.
I couldn’t help but think to myself, Really? Do we ever have full control? Oh no. The roads we travel on aren’t the ones that we choose, but rather the highways and byways Hashem has chosen for us. The only choice that we have is how we will deal with the roadblocks we bump into on these windy, dark, narrow and mountainous roads.
In Pirkei Avos, פרק א’:פסוק ג’we are told, “אנטיגנוס איש סוכו…אומר: אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין…לקבל פרס” – Don’t be like servants who work only to get reward. But that seems so impossible. I should work and work on doing all the mitzvos and doing them with the right intentions and never get a reward? I am not a car, which my son says is like a servant. I am a real person with thoughts and feeling, desires and wishes. As Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld says, “If I am doing and doing and never getting anything in return, then the whole relationship seems meaningless. It feels like a master-slave relationship. And if Hashem is giving me all these challenging roads to travel with seemingly insurmountable roadblocks and without a thought of reward, then how can I continue onward?
Author and educator Rabbi Yaakov Astor explains that time moves slowly when you’re expecting, waiting, pushing for something to happen – and it’s not happening. But when you’re focused on the process – accepting that what is happening is the way things are supposed to unfold, then the result doesn’t matter.
I remember a difficult road I had to travel when I was in high school. I was chosen to head a big project. I was excited and felt honored to be the chosen candidate. However, the other girl that was chosen to work with me had social issues. It was really difficult to work with her. The whole project wasn’t working out the way I had hoped it would. I felt incompetent – like a failure. I also felt stuck. I am doing this with someone who is incapable, therefore it is a disaster, and I can’t fix it.
I could have become angry at the hanhalah for doing this to me. I could have judged and criticized this girl for her wayward thinking and odd behaviors. But I recognized that that would keep me on a dark road of anger and resentment, devoid of any shining sun and beautiful scenery.
If Hashem placed me in this situation, which required me to work with this girl, then perhaps He wanted something from me. I had to learn how to explain things over and over again with patience. I had to learn tolerance for her emotional incapacities. And I had to learn to let go of the outcome. Perhaps that year Hashem didn’t want this project to be a smashing success. But He wanted me to work on my middos.
This is one of the deeper things אנטיגנוס comes to teach us. Do good without expectation of reward: when focusing on the process – which for me was working with this girl and making sure she didn’t feel put down because of her deficiencies even if the desired results wouldn’t follow – the right frame of mind that one comes to when working for pure motives becomes its own reward.
My roads may be winding and twisty. They can be dark and scary, with roadblocks of all kinds. Bur I ask Hashem to please help me to be like the servant who wants to serve Him in order to go through the process of bettering myself.
After all, what do I know about what’s really best for me? But doing His Will will undoubtedly bring me to bright and airy roads.
This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

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