Many times we don't do what we're supposed to for the right reason. Sometimes it's for personal glory. Sometimes it's because we're worried what the neighbours will think. Only once in a while do we honestly put aside any personal considerations and keep God in focus the entire time.
As Rav Nathan Lopes Cardozo notes in this article, improper motivations can have horrible consequences:
Religious people seem increasingly to treat the Almighty as an idol, though totally unaware that they are doing so. They violate the most severe prohibition — You shall not worship any other gods — with full confidence that they are genuinely serving G0d.Here's the amazing irony of the situation: this criticism is one we often level at the Reformatives. They pick and choose, they do those things that make them feel good and then call them mitzvos. Yet a cheshbon hafesh of our own community would reveal that we do the very same thing.
And these people are none other than you and me.
Many of us are religious because we believe it is the best insurance policy and will guarantee a relatively easy life with not too many bumps along the way. To achieve this goal we make a deal with the Almighty: I will observe Your commandments, and You will do what I want You to do for me. We assume this is the way to avoid calamities and ensure a content and beautiful life. Instead of serving the Lord because He is G0d, we are attempting to manipulate G0d to serve us, making Him our servant. It is nothing less than idol worship.
This tragic development is the result of a major misconception about the nature of religion. Religious observance has nothing to do with receiving rewards or with G0d granting us anything. The purpose of religion is to make us aware that we live in the presence of G0d, to help us become better people, to increase our sensitivity, and to amaze us through the miracles that surround us every moment. These are the real rewards. The goal is not that G0d change His behavior towards us, but that we change our behavior towards Him and our fellow human beings.
We dehumanize women and call it tznius. We throw rocks at people who drive on Shabbos and say we're defending Shabbos! We push someone aside in line and say that we're running to perform a mitzvah.
We pick and choose. We worry more about what our neighbours will say than God, assuming that He will approve because we're doing the socially acceptable thing, at least in our minds.
With Elul coming it is a good time for each of us to take a step back and analyze our religious behaviours. Are we really putting God's will first in our actions or are we going through routines in order to fulfill our "obligations" and force Him to consider us Jews in good standing? Do we tremble when the shofar blows on Rosh HaShanah because we feel its echo in our soul or because that's what you're supposed to do and if you don't the guy next to you will look over and mutter "frei"? Do we shake and cry at Neilah because we sense an opportunity to connect to God in a way unparalled over the rest of the year coming to an end or because we don't want to look out of place?
If we are to merit anything it's by giving of ourselves to the Ribono shel Olam, not by manipulating Him through superficial actions. Rav Cardozo's article is an excellent reminder of this.