Rabbi Mayer Twersky
Acting l'sheim shomayim (for the sake of heaven) is one of the overarching principles if Judasim (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 238). But how do we ascertain that we are acting truly l'sheim shomayim?
On the one hand, it is simple and straight forward. All we have to do is look into our hearts and be honest with ourselves. On the other hand, however, it is somewhat complex. We have a remarkable capacity for self-deception. This capacity is a necessary part of the gift of bechira chofshis (free will). Bechira chofshis includes the freedom to deny truth - even about ourselves. Hence the complexity in ascertaining that we are acting truly l'sheim shomayim. We may think that we are acting l'sheim shomayim, but are we fooling ourselves?
You shall not place a stumbling block in front of a blind person and you shall have fear of your God - I am Hashem (Vayikra 19:14)
When we can deceive others, the Torah exhorts us "you shall have fear of your God." Hashem can not be deceived, and we are accountable to Him. Yiras shomayim (fear of heaven) holds in check the yetzer harah to deceive others. And, by extension - yiras shomayim can also hold in check the yetzer harah to deceive ourselves. Admittedly we have a capacity for self-deception, but, conversely, we also have a matching capacity for self-awareness. Yiras shomayinm can be instrumental in activating the latter and suppressing the former.
Yiras shomayim not only counters the impulse to self-deception and fosters self-awareness. It also cultivates the capacity for altruistic l'sheim shomayim conduct. Simply put: one who has deep-seated yiras shomayim and is keenly aware of and preoccupied with Hakadosh Baruch Hu is likely to act genuinely l'sheim shomayim.
An important indicator is assessing the l'sheim shomayim of our actions and beliefs is consistency. Inconsistency invariably exposes deception and/or self-deception. The Beis Halevi (on parshas Vayigash) offers this penetrating insight in explaining the apparent redundancy of the mishna in Pirkei Avos (3:1).
Da...lifnei mi attah asid litein din v'cheshbon - Know...before Whom you will give justification (din) and reckoning (cheshbon).
Din, explains the Beis Halevi, refers to each of our actions judged individually. Cheshbon refers to the amalgam of our actions. Cheshbon scrutinizes the internal consistency of our actions. For instance, if we will plead poverty or lack of means as justification for miserly tzedakka habits, the heavenly court will review all of our expenditures. We will be asked to explain why we were wealthy enough to take expensive vacations, live in opulent homes and the like, but too poor to give tzedakka. Inconsistency highlights deception and/or self-deception.
Let us consider a few examples. Anger is a destructive impulse. Inflamed passions lead to impulsive, vindictive speech and conduct. In anger, we say and do regrettable things. And not only are they regrettable, at times, they are also irreversible. Moral outrage, on the other hand, is a noble sentiment. We should be passionate in opposing injustice, falsehood, and evil. "I have hated falsehood and abhorred it." (Tehillim 119:163) "O lovers of Hashem, despise evil!" (Tehillim 97:10)
When someone wrongs us, we react passionately. We think - or at any rate, we would like to think - that we are feeling moral outrage l'sheim shomayim, and not narcissistic anger. But which is it? The test is very simple. Are we consistent - viz., do we react as forcefully and passionately when others are wronged? If so, we are feeling moral outrage. But if not, then we are feeling personal, selfish anger - a destructive impulse that must be avoided.
When a parent strikes a child, is he/she doing so for the child's welfare - convinced that there is no better form of discipline possible? Or is the parent acting out of frustration (for some parents, the frustration quotient in parenting spikes at times) and anger, rationalizing to himself "I'm doing this for the child's best interest. It is a mitzvah"? Consistency test: when the child misbehaves but the parent's nerves are not frazzled is he equally inclined to strike the child? When the parent decides to hit the child, is he/she calm, objective, and dispassionate in making that decision? Or is the parent feeling frustrated and angry, emotions which cloud one's judgment? If the parent is feeling frustrated and angry, it is virtually certain that in part if not in full, he is not acting l'sheim shomayim. He is venting his frustration and anger.
In virtually every case of parents hitting children that I have witnessed, the parent manifested unmistakable signs of anger and/or frustration. Such discipline does not teach children right from wrong. The overriding message children receive in such situations is that parents, instead of controlling anger and developing patience, vent anger by hitting their children.
Another example, of a different variety, of utilizing the consistency test. In contemporary ideological discussion and debate, we often levy charges of revisionism, cataloguing what we consider various instances of revisionism. In doing so, we ostensibly act l'sheim shomayim, as zealots for truth. But are we zealots for truth or simply seeking to discredit ideological opponents? Or perhaps we are pandering to a certain constituency? Consistency test: do we adduce examples from the entire ideological spectrum or only from one side ("left", "right") of the spectrum? If the latter, does this group being assailed have a monopoly on revisionism? Once we recognize our inconsistency, the self-questioning should proceed. How many examples that we cite are really instances of revisionism, and how many are interpretations with which we disagree? The consistency test, honestly administered and uncensored, can be very revealing.
One final example, also drawn from contemporary ideological discussion and debate. Many "hot-button" issues are currently being debated in the public square. Some of these are women's issues - role of women, aliyas, and so on. There are many other issues as well - for instance, the boundaries of legitimate tolerance and openness. Many people are very opinionated in such matters, passionately advocating a particular point of view. Some go beyond advocacy and introduce change and innovation. And, of course, ostensibly everything is said and done l'sheim shomayim. But is the advocacy truly l'sheim shomayim? Or, perhaps is it self-serving, remaking halachah in our image in concert with our predilections?
Consistency test: do we maintain the same professional standards for the resolution of halachic issues that we insist upon in other contexts? For instance, in complex medical affairs we seek - as we should - the best, most expert medical care and guidance. If need be, we travel the world to seek out an expert. For a laymen or even an undistinguished doctor to make decisions or even advocate in complex medical issues would be reckless. We would not allow it. How many of us - laymen and rabbonim alike - are entitled to even express an opinion, much less advocate, in complex halachic matters? If, lack of qualifications notwithstanding, we persist in advocating on halachic matters, are we truly doing so l'sheim shomayim? The consistency test, honestly administered and uncensored, can be very revealing.
 By no means, am I assuming that, in our day, corporal punishment is desirable even with the purest of motives (see Rav Shlomo Wolbe's Planting & Building: Raising a Jewish Child.) My point is that even if one does approve of corporal punishment it must meet the standard of l'sheim shomayim.