The Gemara in Masekhet Kiddushin (31a) comments that when the gentile nations heard of the first several of the Ten Commandments, such as the proclamation of “I am the Lord your God” and the prohibition against idolatry, they were unimpressed. They said, “Li-khvod atzmo hu doreish” – God was issuing these commands for His own honor and aggrandizement. The people of the world attributed to God the natural human desire for prestige, and thus assumed that He demanded His subjects’ respect and exclusive allegiance just as any mortal ruler would. The nations’ perspective changed, however, when they heard the fifth of the Ten Commandments, the command to honor parents. When they learned that God wants His subjects to give honor to not only Him, but also to His “partners” in the creation of people, they were impressed and acknowledged that even the first commandments were proper and just.
Chazal here depict the natural tendency to cynically and suspiciously dismiss matters of value and importance, and the people who promote such matters. It is easy and tempting to write off religious leaders and teachers as self-promoters who simply seek prestige, to respond to meaningful religious messages by charging, “Li-khvod atzmo hu doreish” – it is all a cheap attempt to exert control and gain respect. The Midrash’s depiction of the other nations’ cynical response to the first several commandments likely symbolizes the similar response that is often given to those who sound the voice of conscience and call for greater devotion to God.
There is, however, another message conveyed by the Gemara’s comment. Namely, people are not going to take religion seriously as long as its representatives give the impression of self-aggrandizement. We cannot expect to bring honor to our religion as long as people find a basis to claim, “Li-khvod atzmo hu doreish,” that we are driven by impure, self-serving motives. It is only when we make it clear that we are sincere in our commitment to God, that we seek to bring honor to Him and not to ourselves, that we can begin achieving this goal.
The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (17b) comments that if a person engages in Torah learning “she-lo li-shmah” – with insincere motives – then “it would have been preferable for him not to have been born.” Tosefot, in Masekhet Pesachim (50b), explain this as referring to people who study for the purpose of gaining stature and prestige. Such a person does not merely lack an important element that must accompany our religious engagement. Rather, he defames the entire enterprise of Torah, making it seem like just another vehicle for earning fame and honor. Chazal warn that the cynics are going to accuse us of “Li-khvod atzmo hu doreish” until they are proven otherwise, and it is our obligation to avoid providing any fuel to this charge, to make it perfectly clear that we learn and practice Torah out of sincere devotion to God, and not out of devotion to our egos.