We all wish to live a meaningful life. But why are we living? What are we doing in this world?
To find the answer to this central question we must look in the very book of life itself – the Torah, which is called Torat Chaim (a living Torah). The word “Torah” means “instruction” or “guidance”, for the Torah is our guide in life. The Torah makes us constantly aware of our duties in life; it gives us a true definition of our purpose, and it shows us the ways and means of attaining this goal.
The creation of man
The Torah begins with Genesis. When Adam was created the Creator immediately apprised him of his powers and told him that his purpose in life would be to, “Replenish the earth, and conquer it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)
Man was given the power to conquer the whole world and to rule over it, on land, sea and in the air, and he was enjoined to do so; this was his task.
How was this “world conquest” to be attained and what is the purpose and true meaning of it?
Our Sages teach that when G–d created Adam, his soul – his Divine image – permeated and irradiated his whole being, by virtue of which he became ruler over the entire creation. All the creatures gathered to serve him and to crown him as their creator. But Adam, pointing out their error, said to them, “Let us all come and worship G–d our Maker!”
The “world conquest”, given to man as his task and mission in life, was to elevate and refine the whole of nature, including the beasts and animals, to the service of true humanity; humanity permeated and illuminated by the Divine Image – by the soul, which is veritably a part of G–d above – so that the whole of creation will realise that G–d is our Maker.
Needless to say, before a man sets out to conquer the world he must first conquer himself and his own ego through the subjugation of the “earthly” and “beastly” in his own nature. This is attained through actions which accord with the directives of the Torah – the practical guide to everyday living – so that the material becomes permeated and illuminated with the light of the One G–d, our G–d.
G–d created one man and upon this single person on earth He imposed this duty and task. Herein lies the profound yet clear directive, namely, that one man – each and every person – is potentially capable of “conquering the world”. If a person does not fulfil his task and does not utilise his inestimable Divine powers it is not merely a personal loss and failure but something that affects the destiny of the whole world.
One person can change the world
One of the main distinguishing features in the creation of man is that man was created as a single being, unlike other species which were created in large numbers.
This indicates emphatically that one single individual has the capacity to bring the whole of creation to fulfilment, as was the case with the first man, Adam. As mentioned above, no sooner was Adam created than he called upon and rallied all creatures in the world to recognise the sovereignty of the Creator with the cry, “Come, let us prostrate ourselves, let us bow down and kneel before G–d our Maker!” For it is only through “prostration” – self-abnegation – that a created being can attach itself to, and be united with, the Creator and thus attain fulfilment of the highest order.
The Rabbis teach us that Adam was the prototype and example for each and every individual to follow. “For this reason was man created single, in order to teach you that ‘one person is equivalent to an entire world’ ”. This means that every Jew, indeed, every human being, regardless of time and place and personal status, has the fullest capacity (and also the duty) to rise and attain the highest degree of fulfilment, and accomplish the same for creation as a whole.
Rosh Hashanah – the birthday of man
This idea is underlined by the fact that the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah – celebrates the birthday of man, which took place on the sixth day of creation.
In the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah we find that it is called the “day of the beginning of Your works” (text of prayer for Rosh Hashanah). Why is it the “beginning of Your works” when, in fact, Rosh Hashanah corresponds to the sixth day of the creation?
The answer is given by the Rabbis: Inasmuch as man is the ultimate purpose and raison d’être of all domains of the universe and since, with the creation of man, the whole of creation was completed and fulfilled, man, in effect, embodies the entire creation as if, before him, nothing was created.
Nevertheless, the question must be asked, How can this be true when there is a great world besides man, an impressive and noteworthy world, as it says in the Psalms, “How manifold are your works O G–d”, and “How great are your works O G–d”? Moreover, considering the whole of creation, we find that the “speaking genus” – man – is numerically much less than the order of animals, and still less than the order of plants, and least in comparison to inorganic matter (earth, minerals etc.).
The answer – and this, indeed, is one of the basic teachings of Rosh Hashanah in regard to the entire creation – is as follows:
The order in the scale of all created things where inorganic substances exceed plants, and plants outnumber animals, and man is least of all, is based on consideration of quantity. However, when quality is considered, the order is reversed: inorganic matter, which has no signs of life and locomotion, is at the bottom of the scale; above it is the world of plants, endowed with growth but lacking the vitality and movement of animals; higher still is the animal kingdom which, since animals do not possess human intellect, is inferior to man – the highest of all creatures. For, although an animal has an intellect of its own, the animal intellect is not an end in itself but an instinct, whose function is to serve the natural needs of the animal. However, the human intellect – provided the person conducts himself as a human being and not as an animal – is mainly an end in itself. Furthermore, the human intellect attains its goal and fulfilment, not when it serves as an instrument for the gratification of physical needs, as in the case of animals, but, on the contrary, when all such natural functions as eating, drinking and the like, become servants of the intellect, in order that the person should be able to rise ever higher in intellectual and spiritual pursuits.
Yet this is not quite the true fulfilment of the human being. True fulfilment is achieved when the intellect leads him to the realisation that there is something higher than intellect, so that the intellect surrenders itself completely to that ideal.
To put it more clearly, human fulfilment is attained when intellect recognises that man, and with him the entire creation, must strive for and achieve acknowledgement of, and attachment to, G–d, the Creator of the Universe and Master of everything in it.
This concept directly relates to, and must permeate, our daily life as evidenced also by the fact that the Psalm beginning with, “G–d reigns, He robed Himself in majesty”, has been instituted as the “Daily Psalm” for the sixth day of every week of the year. This is what Adam, the first man, accomplished when he acknowledged the sovereignty of the Creator, elevating himself and all creation to a level of recognising G–d.
The general lesson to be inferred from all this is as follows: Reflecting upon himself, a person will see that most of his life and most of his efforts are taken up with things which, at first glance, are material and mundane, such as eating, drinking, sleeping and the like. It is also evident that there is a greater number of “men of the world” than “men of the spirit”. In general, one sees most people immersed largely in material pursuits. Hence, one may erroneously think that perhaps the material and physical aspects of life are the most important in the world.
Rosh Hashanah teaches us that the opposite is true. To be sure, it took five days and part of the sixth to create all sorts of creatures. Yet it was man, a very small part of creation in time and space, who was the essence and purpose of the entire creation. And in man, too, the essential thing is not the body, which is “dust from the earth”, but the soul, the living spirit which G–d “breathed into his nostrils”; a soul which is “truly part of G–dliness Above.” Only after man was created with the Divine spark within him did the entire creation become worthy and complete. Thus man can justly be described as the “beginning” of creation in all its domains, and Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of man, as “the day of the beginning of Your works.”
The power of the righteous
Yet immediately after the creation the Biblical narrative continues with the temptation of the forbidden fruit, Adam’s sin and subsequent exile from the Garden of Eden. The snake, synonymous with the evil inclination, persuades man to disregard the mission of his soul in return for momentary pleasure. Adam plunges mankind into a constant struggle between his good and evil inclinations.
The Sages describe what happened in the following way: At the time of creation the Shechinah – Divine Presence – rested on earth. After the sin of Adam the Shechinah removed itself from the earth to the first firmament (the Sages speak of the existence of seven firmaments i.e. spiritual levels), and after the sins of Cain and Abel, and the subsequent generation of Enosh, the Shechinah removed itself further to the second and third firmament etc., until the Shechinah was removed, through the sins of subsequent generations, to the seventh firmament. It was the righteous Abraham who, through his Divine service, returned the Shechinah by one level to the sixth firmament. His son Isaac and grandson Jacob, and thereafter subsequent generations of righteous people, returned the Shechinah further, until Moshe, the seventh generation from Abraham, returned the Divine Presence to this earth, when he built the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Shechinah rested there.
One of the great teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the chassidic movement, is that of an ongoing creative process. Divine creative energy is constantly pulsating through the creation, bringing it into being ex nihilo every single second. If G–d were to stop creating the world, even for an instant, it would revert to null and void, as before the creation. When the Sages talk about “removal of the Divine Presence” they are not suggesting that G–d literally removed Himself from the world – otherwise the world would cease to exist. Rather they are suggesting that sin creates an insensitivity to that Divine Presence. G–dliness is no longer manifest and felt by the creation. It is almost as though G–d is in exile from His world. This was the result of generations of sin and it was only through the efforts of the righteous that the world was again sensitised to the Divine Presence and became a fitting abode for His presence.
A dwelling for G–d
It was Abraham who initiated the process of return, bringing the Divine Presence from the seventh to the sixth firmament. He accomplished this by establishing a guesthouse in Beer Sheba and giving wayfarers food and drink. After they had eaten Abraham would ask them to say Grace. The Torah tells us, “And Abraham called there in the name of G–d.” The Sages comment, “do not read, ‘and he called’, but read, ‘and he made call,’” i.e. he encouraged others to call. Maimonides states that Abraham had such a powerful influence in his time that he managed to convert a good part of known civilisation to belief in monotheism.
This task was continued by his sons, and the patriarchal traditions and belief in monotheism were continued and upheld even after the descent of Jacob to Egypt and subsequent servitude and bondage. Although steeped and assimilated into Egyptian culture, the Children of Israel, and in particular the tribe of Levi, maintained their identity and beliefs.
G–d had promised Abraham that his descendants would serve a strange nation only for a certain time, after which they would be redeemed. When the time of redemption arrived G–d sent Moshe, a great-grandson of Levi, son of Jacob, to fulfil that task. Pharaoh, a self-proclaimed god, was systematically destroyed by the Ten Plagues. He and his magicians were forced to admit that the “finger of G–d” was at work. Finally the Jewish people left Egypt, a redemption from bondage which became the prototype for all future redemptions.
They witnessed further miracles – the splitting of the sea and the defeat of the Amalekites. Forty-nine days after leaving Egypt they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai where they heard the Ten Commandments from G–d Himself. G–d gave His Torah-instruction to the entire nation. Shortly after Sinai He instructed Moshe, “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.”
Moshe began the construction of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle; a portable structure that housed the Holy Ark, which contained the tablets of stone and the scroll of the Law. The Tabernacle was to be the prototype for all future synagogues. When the Tabernacle was finally completed and erected, the Divine Presence rested upon it. The Sages tell us that the task was now complete and the Divine Presence had now returned to the world.
The construction of the Tabernacle exemplifies the purpose of creation which, in the words of the Midrash is that, “G–d desired to have an abode in the lowest of all worlds”. The purpose of man is to take the creation and permeate it with G–dliness.
This idea was exemplified in the Tabernacle. When the Jews left Egypt they took with them great wealth which they subsequently donated for the materials necessary for the construction of the Tabernacle. Every aspect of the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms was represented in the Tabernacle. The walls were made of wooden boards covered with gold. The offerings brought in the Tabernacle represented the elevation of the animalistic dimension within man and its dedication to a higher purpose. Every aspect of the Tabernacle transformed the material into the spiritual. Thus the Tabernacle, which our sages say was a microcosm, or symbol, of the universe, reflected our very task in the world: that is, to take the material and transform and elevate it for a spiritual purpose. For example, eating in order to be healthy to learn Torah and keep mitzvot, using animal hides for mezuzot and tefillin, and the like.
A dwelling within each person
Within the wording, “Make for Me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them”, lies a deeper meaning. Grammatically it should have stated, “so that I may dwell in it” yet it states, “so that I may dwell among them.” The Sages point out that the construction of the Tabernacle is a pointer for each and every person to make a dwelling place for the Divine Presence within themselves.
As mentioned previously, every person is infused with a Divine Soul. It is the task of the soul to make a Mishkan out of the body in which it resides by elevating all bodily functions to a Divine purpose.
In short, this means being able to connect every bodily function with G–d – and this is precisely the purpose of Torah and mitzvot. In the Torah, G–d instructs us how to connect every sphere of operation and function with G–d. For example, in terms of time, “six days you shall work and the seventh day you shall rest.” The function of Shabbat is to allow a person to withdraw from the mundane and focus on the spiritual for one day a week. This, in turn, creates a new perspective on the week to come. By simply dedicating one day a week to study and prayer, one elevates the entire week.
The laws of Kashrut connect a Jew in his eating habits and the laws of Taharat Hamishpachah elevate intimacy. And so it is with all the mitzvot.
The Sages tell us that a human being is made of 248 limbs and 365 sinews. These correspond to the 248 positive commandments and the 365 negative commandments of the Torah. The word mitzvah in Aramaic means “a connection”. Thus, there are 613 ways of connecting with G–d. Man has the ability to connect his entire being with G–d. Upon achieving this task he creates an abode for G–d in this world, hence fulfilling the purpose of creation.
The worlds of the spiritual and the material are not in conflict. The ultimate purpose is that they be fused and the material permeated with the spiritual. The core of all mitzvah performance is to take the material creation and utilise it for a Divine purpose. This achieves a wonderful harmony both in the individual and in the world at large. This theme is not relegated to the synagogue or moments of religious practice. Rather it encompasses all times and places; wherever and whenever a person operates he is able to utilise the task at hand for its correct, Divine, purpose.
The rewards of the World to Come
The Talmud is replete with references to the World to Come. Maimonides describes it as a “world of souls”, a spiritual plane to which the soul returns after its sojourn in this world. The soul is to give an account of its lifetime and, subsequently, its merits and demerits are carefully weighed on the Divine scales. It is then rewarded for its good deeds and Torah learning. The reward takes the form of a revelation of G–d’s glory, “basking in the Divine light”. It may be necessary for the soul to be cleansed from its indulgences and iniquities and so it is sent to Gehinom, a spiritual purification depot, after which it ascends to Heaven. The Talmud uses the terms “Garden of Eden” or the “Heavenly Academy” to describe various levels and stages of this heavenly reward.
In this sense this world is a mere “corridor before the World to Come”, a temporary stepping stone where one may earn a place and seat in the World to Come. In fact the Sages state that, “better one hour of heavenly bliss in the World to Come than all the pleasures of this world” (Avot 4:17). One should not serve G–d merely to receive this reward yet G–d does not remain in debt and will reward a person for all his good deeds. To this aim there is an “eye watching, an ear listening and a hand writing” all of a person’s actions in this world. An exact account is kept.
Yet, however great the rewards of the World to Come, they are not the ultimate purpose of creation. As stated above, the ultimate purpose is that G–d desired to have a dwelling in the lowest of all worlds, in this material and physical world. It is in this vein that the Sages state that, “better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all of the World to Come”. Although the revelations of the higher spiritual worlds are magnificent and a true reward for the soul’s efforts, however, the ultimate desire of G–d is the good deeds and mitzvot of this world.
It is for this reason that there is no open mention of the World to Come in the scripture. The Torah is primarily concerned with life on this world. The soul exists before its descent and returns to the heavenly realm in the afterlife. It is a “descent for the purpose of ascent”, the ascent being the fulfilment of the ultimate purpose in creation, the creation of a dwelling for G–d in this world.
King Solomon describes the soul as “the candle of G–d”. For what purpose does G–d need a candle? Is there any place where it is dark before Him? The candle is needed for this world within which G–d has clothed His majesty. The soul illuminates the body and the world, enabling it to recognise the Creator, through fulfilment of the Torah and mitzvot in daily life.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, used to say, “I do not want your Garden of Eden, I do not want your World to Come, I only want You, Yourself.” He meant that although the spiritual bliss of the World to Come is great, G–d, Himself, is experienced only by fulfilling the ultimate purpose – with one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world.
A specific purpose
In addition, every soul has a specific purpose besides the general purpose of making an abode for G–d in this world. The Baal Shem Tov said that a soul, in addition to keeping the Torah and mitzvot, may descend to this world and live for 70 or 80 years just to do a favour for another in the material or the spiritual realms. How does one know one’s own specific purpose? How does one know which favour is the purpose of one’s soul’s descent? The answer is that everything happens by Divine Providence and if a person is presented with a certain opportunity, this is certainly sent from Above and should be treated as if it is the purpose of one’s soul’s descent.
Our Sages stated, “everything is from the hands of heaven except the fear of Heaven.” This means that whatever happens to a person is from Heaven. The particular time and place a person lives and his station in life, whether rich or poor etc., is decided from Above. A person’s only contribution is “the fear of Heaven” – his reaction in any given situation. We are all presented with unique opportunities and challenges and it is our lot in life to utilise them for the Divine purpose.
The soul’s descent
Our Sages stated further, “each and every soul was in the presence of His Divine Majesty before coming down to this earth”, and that, “the souls are hewn from under the Seat of Glory.” These sayings emphasise the essential nature of the soul, its holiness and purity, and how it is completely divorced from anything material and physical; the soul itself, by its very nature, is not subject to any material desires or temptations, which arise only from the physical body and “animal soul”.
Nevertheless, it was the Creator’s Will that the soul – which is truly a “part” of the Divine, should descend into the coarse, physical world and be confined within, and united with, a physical body for scores of years in a state which is diametrically opposed to its spiritual nature. All this for the purpose of a Divine mission which the soul has to perform to purify and spiritualise the physical body and its related physical environment, making this world an abode for the Divine Presence. This can be done only through a life of Torah and mitzvot.
When the soul fulfils this mission all the transient pain and suffering connected with the soul’s descent and life on this earth is not only justified, but infinitely outweighed, by the great reward and everlasting bliss which the soul enjoys thereafter.
A wasted opportunity
From the above one can easily appreciate the extent of the tragedy of disregarding the soul’s mission on earth. For, in doing so, one causes the soul to descend to this world virtually in vain, for one has not achieved its purpose. Even where there are brief moments of religious activity in the study of Torah and the practice of the mitzvot, it is sad to contemplate how often such activity is tainted by the lack of real enthusiasm and inner joy, without recognition that these are the activities which justify existence.
Apart from missing the vital point through failure to take advantage of the opportunity to fulfil G–d’s Will, thus forfeiting the eternal benefits to be derived therefrom, it is contrary to sound reason to choose that side of life which accentuates the enslavement and degradation of the soul while rejecting the good that is within it; namely, the great elevation that is to come from the soul’s descent.
The proper thing to do is to make the most of the soul’s sojourn on earth and a life which is permeated by the Torah and mitzvot makes this possible.
It is also abundantly clear that since G–d, who is the essence of goodness, compels the soul to descend from its sublime heights to the lowest depths for the purpose of the study of the Torah and the fulfilment of the mitzvot, it must mean that the value of Torah and mitzvot is very great.
Furthermore, the descent of the soul for the purpose of being elevated shows that there is no other way to obtain this objective except through the soul’s descent to live on this earth. If there were an easier way G–d would not compel the soul to descend to this nether world. For only here, in what the kabbalists call the lowest world, can the soul attain its highest ascent, higher even than the angels, and, as our Sages say, “The righteous are superior to the (foremost) angels.”
Serve G–d with joy
Reflecting on the greatness of the Torah and mitzvot, specifically pertaining to this life; reflecting also that the Torah and mitzvot are the only means to attain the soul’s perfection and the fulfilment of the Divine purpose; one will experience a sense of real joy at one’s fate and destiny, despite the many difficulties and handicaps, from within and without, which are inevitable on this earth. Only in this way can one live up to the injunction, “Serve G–d with joy”, which the Baal Shem Tov made one of the foundations of his teachings, which is expounded at length in Chabad teachings and pointed out by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in his monumental work, Tanya (Ch.26,31).
Ultimately, following such a path in life will lead to true happiness. Happiness – in the Jewish sense – may be defined as follows: when a person is doing what G–d wants from him at any given moment then he may be truly happy. Therefore, if, at any given moment and situation, a person acts according to the directives of the Torah instruction, he is truly a happy and blessed person. This feeling transcends all worldly matters, for such a person understands that everything that happens in life is orchestrated by G–d.
It is obviously necessary to study Torah and be aware of how to fulfil its directives in one’s daily life. Torah is Divine wisdom and there is no greater union with G–d than by the intellectual unity of study. Yet, “the deed is the main thing.” The ultimate purpose of study is to lead to action – to mitzvah performance – in fulfilling the purpose of creation, the making of an abode for the Divine in this world.
Each and every mitzvah has a cosmic effect and reveals the presence of G–d. The full revelation of this effect will be apparent when Mashiach comes. In that era, man’s entire pursuit will be to know G–d.
Jerusalem, the spiritual capital of the world is made up of two Hebrew words, yirah and shalem, meaning “perfect awe”. The rebuilding of Jerusalem denotes the reconstruction in the world of that perfect state of awe and the full presence of G–d which was found in the Garden of Eden. Every individual mitzvah is a step in fulfilling that goal.
We would do well to heed the advice of King Solomon, the wisest of all men, when he wrote at the end of the book of Ecclesiastes,
Ultimately, all is known; fear G–d, and observe His commandments; for this is the whole purpose of man.
In the words of our Sages, “I was created for the sole purpose of serving my Maker.”