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The concept of “Dirah Betachtonim” (G‑d’s desire for a “dwelling in the lowly realms”); how the purpose in Creation is realized in the most ordinary, everyday actions

The Answer to the Mother of All Questions

The Answer to the Mother of All Questions


Why are we here?

This, the mother of all questions, is addressed in turn by the various streams of Torah thought, each after its own style.

The Talmud states, simply and succinctly, "I was created to serve my Creator." The moralistic-oriented works of Mussar describe the purpose of life as the refinement of one's character traits. The Zohar says that G‑d created us "in order that His creations should know Him." Master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria offered the following reason for creation: G‑d is the essence of good, and the nature of good is to bestow goodness. But goodness cannot be bestowed when there is no one to receive it. To this end, G‑d created our world — so that there should be recipients of His goodness.

Chassidic teaching explains that these reasons, as well as the reasons given by other kabbalistic and philosophical works, are but the various faces of a singular divine desire for creation, as expressed in the various "worlds" or realms of G‑d's creation. Chassidism also offers its own formulation of this divine desire: that we "Make a home for G‑d in the material world."

A Home For G‑d

What does it mean to make our world a home for G‑d?

A basic tenet of our faith is that "the entire world is filled with His presence" and "there is no place void of Him." So it's not that we have to bring G‑d into the material world — He is already there. But G‑d can be in the world without being at home in it.

Being "at home" means being in a place that is receptive to your presence, a place devoted to serving your needs and desires. It means being in a place where you are your true, private self, as opposed to the public self you assume in other environments.

The material world, in its natural state, is not an environment hospitable to G‑d. If there is one common feature to all things material, it is their intrinsic egocentrism, their placement of the self as the foundation and purpose of existence. With every iota of its mass, the stone proclaims: "I am." In the tree and in the animal, the preservation and propagation of the self is the focus of every instinct and the aim of every achievement. And who more than the human being has elevated ambition to an art and self-advancement to an all-consuming ideal?

The only thing wrong with all this selfishness is that it blurs the truth of what lies behind it: the truth that creation is not an end in itself, but a product of and vehicle for its Creator. And this selfishness is not an incidental or secondary characteristic of our world, but its most basic feature. So to make our world a "home" for G‑d we must transform its very nature. We must recast the very foundations of its identity from a self-oriented entity into something that exists for a purpose that is greater than itself.

Every time we take a material object or resource and enlist it in the service of G‑d, we are effecting such a transformation. When we take a piece of leather and make a pair of tefillin out of it, when we take a dollar bill and give it to charity, when we employ our minds to study a chapter of Torah — we are effecting such a transformation. In its initial state, the piece of leather proclaimed, "I exist"; now it says, "I exist to serve my Creator." A dollar in pocket says, "Greed is good"; in the charity box it says, "The purpose of life is not to receive, but to give." The human brain says, "Enrich thyself"; the brain studying Torah says, "Know thy G‑d."

The Frontier of Self

There are two basic steps to the endeavor of making our world a home for G‑d. The first step involves priming the material resource as a "vessel for G‑dliness": shaping the leather into tefillin, donating the money to charity, scheduling time for Torah study. The second step is the actual employment of these "vessels" to serve the divine will: binding the tefillin on the arm and head, using the donated money to feed the hungry, studying Torah, etc.

At first glance, it would seem that the second step is the more significant one, while the first step is merely an enabler of the second, a means to its end. But the Torah's account of the first home for G‑d built in our world places the greater emphasis on the construction of the "home," rather than its actual employment as a divine dwelling.

A sizable portion of the book of Exodus is devoted to the construction of the Sanctuary built by the children of Israel in the desert. The Torah, which is usually so sparing with words that many of its laws are contained within a single word or letter, is uncharacteristically elaborate. The fifteen materials used in the Sanctuary's construction are listed no less than three times; the components and furnishings of the Sanctuary are listed eight times; and every minute detail of the Sanctuary's construction, down to the dimensions of every wall-panel and pillar and the colors in every tapestry, is spelled out not once, but twice — in the account of G‑d's instructions to Moses, and again in the account of the Sanctuary's construction.

All in all, thirteen chapters are devoted to describing how certain physical materials were fashioned into an edifice dedicated to the service of G‑d and the training of the Kohanim (priests) who were to officiate there. (In contrast, the Torah devotes one chapter to its account of the creation of the universe, three chapters to its description of the revelation at Mount Sinai, and eleven chapters to the story of the Exodus).

The Sanctuary is the model and prototype for all subsequent homes for G‑d constructed on physical earth. So the overwhelming emphasis on its "construction" stage (as opposed to the "implementation" stage) implies that in our lives, too, there is something very special about forging our personal resources into things that have the potential to serve G‑d. Making ourselves "vessels" for G‑dliness is, in a certain sense, a greater feat than actually bringing G‑dliness into our lives.

For this is where the true point of transformation lies — the transformation from a self-oriented object to a thing committed to something greater than itself. If G‑d had merely desired a hospitable environment, He need not have bothered with a material world; a spiritual world could just as easily have been enlisted to serve Him. What G‑d desired was the transformation itself: the challenge and achievement of selfhood transcended and materiality redefined. This transformation and redefinition occurs in the first stage, when something material is forged into an instrument of the divine. The second stage is only a matter of actualizing an already established potential, of putting a thing to its now natural use.

Making Vessels

You meet a person who has yet to invite G‑d into his or her life. A person whose endeavors and accomplishments — no matter how successful and laudable — have yet to transcend the self and self-oriented goals.

You wish to expand her horizons — to show him a life beyond the strictures of self. You wish to put on tefillin with him, to share with her the divine wisdom of Torah.

But he's not ready yet. You know that the concept of serving G‑d is still alien to a life trained and conditioned to view everything through the lens of self. You know that before you can introduce her to the world of Torah and mitzvot, you must first make her receptive to G‑dliness, receptive to a life of intimacy with the divine.

So when you meet him on the street, you simply smile and say, "Good morning!" You invite her to your home for a cup of coffee or a Shabbat dinner. You make small talk. You don't, at this point, suggest any changes in his lifestyle. You just want her to become open to you and what you represent.

Ostensibly, you haven't "done" anything. But in essence, a most profound and radical transformation has taken place. The person has become a vessel for G‑dliness.

Of course, the purpose of a vessel is that it be filled with content; the purpose of a home is that it be inhabited. The Sanctuary was built to house the presence of G‑d. But it is the making of vessels for G‑dliness that is life's greatest challenge and its most revolutionary achievement.1

Based on Likkutei Sichot, vol. 25, pp. 424-435.
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
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Simcha Bart for March 24, 2017

Hanalah, I commend your patience to invite him all this time, as well as your wisdom in holding your own counsel. Engaging in debates, especially at the table, would not contribute to the atmosphere of the Holy Day. Yet without directly addressing your brother, you should not shy away from giving voice to the messages of the Holy Days and what they tell us about G-d and His relationship with us.

You may also find this article helpful as it addresses the benefits of having someone at your table who not on the "same page" as you. Reply

Bill McKeen Wethersfield, Ct. March 24, 2017

As a follow up to my comment on 3/3/17 I offer.

From the Ground Up:
Organic matter (earth, vegetation, fish, birds, animals and people) begets fixed matter. (tools, buildings, household goods and weapons). Along with the other ten thousand things. Fixed matter is nothing more than one thing on top of another. Organic matter is a rotating entity that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Reply

Hanalah Boston March 23, 2017

I have been doing what you said. What else can I do? I have been inviting my brother to my home for about fifty years. He has come to my Seders. He has come on Erev Rosh haShanah. He and his family have eaten in my sukkah multiple times. He has even come on Shabbos.

We both grew up in a home where Pesach was hosted and kept and where Rosh HaShanah was hosted and where Shabbos candles were lit weekly.

His conversation reveals that he does not believe HaShem is real. He has no concept of such an idea. He thinks it is simply a belief people entertain to make them feel good. He cannot imagine that it could actually be true.

For more than ten years, I have not dared discuss it with him. I learned long ago that such discussion could only increase his resistance to the idea.

Is there anything I can do for my brother? Reply

Jenifer Nech Houston, TX March 4, 2017

Thank you so much. Especially when it says - invite a friend - do not try to preach to them - invite and spend peaceful time with them. This is what led me to study Torah with Rabbi Gordon on this site also. Reply

William McKeen Wethersfield, Ct. March 3, 2017

Re read , From "Answer to the Mother of All Questions-". Wow! the statement below struck a powerful cord with me. From whence is its origin andr or who actually wrote it? Thanks, Bill mcKeen

"There is one common feature to all things material, it is their intrinsic egocentrism, their placement of the self as the foundation and purpose of existence. With every iota of its mass, the stone proclaims: "I am." In the tree and in the animal, the preservation and propagation of the self is the focus of every instinct and the aim of every achievement". Reply

Anonymous March 3, 2017

amazing thank you Reply

Peninah February 20, 2015

Toda Such awe-inspiring article. May all of creation (especially man) come to grasp this concept and may we embrace HaShem with all our heart, soul and might. May the Theocracy of HaShem be soon, we await Him to be King over His kingdom earth. Reply

Casper Holland February 20, 2015

My comment "For this is where the true point of transformation lies -- the transformation from a self-oriented object to a thing committed to something greater than itself". How true! Reply

zs Brooklyn February 19, 2015

So clear and comprehensible Miraculous, that I found this now! Reply

Nancy Atlanta February 19, 2015

This Is Wonderful This is one of the most wonderful things I have ever read. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous San Mateo February 18, 2015

True words of beautiful wisdom. Reply

William McKeen Wethersfield,Ct. February 17, 2015

I don't have to go far to find words of wisdom. I am finding much of it right here at Reply

zak San Diego February 17, 2015

No one knows the end of days except the mortal man. One reveals the purpose by revealing the ten directions of completion. For this in its self, defines the purpose of the present to define the beginning and ending of the finite with correction. For who can return to the beginning than man corrected and live infinite. Reply

Chuck March 1, 2014

The problem of religion is you have to agree with someone else definations . In this article you have a choice of different definitions and you can if you want to waste you time argue one over the other . You can enjoy the structure suggested as long as you don't have to live them . Certainly , you are not going to get
help living any of them if the people around disagree on the structures and their more basic blocks or definitions . The best bet is to stay away and let the zealots of each argue with those crazy enough to engage them .
If you want to help plans for a project have to have detail on going from point a to point to point B . G-d doesn't spend to much time on creation of the world because this is not something that needs details as the details if given would be not understandable to me or maybe you. Where he spends time on details is those details we can understand . This is no big trick as this is the act of a good teacher ie , to teach what can be done rather than what can't be done . . Reply

Howard Katz San Diego February 24, 2014

Not a perfect world Q:Tsunamis,disasters, humanity, diseases....what are their purpose, where and how do they fit in a perfect world?
A: My opportunity for Tikkun Olam (to heal the world). Our human perception of perfection eliminates our opportunity to improve anything including ourselves.
Human perspective of imperfection is an opportunity to perform G-d's will.
Am I ready to meet the challenge? Reply

Kyle Mecca (Austin), Tx November 19, 2011

small talkin' The accounting of potential shows that we have a lot to live up to, but nobody can be to blame for doing what they see as necessary to live within the bounds of the Earth.

It is difficult to find where theoretical considerations are altogether more important than mundane, assured ones. But we know it to be the case, as we are assured of the existence of creation.

The self is indeed more than most of us can in righteousness search the bounds of, and, as it says in there, once it is built, the rest is assured. Since, the hardest part is in the building Reply

Aamir Berni Karachi, Pakistan February 10, 2011

What a great article! This is an amazing article. It explains why it is so hard for us to mold ourselves as God wants: Because all the fun lies there!

On the other hand, I wish words like "mitzvot" and "teffilin" were explained for non-Hebrews like me. Thanks. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 7, 2011

the question of what's destroyed in our lives There are some deep feelings running in this blog, and I know we all have them. We wonder, why it is, a Creator, if we allow that all creation is governed by G_d, allows for, or is totally responsible for what we call Acts of G_d, namely terrible floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, and the like, not to mention the personal suffering from cancer, from accidents, all life's injustice and inequities. Is tikkun olam, the opportunity to mend these broken parts, enough justification?

These questions will lead any humane person, to the WALL, and we question how it is a G_d can do these things, if we believe this, and some do, deeply.

So I say, we cannot know it all and that there is an essential mystery, a barrier we cannot penetrate as human beings. What we can know is what we can do, in the aftermath of sorrow, and that it's true, the phoenix rises from the ashes. And we can also question G_d, and even, put G_d on trial for these trials of Mankind. Maybe we need to do this, and G_d wants this. Reply

MZID Hvd, IL February 7, 2011

Trying to be helpful, not selfish.... Very illuminating. Reply

Karen Steele Durham, North Carolina February 2, 2011

The World a Home This is a beautiful timely message for me as I am in G_d's crafting stages. Reply