In the previous chapter, the Alter Rebbe began to explain why the observance of the practical mitzvot is the ultimate purpose of Torah and of one’s spiritual service of G-d. (This practical aspect is underscored by the conclusion of the verse, “For the thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”) He explained that only mitzvot observed through action draw down the light of the Shechinah upon one’s animal soul and body (rather than upon the divine soul alone, as do the mitzvot performed only in thought and speech).

Yet, this does not answer one question satisfactorily: Why is the illumination of the body and animal soul so important that those (practical) mitzvot which accomplish this illumination should be considered one’s primary objective?

The Alter Rebbe addresses this question in ch. 36. He explains that G-d’s purpose in creation is that he might have a dwelling place “in the lower realms,” specifically, in this physical world. In this world of doubled and redoubled spiritual darkness, His Ein Sof-light would radiate even more powerfully than it does in the higher, spiritual realms through man’s transforming the darkness into light.

In man, the microcosm, the animal soul and the body, are “the lower realms.” Therefore, the practical mitzvot which draw the light of the Shechinah upon them constitute man’s ultimate purpose.

Furthermore, through the practical mitzvot and through their elevating effect on the body and animal soul, the material world in its entirety becomes a “dwelling place” for G-d. (This, however, properly belongs to the discussion in ch. 37.)

In a well-known statement, our Rabbis declare that the purpose for which this world was created is that the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to have an abode in the lower realms.1

וְהִנֵּה, מוּדַעַת זֹאת מַאֲמַר רַבּוֹתֵינוּ־זִכְרוֹנָם־לִבְרָכָה, שֶׁתַּכְלִית בְּרִיאַת עוֹלָם הַזֶּה הוּא – שֶׁנִּתְאַוָּה הַקָּדוֹשׁ־בָּרוּךְ־הוּא לִהְיוֹת לוֹ דִּירָה בַּתַּחְתּוֹנִים.

He desired that the essence of His Ein Sof-light be revealed as it is, without veil or concealment, amid the lower creations. Our Sages use the word “abode,” or “dwelling place,” to describe such revelation. Just as a man’s home serves as an abode for his essence, so, too, is this world intended to be an “abode” for G-d’s Essence.

The Alter Rebbe now goes on to explain the phrase “the lower realms” mentioned above. He shows that this refers specifically to our physical world.

The explanation in brief:

The terms “higher” and “lower” realms do not denote degrees of respective importance in the sight of G-d or of closeness to Him. In G-d’s eyes, all the worlds, from the highest to the lowest, are equally insignificant; all are equally remote from Him. On the other hand, He fills the lowest world just as He fills the highest.

Thus, the terms “higher” and “lower” must be understood as a standard of comparison within the numerous worlds. They indicate to what degree G-dliness is revealed in each individual world: the more revelation, the “higher” the world; the more obscurity and concealment, the “lower.” From this standpoint, our physical world is the very lowest, for here, G-dliness is most veiled and concealed.

In the Alter Rebbe’s words:

But surely, before G-d (i.e., in His sight), the distinction of “higher” and “lower” is not valid; one world is no higher than another, for He pervades all worlds equally. What, then, do our Sages mean by saying that “G-d desired an abode in the ‘lower’ realms”?

וְהִנֵּה, לֹא שַׁיָּיךְ לְפָנָיו יִתְבָּרֵךְ בְּחִינַת מַעְלָה וּמַטָּה, כִּי הוּא יִתְבָּרֵךְ מְמַלֵּא כָּל עָלְמִין בְּשָׁוֶה.

The explanation of the matter, however, is that G-d desired an abode in that realm considered “lower” within the ranks of the worlds as follows:

אֶלָּא בֵּיאוּר הָעִנְיָן,

Before the world (any world) was created, there was only He alone, one and unique, filling all the space in which He created the world. Anything that could be conceived of as a “space” or possibility for creation was filled with the Ein Sof-light.

כִּי קוֹדֶם שֶׁנִּבְרָא הָעוֹלָם הָיָה הוּא לְבַדּוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ יָחִיד וּמְיוּחָד, וּמְמַלֵּא כָּל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה שֶׁבָּרָא בּוֹ הָעוֹלָם,

In His view, indeed, it is still the same now. Creation wrought no change in His unity; He is One alone now, just as He was prior to creation.

וְגַם עַתָּה כֵּן הוּא לְפָנָיו יִתְבָּרֵךְ.

The change applies only to the recipients of His vivifying force and His light—before creation, there was none to receive the Divine life-force and light; creation brought into being these recipients,

רַק שֶׁהַשִּׁינּוּי הוּא אֶל הַמְקַבְּלִים חַיּוּתוֹ וְאוֹרוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ,

who receive [this life-force and light] by way of numerous “garments,” which veil and conceal G-d’s light, for without such garments, they could not bear its intensity and would cease to exist.

שֶׁמְּקַבְּלִים עַל יְדֵי לְבוּשִׁים רַבִּים הַמְכַסִּים וּמַסְתִּירִים אוֹרוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ,

So it is written: “For no man can see Me and live.”2

כְּדִכְתִיב: "כִּי לֹא יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם וָחָי",

Furthermore, not only man, a physical being, but even spiritual beings, such as angels, are unable to receive the divine light and life-force without concealing garments.

And as our Rabbis, of blessed memory, interpret the word וָחָי (“…and live”) in this verse, as referring to angels, thus: “Even angels, called חַיּוֹת (‘[holy] Chayot’), cannot see….”3 G-dliness, except by way of garments which conceal Him, thereby enabling them to receive His light.

וְכִדְפֵירְשׁוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ־זִכְרוֹנָם־לִבְרָכָה, שֶׁאֲפִילוּ מַלְאָכִים הַנִּקְרָאִים "חַיּוֹת" אֵין רוֹאִין כוּ'.

The degree of concealment varies, however, from world to world and from level to level. Here, the distinction between “higher” and “lower” realms becomes valid, as the Alter Rebbe continues:

This concealment is the subject of the Hishtalshelut (the chainlike graded and downward succession) of the worlds, and their descent from level to level,

וְזֶהוּ עִנְיַן הִשְׁתַּלְשְׁלוּת הָעוֹלָמוֹת וִירִידָתָם מִמַּדְרֵגָה לְמַדְרֵגָה,

through the many “garments” that conceal the light and the life-force emanating from Him (—the more concealment, the lower the descent),

עַל יְדֵי רִיבּוּי הַלְּבוּשִׁים הַמַּסְתִּירִים הָאוֹר וְהַחַיּוּת שֶׁמִּמֶּנּוּ יִתְבָּרֵךְ,

culminating in the creation of this physical, gross world.

עַד שֶׁנִּבְרָא עוֹלָם הַזֶּה הַגַּשְׁמִי וְהַחוּמְרִי מַמָּשׁ,

[This world] is the lowest in degree; there is none lower than it in terms of concealment of His light, and no world compares with it for doubled and redoubled darkness; nowhere is G-d’s light as hidden as in this world.

וְהוּא הַתַּחְתּוֹן בַּמַּדְרֵגָה, שֶׁאֵין תַּחְתּוֹן לְמַטָּה מִמֶּנּוּ בְּעִנְיַן הֶסְתֵּר אוֹרוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ וְחֹשֶׁךְ כָּפוּל וּמְכוּפָּל,

So much so that it is filled with kelipot and sitra achara, which actually oppose G-d, saying: “I am, and there is nothing else besides me.”

עַד שֶׁהוּא מָלֵא קְלִיפּוֹת וְסִטְרָא אָחֳרָא, שֶׁהֵן נֶגֶד ה' מַמָּשׁ, לוֹמַר: "אֲנִי וְאַפְסִי עוֹד".

It is thus clear that the term “lower realms” refers to this physical world, the very lowest in degree of divine revelation.