There is an argument brought in the Talmud and Midrash (Chagiga 12a, Bereishit Rabba 1:15) between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. The School of Hillel maintained that the Earth was created first, and School of Shammai maintained that the Heavens were created first. Said Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, "I don't understand what the great sages are arguing about. I say that neither one of them was created first, rather they were created concurrently like a pot together with its lid; they are one thing". One is obligated to serve G‑d with both aspects, even the physical…

Later commentaries were also surprised at the argument of the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. What does it even matter which was created first, what was, is and that is that.

Rather, says the Slonimer Rebbe (Netivot Shalom, commentary on Bereishit p.16), there must be an underlying consideration for us in understanding the ways of serving G‑d.

There are two ways in divine service: One is the path of the Heavens or spirituality, i.e. Torah, mitzvot, prayer, and acts of loving kindness. The second is the path of the Earth, or the physical, i.e. money, eating, sleeping and other physical needs. One is obligated to serve G‑d with both aspects, even the physical! Full divine service can only be through the physical and spiritual, together in complimentary unity…

The Maggid of Mezritch once commented on a verse from Psalms which is found in the daily prayers, "How great are your works G‑d, the whole world is filled with your possessions [in Hebrew, 'kinyanecha']." (Psalms 104:24) Said the Maggid, "Don't read "kinyanecha" as "your possessions", rather read it as "your acquisitions"; the whole world is full of opportunities to acquire holiness and the ways of G‑d." Proper use of the physical world can lead to maximum holiness.

This then was the argument of the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, writes the Slonimer Rebbe. What is the principle service of a Jew in this world, the path of the physical or of the spiritual? The School of Hillel held that the physical is the key service, and by sanctifying it, one will come to the spiritual. The School of Shammai held that the primary service is through the spiritual, which will fortify one enough to successfully master the physical. Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai said, "Not so"! These two paths of serving G‑d come to us as two parts of a whole, like a pot and its lid. Both paths were brought into the world synchronously, and a person has to serve G‑d with both aspects equally. Full divine service can only be through the physical and spiritual, together in complementary unity.

The account continues, "And the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep…."(Gen. 1:2) A Jew must know that even though the physical path is dark and lurking with danger, nevertheless, "And G‑d said, 'Let there be light'…"(Gen. 1:3) Through using the physical world as an essential aspect of one's divine service, the result will be light, a great advance in spirituality and knowledge of G‑d.

[First published in B'Ohelei Hatzadikim, Bereishit 5759]