“The purpose for which this world was created is that the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to have an abode in the lower worlds.”1

Worlds: Divine Self-Concealment

Since the beginning of time, man has grappled with the question, “What is the purpose of Creation?” And, the greatest thinkers among our people have answered it in different ways.2

The exposition of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi3 — the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, known by chassidim as “the Alter Rebbe” — is based on the Midrash paraphrased above, that the purpose of creation is that G‑d wished to have a dirah betachtonim,4 a dwelling place in the lower worlds.

What is meant by “worlds”?5

G‑d is infinite. He is perfection. Accordingly, His power extends not only throughout the realm of the infinite: He embraces both infinite and finite powers. And in order for Him to create this finite world, it was (so to speak) necessary for Him to conceal the infinite and reveal the finite.

A concealment of G‑d’s true essence is called a “world”. This is reflected in the Holy Tongue, in which עולם (olam — “world”) shares a root with העלם (he’elem — “concealment”).

The Kabbalah describes how G‑d created the world not in one step, but rather in a gradated process called Seder Hishtalshelus — the chainlike scheme by which the creative Divine light undergoes successive stages of self-concealment in the course of its descent from G‑d’s ethereal transcendence to the creation of tangible physicality. Each successive link in the chain is a further concealment of the infinite, and a further revelation of the finite.

The Four Worlds

In general terms, there are (in descending order) Four Worlds:

1. Atzilus — the World of Emanation;

2. Beriah — the World of Creation;

3. Yetzirah — the World of Formation;

4. Asiyah — the World of Action.

These Worlds correspond to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, the Divine Name: the letter yud corresponds to the World of Atzilus, the upper letter hei corresponds to Beriah, the letter vav to Yetzirah, and the lower letter hei to Asiyah.

The greatest degree of Divine self-concealment, i.e., the lowest of the worlds, is Asiyah, the World of Action. This is where “our world” and “we” are. In this world G‑d has concealed His Presence so severely and so efficiently, that it is possible for people here to actually (heaven forfend) deny His existence.

It is only in such a world, where only the trained eye will perceive the Creator, that free choice may be given to man; hence it is only in such a world that reward and punishment are warranted. In the “higher” worlds, by contrast, G‑d’s Presence is so indisputably manifest that the angels who inhabit the Worlds of Beriah and Yetzirah have no free choice. Indeed, so directly do they experience G‑d’s Presence that they stand continually in a state of awe.

This was G‑d’s will — that there also be created a world whose creatures could not see G‑d. Accordingly, he did not endow the physical eye with the capability to see Him. Only with the mind’s eye can the Divine be apprehended, and this is made possible by G‑d’s self-revelation. For example, when G‑d gave our people the Torah, the blueprint of Creation, He is described as having “come down” on Mt. Sinai. Since He is everywhere, this phrase is merely a metaphor for revelation.6

The revelation of the infinite light of G‑d’s Essence radiates in any of ten modes. The first of these ten emanating Divine attributes or Sefiros is called Chochmah (lit., “wisdom”). This wisdom is embodied in the Torah,7 and just as G‑d existed before the world was created, so too did His wisdom then exist. Indeed, to quote the metaphor of the Zohar,8 G‑d “looked into the Torah and created the world,” rather like a builder looking into the architect’s plans.

The Task of Mankind

Having hidden Himself in this world, G‑d then entrusted man with the task of revealing its true essence, and transforming its darkness into light — transforming the world’s superficial obscurity into an environment in which G‑d’s Presence is felt, and in which He feels (so to speak) at home.

For mankind at large, this task entails the observance of the Seven Noachide Laws9 that provide any society with civilized foundations; for Jews, this task entails the observance of the 613 commandments of the Torah. In the Holy Tongue, the word meaning “commandment” (מצוה — mitzvah) shares a root with the Aramaic word for “connection” (צותא — tzavsa). In other words, the observance of each particular mitzvah has its own distinctive way of connecting the individual with the Giver of the commandments. By setting up all 613 connections with G‑d,10 we reveal His Presence on earth; we fashion the dwelling place, the dirah betachtonim, that He desired.

This explains why it is in this physical world, in the World of Action, that the commandments must be fulfilled, for their function is to refine and elevate the world. In our present circumstances, however, the physical world can be uplifted only to a certain degree. Not until the Messianic Era, and thereafter in the time of Resurrection, will all mankind be sufficiently sensitized to perceive G‑d. At that time, when all creatures will know their Creator, His dwelling place will be complete. The ultimate purpose of creation is thus the Messianic Era and the period that follows it.

This revelation, however, depends on our actions and Divine service throughout the duration of the present galus (“exile”).11

Our life in this exile is as unreal and as inconsistent as a dream. In a dream, one can envisage anomalies; one can see oneself walking on the ceiling. Likewise, in the present state of galus, we can know all about G‑d, yet at the same time be occasionally oblivious to His commandments. Contrasting with this dreamlike unreality, the true reality of the world will become apparent in the days of Mashiach. As steps in this direction, our entire service of G‑d, both through Torah study and through the observance of the mitzvos, should thus be directed to constructing G‑d’s dwelling on earth, which will attain completion in the days of Mashiach.12

“I Have Come to My Garden”

These constructive steps are the opening theme of the last discourse published by the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (the Rebbe Rayatz), before his passing on Yud Shvat 5710 [1950].13 This maamar, entitled Basi LeGani, opens with a quotation from the Song of Songs:14 “I have come to My garden, My sister, My bride.” And the comment of the Midrash on this verse provides the maamar with a starting point for its discussion of the ultimate purpose of Creation.

The Midrash enables one to appreciate that Shir HaShirim is not a simple love song; rather, it is a sustained metaphor describing the ongoing relationship between G‑d and His people. The above verse, for example, which speaks of G‑d’s return to His garden, alludes to the time of the construction of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary in the wilderness, for then the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, was again revealed on earth. The Midrash points out further that the word גני (gani — “My garden”), especially in the possessive form, suggests the privacy of גנוני (genuni — “My bridal chamber”). From this perspective, the verse relays this message: “I have come into My bridal chamber, to the place in which My essence was originally revealed.”

The Midrash continues: “In the beginning, the essence of the Shechinah was apparent in this lowly world. However, in the wake of the [cosmic] sin of the Tree of Knowledge, the Shechinah departed from the earth and rose into the heavens. Later, on account of the sin of Cain and then of Enosh, the Shechinah withdrew even further from this world, rising from the nearest heaven to the second, and then to the third. Later yet, the sins of the generation of the Deluge caused it to recede from the third heaven to the fourth, and so on.... [After the sins of seven generations had caused the Shechinah to withdraw seven spiritual levels from its initial manifestation in this world], seven tzaddikim arose whose service of G‑d drew the Divine Presence down once more into this world below. Through the merit of Avraham the Shechinah was brought down from the seventh heaven to the sixth, through the merit of Yitzchak the Shechinah was brought down from the sixth heaven to the fifth, and so on — until Moshe, the seventh of these tzaddikim,... drew the revelation of the Shechinah down once again into this world below.”

Now, how can one speak of the Divine Presence withdrawing or retreating from this world? After all, the continuous Creator of the universe is of necessity constantly present in it: were He for one moment to withhold the input of His creative life-force from the universe, it would cease to exist.15 “Presence” and “withdrawal” therefore really relate to whether or not the world feels G‑d’s nearness, for sometimes the spirit of folly which persuades a man to sin can camouflage the truth and dull his spiritual sensitivity. In this sense, then, the Divine Presence can be said to have withdrawn.

A tzaddik, through his Divine service, can bring that Presence back to the world. Thus, as recounted above, it was Moshe Rabbeinu, the seventh of the early tzaddikim, who finally brought the Shechinah to rest in the Mishkan.

The centrality of this event is reflected in the contents of the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses. Its narrative begins with creation and continues with the Egyptian bondage and redemption. Thereafter, surprisingly, it is predominantly occupied with the travails of the forty years of wandering in the desert, the building of the Mishkan, and the sacrifices.16 Moreover, it ends abruptly with the death of Moshe and leaves the account of the people’s entry to the Land for the Book of Yehoshua (Joshua).

The lesson is simple. The Torah is pointing to the purpose of creation. The early stages of its narrative are thus merely a prelude to Sinai, where the Torah was given in order to enable man below to build G‑d a dwelling place, as embodied in the physical Mishkan. This progression encapsulates a directive for our entire history: In whatever spiritual wilderness a Jew may find himself, his task is to build a Mishkan, a place where the Divine Presence can feel at home.

First, Second — and Third

A further stage in this historical progression towards creating the perfect Divine dwelling place was the construction in Jerusalem of the first Beis HaMikdash and then the Second. Our people’s sinfulness, however, brought about their destruction, leaving the task of construction unfinished — until the long exile in which we still find ourselves will finally end when Mashiach comes and builds the Third Beis HaMikdash. At that point, the Divine Presence will again be revealed in the world.

Without this revelation, Judaism is incomplete. For one thing, only in the Messianic Era will it be possible to properly observe all the mitzvos.17 Waiting and yearning for Mashiach is therefore a natural feeling for a Jew. Believing and waiting for him to come is a fundamental principle of the faith. For the coming of Mashiach is not only a reward but a fulfillment of the purpose of creation.

This manifestation of the Divine Presence in the physical world, which constitutes the consummation of Creation, is no novelty, for this lowly world was the dwelling place of the Shechinah from the beginning of Creation.18 How can that manifestation now be renewed? The Rebbeim of Chabad-Lubavitch have taught that the urgent task of our era is to disseminate the teachings of Torah and Chassidus in every corner of the world.19

Contemplating this formidable challenge, a mere individual might well argue: Since this world has apparently been created so evil that it is20 “full of kelipos and sitra achara,” how possibly could (or should) he have any effect on it? Would it not be more productive and more inviting to confine oneself, uninterrupted and unchallenged, to tranquil halls of study...?

This argument, however, is unfounded. For the above Midrash indicates that the evil which is so prevalent in the world is not part of its essence, but rather a component that was added as a result of the sin of Adam. Indeed, this lowly physical world enjoys a paradoxical superiority over the “higher” worlds in that this was the main resting place of the Shechinah. And since the world is created anew ex nihilo every single second69 because of G‑d’s desire to have a dwelling place in this world, no action of man can hold back the ultimate revelation which will fulfill G‑d’s purpose.

In time to come, when21 “I shall remove the spirit of evil from the earth,” every created being will see that the Divine Presence has returned to its original abode. Since the intermediate condition is reversible, it is not halachically considered a change.22 In truth the world is thus now, even in its present state, a dwelling place for the Shechinah, and our task is to make that inner truth manifest. As we pray on Rosh HaShanah,23 “May everything that has been made know that You have made it.” Or, in the words of the prophetic promise, in time to come24 “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”

At that time, moreover, we will be able to perceive the function of evil from a more charitable perspective. In the past, the creation of evil has always appeared to constitute a steep descent in the world’s spiritual history. Yet evil was created in order that its darkness should eventually be transformed to light, thus enabling the Shechinah to be sensed. In future time, therefore, the creation of evil will be perceived as having been a positive and necessary stage in the ascent that will come about through its transformation.25

The next chapter further explores this developmental process of revelation by first defining the meaning of “the World to Come.”