Okay, maybe it’s beyond me to fathom the purpose of my existence. After all, do the characters in a video game understand their purpose of existence—that they are only there to provide entertainment to a three dimensional being entirely beyond their paradigm of reality? But, personally, I can’t function that way. I’m a creative being. I create what appears to me to be useful, not just whatever I’m told to produce for no apparent reason. I can’t just work the factory floor with no idea of the end product.

So, why am I here? Why is this whole universe (apparently) here? What is the purpose? Enlighten me!

The Short Answer:

The universe doesn’t have to be here. There is no reason that it or you or I or them or anything at all has to be here. The Ultimate Reality (i.e. G‑d) has no need for anything to exist at all—as Maimonides explains at the beginning of his Foundations of the Torah.

The universe doesn’t have to be here. But now that it is, it’s here with a purpose.

But when G‑d did bring everything into existence, He did it with a desire to be found within His creation and He invested His entire being into that desire. That desire is a core element of reality. Call it purpose. It unfolds throughout history and eventually blossoms into the open.

Explaining that purpose demands a context. Which means we’ll need a longer answer.

The Longer Answer:

Who came up with this problem, anyway?

Contrary to popular misconception, this is not a question asked by all thinking people throughout the ages. Because, although you may not realize it, your question rides on a whole set of assumptions. The very fact that you are bothered by this question implies you have—perhaps unconsciously— internalized the Torah view of reality. Namely, that the world was brought into being by a Creator.

The question of purpose rides on the assumption of creation

Because if the world wasn’t created, if it’s “just here,” then what’s the point of asking about purpose? As one of the scions of today’s Buddhism put it, “I don’t see any purpose to this whole cosmos.” Why should he? Things that are “just here” don’t need a purpose.

But the Torah tells us that the universe was created. Time has a beginning. If so, the notion of purpose has meaning: Why did things begin? What is the point of there being anything and not just leaving nothing alone?

Secondly, to ask this question, you are also assuming there is a consciousness behind the creation. Consciousness meaning “a decisive process.” Things don’t just happen by a chain of linear causality—A therefore B; B therefore C; ad nauseam. Neither do they happen “by Chance” (whatever that means). There is design behind the cosmos and that design is not inevitable. Again, this is the stance of Torah, “In the beginning, G‑d created…”—not, “In the beginning, things just sort of happened.”

As an aside, our observations today support this as well: The structure of the universe is open to us like never before, and, lo and behold, all the evidence all points to a purposeful universe. In the words of Paul Davies, one of the best expositors of what is being called, “The Anthropic Model of the Universe”:

“…there is an unbelievable delicacy in the balance between gravity and electromagnetism within a star. Calculations show that changes in the strength of either force by only one part in 104 would spell catastrophe for stars like the sun.... The sheer improbability that such felicitous concurrences could be the result of a series of exceptionally lucky accidents has prompted many scientists to agree with Hoyle that ‘the universe is a put-up job’.... Had the universe been created with slightly different laws, not only would we (or anybody else) not be here to see it, but it is doubtful if there would be any complex structures at all.”

Another tidbit from the halls of neat, modern physics: Physicist Brandon Carter notes that the speed of light, multiplied by Planck’s constant, and divided by the square of the electron’s charge, roughly equals 137. Carter argues that if this ratio were ever so slightly more than it is, then all stars would be blue giants and there would be no planets at all, let alone living creatures; if it were somewhat smaller, all stars would be red dwarfs and thus the planets orbiting them far too cold to sustain any kind of organism. The speed of light, it seems, was fixed at the beginning for the sake of the whole show.

There’s caboodles of such tidbits: The unique way water expands when frozen; the amazing coincidences that allow our planet to have its magical, protective, life-giving heat and moisture distribution system called an atmosphere; the precision of the earth’s orbit and distance from the sun; the ratio of water to dry land to atmosphere—just too many coincidences to let the modern-day god of Chance have a chance of credibility. A conscious Creator with a design in mind seems a far more elegant hypothesis.

Your question, “What is the purpose of this design?” can be framed in other words: “We already see the design in space—can we peek at the design in time?”

But now, back to the context issue:

How Big a Problem?

Torah creates the problem of purpose, and Torah makes the problem next to impossible to solve. Why? Because Torah claims that G‑d, the Creator of all this, is perfect.

Torah creates the problem of purpose, and Torah makes it next to impossible to solve

Perfect means, “not lacking anything”. No faults. No needs. Everything is there. Not only everything we could imagine in its ultimate state of perfection—ultimate wisdom, ultimate knowledge, ultimate creativity, ultimate power, ultimate beauty—but that which we cannot imagine, as well, since it is not part of our world.

Purpose, on the other hand, implies a deficiency craving compensation. As in, “I don’t have this—how do I get it?” I lack food—I eat. I lack shelter—I build a house. I lack love—I get into a relationship. Therefore, human relationships, eating and building all have purpose.

G‑d is not hungry. He doesn’t have to worry about getting wet in the rain. He can do just fine without getting into a relationship. He’s perfect. That’s what makes Him G‑d. So if G‑d needs nothing, why does He need a world?

Reasonable Reasons

Perhaps G‑d is an artist. Do artists need their art?

Perhaps G‑d is an artist. Do artists need their art? Good cocktail party material: Would a perfectly fulfilled artist nevertheless produce more masterpieces?

Interestingly, the Zohar presents a reason for creation along these lines. In an oft-quoted passage, the Zohar1 mentions that the world was created…

“…in order that there be creatures that will know Him in every measure by which He directs His world, with kindness and with judgment, according to the acts of humankind. For if His light would not spread to each of His creations, how would He be known? In what way would be fulfilled, ‘All the earth is filled with His glory’?”

Rabbi Chaim Vital, prime protégé of the “Ari” (master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria), explains the depth of this passage: Without the act of creation, all of G‑d’s infinite perfections lie in a state of potential.2 Creation is something like the expression of an artist, bringing that potential into actual.

Certainly, this reason is absolutely true, since it is part of our Holy Torah, which is all truth. But the Chassidic masters insist that it cannot be the ultimate purpose. Because it still places human limitations on an unlimited G‑d.

As Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch (“the Rashab”) points out: If G‑d is truly perfect in every sense, then He is not lacking even the perfection that comes through actualizing potentials. He is the artist and the art in a perfect whole. In the Rashab’s classic statement:

For a created being, what is potential is not actual. But Above, this is not so: Potential is not lacking actuality. Potential and actual exist as one. 3

Whatever G‑d’s art could give Him, He has already

Turns out, G‑d does not even have the need to be an artist—whatever creative expression could give Him, He has already without doing a thing. In the language of the Kabbalah, the Infinite has Infinite Light, which manifests all perfections. So what need is there for a world?

More Reasonable Reasoning

Rabbi Chaim Vital himself presents another reason:

“…When it arose in His will, blessed be His Name, to create the world in order to do good to His creatures, that they might recognize His greatness and merit to be a vehicle for that which is above, to bond with Him, blessed be He…”4

G‑d is good, therefore He creates. This is taking things a little further:

Being good is more than self-expression, more than being an artist. Both an artist and a philanthropist give. But while the artist is driven by the urge to actualize his talents, the philanthropist is driven by the needs of others.

To the artist, the audience has no intrinsic worth, other than being an outlet for his art. The philanthropist, however, is concerned with more than just giving—he is concerned that someone should be receiving. If he is giving food, he is concerned that the people should no longer be hungry. If he is providing education, he is concerned that the students should no longer be ignorant. The recipient’s personal world is of prime importance to him.

This reason avoids the pitfall of the previous reason: It doesn’t help for G‑d to say, “If there were created beings, I would be good to them.” It has to actually happen, they have to be actually there and actually receive goodness. That is what being good is all about. So, a world came to be by implication of G‑d’s absolute goodness. Again, in the language of the Kabbalah (because it’s such an elegant language for discussing these things), Infinite Light is not enough—there must be recipients to absorb that light and respond to it, i.e. a world.

All the toil and tribulation of humankind can be explained this way: Why do we have free choice? Why must we blunder about in the dark? Why all this struggle? All because G‑d is good and wishes for us the ultimate good. “Free bread,” the sages say, “is bread of shame.” If you truly want to give to others, give them the opportunity to earn the gift. That’s dignified bread. So G‑d allows us to struggle, so we can feel a sense of ownership to the fruits of our toil.

Bigger Problems

Yes, but...

Truth is, we haven’t even presented half the problem. You see, ours is not the only world. Torah talks about angels and souls. Angels appear from other worlds to talk to Abraham, Lot, Hagar, Joseph, and even wrestle with Jacob. So it’s not like, “Here’s G‑d and here’s our world.” There are steps in between.

Even the best of worlds is a disappointment for a perfect G‑d.

Yet even the best of worlds is a disappointment for a perfect G‑d. Creativity, when you’re perfect, doesn’t mean making more—it means making less. As the Kabbalists would say, G‑d creates with shadows first and with light a distant second.

It’s a process of attrition: He starts with infinite light. Then, He creates a state of consciousness that is in some way void of His presence. Then He draws into that void an inkling of the infinite light, to give that consciousness form and life. That’s one world. He repeats the process, creating a void once again, then filling it with an infinitesimal inkling of the infinitesimal inkling of light of the previous world. Another world. The process is called tsimtsum and it continues through infinite steps (that’s what it says) until the lowest possible step arrives, i.e.—you’re not going to like this—our world.

Why is ours the lowest possible? Because the entire concept of our world is to just be a world. To look entirely self-contained. As though it’s “just here” (as that Buddhist fellow maintained).

Look outside. Maybe you’ll see a tree. What does the tree say? Unless you’re one of those clairvoyants that spend afternoons in discussion with trees, the tree says just one thing: “Here I am. Here I was. I am just here.” Sure, human beings that use their minds will read beauty and meaning into that tree. But that has to do with the inherent spiritual nature of the human being. The tree on its own, as with all of this mundane world, has only one thing to say: I am here. In fact, that’s what even we human beings call “reality.”

Come to think of it, human life is an even better example of what I am talking about. More than the tree. Or even a rock. Because human beings are the ultimate in “just being.”

Look at all those busy human beings out the window. Note how each one goes about his/her business with the same air of egocentricity. It’s not something to be embarrassed of—it’s just the way we are. We can feel another’s emotions, we can sense another’s intellect, but when it comes to the ego, for each one of us, there’s only one ego in the entire cosmos and that’s our own. Six billion ‘you’s, ‘he’s, ‘she’s and ‘them’s. Only one me.

The Renaissance philosopher, Rabbi Judah Loewe (the Maharal of Prague), points this out (in his commentary on Ethics of the Fathers 3:2): Every human being—the very first man, the infant child, the lowliest low-life on the street, the most powerful dictator of history—all share this one perception: “The universe revolves about me.” Sure, we can see past it or at least hide it beneath the clothing of social etiquette. But as sure as there are bones in our body, that ego will always be at the core of all we do. It is a defining factor of our world.

If your window opened up to a higher world, things would not look this way. In a higher world, what you see here as a tree would be there an angel. “Angel”—malach in Hebrew—means messenger. A messenger saying, “I am a creation. I am telling you something about how I was created and what gives me life.” There, creations are more like light reflecting their source, or information communicating from a higher transmitter.

But in our world, none of that message comes through. With all the encoding, compression, filtering and distortion along the way, it ends up unreadably garbled. Which results in egos. Including egos that deny they have a Creator altogether. Some that even believe they themselves are G‑d, having created all about them. (You’ve probably encountered some of these—most commonly found on city thoroughfares between 5:00 and 6:00 pm.)

If being nice is what He wanted, He should have stopped at the highest world He made.

So, as the Rashab comments, Rabbi Chaim Vital’s reason is a good reason for a world much higher than ours. As in the very first emanation of a world. But then, why continue the chain of concealment and distortion to get to ours? To be kind and nice, does He really have to create a place that becomes such a dark and awful mess? Does He need to create a reality that asserts it is all there is? Does He need to create egos? Create some basic emanations, be nice to them and stop there!

The Real Problem

All this aside from the most fundamental of arguments: Who decided that being good to another is a good thing? Who created “goodness” and its definitions? He did! Along with all the rules of logic and rationality. So we’re back to square one: Is there any reasonable reason for logic and rationality and goodness or recipients of Infinite Light or even Infinite Light or anything at all to exist?

Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, answers a firm no.5 For all the reasons stated above and more. There is no reason. Period. He doesn’t need our world. He doesn’t need us.

But there is purpose. Absolute purpose.

Now for the real short answer:

As we said, G‑d has no need or “reason” for creating a world. He just did it. But when He did it, He did it with a purpose. He decided to desire to have two opposites at once:

A very mundane, real world...

...discovering its Creator in all its aspects.

In the language of the ancient Midrash,

He desired a home for Himself in the lowest of worlds

Now for the explanation:

Lowest of worlds.” As we explained above, that’s our world. In terms of “clarity of signal”—clear information about its source— you can’t get lower than this and still have anything exist. That’s what makes it seem so real—the lack of apparent connection to its source. And that’s what makes it so central, to the point that within it stands the purpose of all things.

If this sounds counter-intuitive, that’s because it is. Get used to it. From this point on, all our conclusions will be based on this counter-intuitive principle.

It’s alright that it’s counter-intuitive because, as you recall, it is not reasonable. G‑d doesn’t need a home. He’s perfectly comfy doing nothing at all. He just decided to desire this. And He can decide to desire whatever He decides to desire.6

That doesn’t mean—and this is crucial to note—that He doesn’t really desire it. On the contrary, have you ever dealt with an unreasonable desire? Reason has its limits, but when things are decided “just because,” you are no longer dealing with anything you can work around. You are dealing with the total person.

G‑d decides, “This is what I choose to want. And so, He is there in that desire in all His essence.

So too, here. G‑d decides, “This is what I choose to want, just because I so decided.” And so, He is there in that desire in all His essence.

The creation contains only the most minimal inkling of a ray of a reflection of the Creator’s light. We are all unnecessary nothings. But in His desire for His creation and its fulfillment, there He is in His entirety.


Counter-intuitive. But immaculately elegant. First of all, no other answer so well expresses what the Kabbalists call “the simplicity of the Infinite.” The Infinite, blessed be It, is beyond reason, beyond seeking perfection. All these are no more than fictions of Its own design. Purposely placing purpose in the lowest of worlds is a poignant expression of this point. In fact, it is the ultimate expression of the Essential Infinite.

Secondly, it makes so much sense of the patterns we see throughout the cosmos. And throughout the blueprint of the cosmos—the Torah. Everywhere is this marriage of opposites, this process of the higher finding itself in the lower, the center finding itself in the peripheral, the One expressed in the many. No one has brought this point out so much as the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, whose approach to every problem in Torah and in the world is to frame it within the context of this dynamic: The Essence of All Things desires a home within the most concrete reality.

This fusion of opposites, as well, is a magnificent expression of that Essence which is beyond all binary configurations of yes and no, being and not being.

And thirdly, although it is beyond reason—since it is the reason that reason came into being in the first place—it is still something we can intimately relate to. After all, we, too, desire a home. Our entire lives and our irrational yearning for life is all about this desire to find ourselves within a concrete reality.


So what are the counter-intuitive implications of this counter-intuitive desire for a home in the dumps?

For one, the metaphysical universe has just been turned on its head. The angels and the higher worlds revolve around the earth. They are subject to us down here. As the Midrash (Song of Songs) tells us, when the heavenly host above want to know when it is time to sing the songs of the New Moon festival, they must descend below to find out what we have decided.

The Mishnah says, “Know that which is above you” (da mah l’maalah mimach) and the Maggid of Mezritch translates, “Know that all which is above, is from you.” As much as they look down on us, all those spiritual beings depend upon us for their very livelihood and day-to-day itinerary.

For another, forget the ladder climbing. Entering paradise may be somewhat more ecstatically refreshing than a Pepsi, but it’s only a means to an end. The job of humankind is not to be spiritual cosmonauts, but cosmic miners, tapping the heavens for the inspiration to carry on their work below. And what is that work below? Plowing the fields of earthly life so it will absorb the rains from above, planting and reaping the seeds of heavenly deeds done here on earth, building and sustaining a sanctuary for the Highest of all Highs down below in the lowest of all lows. In other words, learning Torah, doing mitzvahs and withstanding all challenges theretofore.

That is why, according to Nachmanides in his Shaar Hagmul, the ultimate state of the grand human trek is not as souls in heaven, but as souls in bodies. In the end of days, he writes, all souls will return to their respective bodies and there they will remain for eternal bliss.

Concrete Revelation

And one other thing: Building a dwelling in a lowly world doesn’t mean that world now becomes ethereal and angelic. There already are enough angelic, ethereal worlds. No, it has to remain just as concrete, earthly and downright egocentric as it was created. The only adjustment is that this very earthiness will be perceived as G‑dly.

There already are enough angelic, ethereal worlds.

That’s why the dwelling cannot come from above—built by angels or even people who have nothing to do with the real world. No pre-fab import. If you want a home in Costa Rica, that means a Costa Rica home built with Costa Rica materials by Costa Ricans. Same thing here—and we are the natives. Us egocentric, materialistic, earthy aboriginals.

Take for example that egocentricity we embarrassed everyone with earlier, that deep down feeling all of us have that “I am it.” This itself is the greatest of all revelations, something the angels could never touch. After all, where does such an idea come from? How does G‑d create such an apparition?

The answer is that the Creator can create such a thing, because He Himself is just that: The Ultimate Ego. He is the Center of All Things. He is All That Is—for real. And so, when He breathes of His Own Self into a creature made of earthly mud, that creature feels just the same way: Ego. The ultimate center of all things.

This is also the source of that sense of being “just here.” How can a creation appear to be “just here,” as though it always was? Only because it is the ultimate creation of a Creator who is truly Just Here. In the language of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (“The Alter Rebbe”) in one of his very last writings:

“The Source of all emanations, His existence is from His own being and not the effect of any cause that preceded Him. And therefore, He alone has the capacity to create something from absolutely nothing, with no precedent or cause to its existence...” (Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh 20)

Rabbi Schneur Zalman goes on to describe how the ultimate expression of this is the physical earth upon which we tread. And that is why it appears the way it appears: Because it is a reflection of the ultimate reality.

Turns out that this lowly, egocentrifugal world has something that no higher world can offer: The Essence. Furthermore: Not only is G‑d’s desire for a home directed at this world of ours—it is the only real estate suitable for such zoning. Because the Essence simply cannot be expressed anywhere else but within a mundane, concrete, egocentric world. As written in the ancient Book of Formation: ”The beginning of all things is embedded in their end.”

A “home in the lowest world,” then, does not mean annihilation of the ego and a more fuzzy reality. It simply means that these things will ’fess up for what they truly are: The ultimate forms of G‑dly expression.

Practical Application

With all this counter-intuitivity, a practical application is called for:

Let’s say someone is about to eat a meal. Common wisdom would place all possible postures to this exercise between two poles:

The brainless, egocentric posture: “I am hungry. If I am hungry, I eat. This food is what I like. I eat what I like. Why? Because when I am hungry I eat the food I like.”

The enlightened, egoless posture: “I am hungry, but that is not important. I don’t even notice I am hungry, because I am so enwrapped in higher metaphysical matters—what is food after all? What is hunger? What is a body? What am I? But, since G‑d has commanded me to support this body and this is done by eating food, I will partake of a small morsel of food to fulfill my obligation.”

Which one of these fulfills the Creator’s purpose in creation?

The answer, of course, is “neither.” The first posture has a real world feel to it, but no sense of anyone dwelling there but the human ego. The second has a Higher Consciousness dwelling there, but no real world. Because the subject has suppressed that part of himself that makes him a citizen of this lowly, egocentric domain. To achieve the mandate of a “G‑dly home in the lowest world,” there must be a nexus of these two poles.

So try a third option on for size, as I learned from the grandmaster of teachers of Chabad thought, Rabbi Yoel Kahn:

“I am hungry. When I am hungry, I eat. Why? Because that is what earthly beings like me do. And here is the food I like to eat. But, wait. I have a purpose. My desire for food has a purpose. So, I will say a blessing on the food and eat it with the proper mindfulness that I am eating so I can fulfill my purpose in life and do lots of good things. Now let’s eat.”

In this posture, there is a real person, living in a real world, but doing something G‑dly. And so G‑d says, “Yes! That’s what I was looking for!”

Counter-intuitive. But doable.