Question:

I would like to think that if I mess up, G‑d eagerly awaits my return, and that when I perform a mitzvah, G‑d is pleased. But this contradicts what I was taught — that G‑d is in such a higher realm than us that nothing we do can affect Him.

Response:

Basically: "What do you get for the G‑d who has everything?" Well, nothing, I guess. So do all our prayers, mitzvahs and hours spent studying Torah amount to nothing?

It's so obvious: If He's a perfect oneness, no body, no form, creates everything out of nothing and capable-of-reverting-the-whole-thing-to-absolute-nothingness-like-it-never-was-on-a-whim—then what's in all of this for Him? How could He get anything out of what amounts to nothing more than a fleeting fantasy?

But if it's so obvious, then why did nobody ask it when the whole mitzvah deal came up to begin with?

Let's take a look at the story: Here's Moses on Mount Sinai talking with the entirely perfect and transcendent One G‑d. G‑d tells Moses:

"So shall you say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Children of Israel: 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and I brought you to Me. And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel."1

G‑d is offering a deal: Keep My covenant and I will make you special. Moses is the middleman. What's the obvious thing for Moses to say now? Shouldn't it be, "Nice, G‑d. But first, one question: What's in it for You?" And if Moses doesn't ask the question, shouldn't the Children of Israel ask it? 

But they don't. Moses follows his instructions. The people say, "Whatever He says, we will do. Just that we want to hear it directly from Him."2

Everything moves along smoothly and the covenant is made—without a mention, not once, not even in question form: "Why is it of such burning concern to this Almighty G‑d that these little people down here should cut a deal with Him? Why does He need a 'treasure out of all peoples' if 'Mine is the entire earth'?"

Maybe they didn't have time to think about it. Only forty-nine days earlier they had left Egypt and then there were all these miracles and manna and traveling—so they were inspired and excited and just jumped into the deal.

If so, how about later in the story, after they've had forty years to ponder in the desert, when they cut the deal again? They're about to enter the Land of Canaan and Moses gathers them for his final soliloquy. He tells them all that will happen if they keep the covenant and the catastrophic disasters that will chase after them if they don't. If anyone had any doubt whether G‑d really meant it, those doubts have been put to rest. It's clear that the Almighty Big Boss is completely invested in this. He means it Big Time.

So now is the time to ask the million-shekel question: "What's the big deal? What does He care? Why is He so invested?" But does anyone raise a hand? Not a soul. Not Moses, not the elders, not the recalcitrant trouble-making teenager pushing his way to a front-row seat. Everyone just seems to understand. There's nothing to ask.

The Nice Guy Theory

Maybe they figure that G‑d likes rewarding people. He's just so ultimately good and kind that He goes about choosing someone to be nice to and makes a deal just for their sake. He gets nothing out of it, but we get everything. After all, perfect oneness suggests perfect altruism.

In fact, many great Jewish writers have suggested just that. He wants to give us the ecstasy of the World to Come. He wants it to come out of our own hard work, so that we appreciate the reward. He needs none of this—it's all for us.

Starting with a philosopher named Elihu, attempting to console his buddy, Job:

Gaze at the heavens and see; view the skies which are higher than you. If you sinned, what do you do to Him, and if your transgressions are many, what do you do to Him? If you are righteous, what do you give Him? Or what does He take from your hand?3

Rather, says Elihu, all your righteousness is for your own sake. The Midrash Tanchuma takes the same line:

What difference does it make to the Holy One, blessed be He, whether you eat an animal that is ritually slaughtered or if you just stab it and eat it? Do you benefit Him or harm Him at all? And what does it matter to Him if one eats clean animals or unclean? …Surely the commandments have been given only to refine men.4

And so, thinkers ranging from Maimonides the rationalist to Rabbi Chaim Vital the Kabbalist have explained that the mitzvahs are given to us purely out of G‑d's kindness, entirely for our own sake. There's no point in asking what's in it for Him—because there is nothing in it for Him.5

Certainly this is much of the answer. But it can't be the entire answer. Because, hey guys, a few problems:

  1. If He wants to be nice, what did He make this world for? There are a lot better scenarios that even we, with our limited un-G‑dly imaginations, can imagine. Angelic worlds, harmonious worlds, worlds full of light and joy. Sure, there are lots of pretty sunsets down here (especially when the air pollution increases light refraction), smiling faces of little children (when they're not beating each other up and/or teasing one another), love (never without pain) and miracles (where are they when you need them?). But in general, this doesn't strike one as a world designed out of kindness. As the same Rabbi Chaim Vital soberly put it, it's a world that's "almost entirely filled with evil, where the wicked dominate and wickedness meets with success." And he's an optimist.
  2. If He wants to be nice, why choose only one people to be nice to? Be nice to everyone equally! Sure, the Chosen People are not chosen to sit on their tushies, but to be a "light to the nations"—so that everyone can get a piece of the cherry pie. But looking over history in general, it seems to me that a lot of those nations missed out on the light and likely won't get any pie either. By the established criteria of this covenant deal, an awful lot of humanity should have ended up by now in the pits—and not the cherry pits, but rather deep and fiery pits. 
  3. The most obvious point: If it's all for our sake, then why on earth is He so concerned if we say, "Thanks, but no thanks. We've opted for a more open-ended lifestyle. And besides, we kind of like ham sandwiches—and other forbidden stuff too. Maybe You see things differently, but our concepts of ecstasy are somewhat misaligned." Why can't He accept that? Why does He have to swear that if we don't accept His ultimate goodness, He will chase us down; destroy our farms, our homes, and our lives; chase us off the Promised Land—and even then, in the lands of our enemy, continue to hunt us down until we return to Him? If we don't want Your goodness, leave us alone! Find someone else to be so eternally nice to! Why does it bother You so much if we don't want to accept your charity?

G‑d's First Partner

Neither of these was the first of G‑d's covenants. There was one with Noah, for global sustainability. Then there was the covenant with Abraham, where his children-to-be were originally chosen. Again, no questions asked. Even before that covenant, G‑d told Abraham

"Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing."

Again, you and I would expect Abraham to turn around on the spot and ask, "But why? Why is it so important? I mean, thank you very much, G‑d, for all the blessings, but why are you doing this? What's in it for you?"

Not a peep. Why? Because, to Abraham, it was so obvious. Just as it would be later to the Children of Israel. And just as it was to all Jews for many centuries. Except, perhaps, to Jews of the last few hundred years.

Abraham was born into a world of lies. He was the first to recognize that this is not the way the world is meant to be. That the world is broken and needs to be fixed. As a teenager, he looks around and sees this Nimrod tyrant dude faking that he's a god and everyone must bow to him. He sees dumb idols in every home and temple, and hypocritical priests serving what they know to be a lie. People are able to justify anything with their pantheon of gods. Pick an ethic, then pick a god to back it up. It's a world of greed, hypocrisy and dirty lies.

So Abraham decides there are two things that are more obvious than the nose in front of his face: That there is one G‑d who made all of this. And that this one G‑d didn't make a world to be broken, but to be fixed. So he set about fixing it. Look, someone's gotta start somewhere.

And then, whaddaya know, G‑d Himself called out to Abraham and said, "Hey, partner! Let's do this together! Let's make a covenant!"

Of course, one person can't fix the world alone. And it's not going to happen in one generation. So the deal included a whole package, with clauses that include later generations for hundreds, even thousands, of years. As long as it takes.

Moses knew about that covenant and its circumstances as well. As his mother nursed him while he grew up in Pharaoh's palace, she told him stories and sang lullabies to him about it. He learned from the outset, "This is how you see Pharaoh's house, the idols, the slavery, the indignity of man towards man, the lies and the hypocrisy—this is not the way G‑d meant His world to be. Abraham, your great-grandfather, realized this. And one day, we will be released from here so we can set it right."

All the Children of Israel knew. When they heard G‑d's words to them through Moses, they knew what a "kingdom of priests" meant—not a nation to sit smugly awaiting a pat on the head for being good, but a radically new kind of nation. A nation to show the world that there is one G‑d who sustains all things and judges every creature. Even as the sages of the Talmud well knew—and—witnessed that "in all the world, they know that G‑d is great, only that He has other littler gods. But wherever the Children of Israel have been, they recognize Israel and their Father in Heaven." 

Israel, for all its history, has been just that: living proof to the world that there is an Almighty G‑d that cares about His world and is directly involved in everything that happens down here. That there is justice, there is meaning, there is purpose. That life is not a joke, and every human being has an open door to the penthouse office of the cosmos.

It is only due to our lengthy exile, nesting as a sparrow inside the jaws of a lion, that we sometimes forget our destiny; we begin to imagine that perhaps we better leave all that up to Him. We'll just sit here and be good and not bother anybody. He will redeem us in the end, and we will get our reward. And that's what it's all about.

But it's not. It's all about "to repair/establish the world under the dominion of the Almighty G‑d." To bring light where there is darkness, truth into places infested by lies, kindness in the face of terror and healing to a broken world.

This is the approach of the Kabbalah towards mitzvahs throughout the Zohar, and particularly in the teachings of the Ari, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria: Every mitzvah repairs the world in some way, touching it at some crucial nodal point and manipulating it back into shape. Creating harmony and unity in higher realms, lower realms, wherever it is out of whack. Until, when every vertebra of the cosmos is back in place, every lost spark returned to its place, then we will awaken to a wholesome, healthy world as it was originally meant to be. See World Puzzle.

Unreasonable Desires

Hold it—I got so carried away with what the purpose is, I totally left out your original question: Why does He so much care? Okay, so He made a whole world, and who wants to see a whole world you just made go down the drain. You would think He must have some purpose—even for a fantasy. And really, once it has a purpose, it is no longer just a fantasy. It becomes meaningful, even pleasurable to its Creator. 

At least, so it would be for us. But remember, He's perfect, totally transcendent, immutable and wow so serene. From His perspective, nothing changes. World or no world—it's all the same. So why make a world in the first place? What's in that for Him?

Again, we are locked inside our anthropomorphisms. Meaning, G‑d makes us in His image and we return Him the favor. If a human being wants something, we figure right away that he's missing something. And if he really wants it badly, it's likely a pathology of some sort. He's sweating for fame and glory—must be he really suffered on the playground in primary school. He's throwing away his money on philanthropy—must be some deep-seated guilt in there. At the very best, we attribute a human being's want to upbringing, personality, some sort of egocentric motivation. There's always a reason, somewhere.

G‑d, on the other hand, invented reason when He invented the world. So you can't peer back into some pre-cosmic state and find a reason sitting there waiting to give birth to a world—because there, reason hasn't been created yet. Or as the sage, Rabbi Yosef of Castille, answered the Kabbalist, Rabbi Yuda Chayat:

 "If you find a reason, you'll have to ask for the cause behind the reason. And there's no end to that." But rather, "He created the world out of free will, not out of any necessity. If so, you cannot ask for any reason: 'why?' For Him, blessed be He, there is no reason behind His will…nothing precedes His will."6

Unreasonable Unlimited

Does that bring us full circle back to our original position—that really there's nothing in it for Him? Nope. Exactly the opposite:

You see, if one of us lowly mortal created-being thingies decides we want something, no matter how much we will want it, our desire will always have some limit. Want that diamond-studded tiara on your pretty head? How much do you want it? Bad enough to spend your entire paycheck on it so that you'll have no money for rent or pizzas? Want fame and glory real bad? I mean, you swore to those bullies on the playground that one day you would show them their place. But do you want it bad enough to sacrifice every pleasure in life for it? Well, yes, for some people. Yet there will always be some sort of limit, some point where a human being will say, "Okay, I want it, but not that badly." 

According to the need that it fulfills, so will be the desire. Every need is limited; so too is every desire. You put as much of yourself as has that need into attaining that goal. And no more.

But let's say you are a being that has no needs. You just want because you decided to want, out of perfectly free will. Now there are no limits to your desire. How much of you goes into that desire? All of you.

Want an example? There are no creatures like G‑d, but there are two-year-olds. That's the age when a person discovers "I." And how does that little rascal express "I"? With "I want that!" And believe me, there are no limits to I want that. Because it's not the that and it's not the want—it's 100% the I. Thank heaven that two-year-olds are easily distracted, or there would be no escape from their I wants.

The two-year-old is about the closest we get to raw will. But it's only a weak analog. The real raw will that lies at the core of all existence is not something for which we can find any parallel. All we need to know is that which relates to our part of the deal: He wants to see this world being healed. He wants it with an infinite will and He puts His entire being, the core of all that is, into every act of healing that we do. 

Meaning that when you pray to Him, He puts aside all the symphonic harmony of the angels to bend down and listen to what's bothering this little creature down there. Why? Because He decided that from this act of healing He will derive pleasure. When you speak words of Torah and explain it in your own words, He squeezes Himself tightly into every breath that leaves your mouth. When you wrap those Tefillin, light that Shabbat candle, drop those coins into a charity box, speak out against injustice, help the widow or the orphan or place a dollar bill in the hand of the homeless guy standing there on the traffic island, He is there, all of Him, in that small act of yours.

He decided, in His free will, "Do these acts that will heal My world, and in these I will take the deepest pleasure. And so, I will be there with you."

No, there's nothing in it for Him. But He, all of Him, is within it.