Why are we here?

All possible answers to this question fall under two general categories: a) For ourselves (to enjoy life, realize our potential, achieve transcendence, etc.); b) In service of something greater than ourselves (society, history, G‑d).

What makes this question so difficult to address is that we sense both A and B to be true. On the one hand, we are strongly driven to better ourselves, to get the most out of every experience and opportunity. We also sense that this is not a shallow selfishness, but something very deep and true in our souls—something implanted in us by our Creator as intrinsic to our identity and purpose. On the other hand, we are equally aware that we are part of something greater than ourselves—that if our existence has meaning, it is only because it serves a reality beyond its own finite and subjective being.

Indeed, we find both sensibilities expressed by the Torah and in the words of our sages. On the one hand, the Torah repeatedly stresses that G‑d’s program for life is for the good of man, both materially and spiritually.1 “The mitzvot were given only to refine humanity,” says the Midrash. The Talmud even goes so far as to state: “Every man is obligated to say: The world was created for my sake.” Thus the chassidic masters describe the saga of the soul as a “descent for the purpose of ascent”: the soul’s entry into the physical state entails a diminution of its spiritual faculties and sensitivities, but the purpose of it all is that it be elevated by the challenges and achievements of earthly life.

On the other hand, the highest praise that the Torah has for Moses (whom Maimonides calls the most perfect human being) is that he was a “servant of G‑d.” Our sages repeatedly exhort us to strive for altruism in our lives, so that everything we do is permeated with the recognition that “I was not created, but to serve my Creator.”2

To understand the interplay between these two apparently disparate aspirations, and the respective places they hold in our lives’ purpose, we must first examine a juncture in the life of Jacob, father of the people of Israel.

Archetypal Journey

“Everything,” writes Nachmanides, “that happened to the Patriarchs (the progenitors of the Jewish nation, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) is a signpost for their children. This is why the Torah elaborates in its account of their journeys, their well-digging and the other events [of their lives] . . . These all come to instruct the future: when something happens to one of the three Patriarchs, one understands from it what is decreed to occur to his descendants.” More than role models or sources of inspiration, the lives of our forefathers are all-inclusive blueprints that map every fork and turn in the road of our lives, and address every dilemma and paradox that may confront us.

In the 28th chapter of Genesis, the Torah recounts Jacob’s departure from the Holy Land, where he had spent the first half of his life immersed in the “tents of learning,” and his journey to Haran. In Haran, Jacob worked for twenty years in the employ of his conniving uncle, Laban, in the midst of a corrupt and debased society (the name Haran, which means “wrath,” reflects the fact that it was “the object of G‑d’s wrath in the world”). Throughout it all, Jacob remained true to G‑d and man, serving Laban honestly even as the latter repeatedly swindled him, scrupulously observing all 613 commandments of the Torah3 and retaining all that he had learned in his years of study;4 he even prospered materially, amassing considerable wealth. In Haran, Jacob also married and fathered eleven of the twelve sons who were to yield the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jacob’s journey to Haran is the story of every soul’s descent to earth. The soul, too, leaves a spiritual idyll behind—an existence steeped in divine awareness and knowledge—to struggle in the employ of a “Laban” in a Haran environment. For the material state is a nefarious deceiver, accentuating the corporeal and obscuring the G‑dly, confusing the soul’s priorities and perpetually threatening its virtue. But every soul is empowered, as a child of Jacob, to make this a “descent for the purpose of ascent”: to emerge from the Haran of material earth with its integrity intact and its memory true. Indeed, not only does it return with its spiritual powers galvanized by the challenge, it is also a “wealthier” soul, having learned to exploit the forces and resources of the physical world to further its spiritual ends. Most significantly, in its spiritual state the soul is perfect but childless; only as a physical being on physical earth can it fulfill the divine mitzvot, which are the soul’s progeny and its link to the infinite and the eternal.

Jacob’s Oath

On his way to Haran, Jacob camped for the night on Mount Moriah. There he had his famous dream, in which he saw angels ascending and descending a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, and received G‑d’s blessing. Upon waking, Jacob took the stone on which he had slept and raised it as a monument. He than made an oath, which the Torah relates in the following three verses:5

If G‑d will be with me, and safeguard me on this road that I am traveling, and He will provide me with bread to eat and clothes to wear;

and I will return in peace to my father’s house, and G‑d will be my G‑d;

and this stone, which I have erected as a monument, shall be a house of G‑d . . .

The syntactical construction of Jacob’s oath, as written in the Torah, raises several questions.

The oath consists of two parts: a) the preconditions for its fulfillment (“If G‑d will be with me, provide me bread to eat and clothes to wear,” etc.); b) what Jacob is promising to do (such as “this stone . . . shall be a house of G‑d”). What is not clear is where the former ends and the latter begins. The first of the three verses is obviously part of the conditions—things that G‑d will do for Jacob to enable him to fulfill his vow. The same applies to the first part of the second verse—“and I will return in peace to my father’s house.” The third verse speaks of what Jacob will do for G‑d. But what about the second part of the second verse, “and G‑d will be my G‑d”? Is this part of the necessary conditions for the vow’s fulfillment, or is it part of the vow’s objective?

Indeed, two of the greatest biblical commentators, Rashi6 and Nachmanides,7 debate this very point. According to Rashi, the first two verses are the conditions, while the third verse is the substance of Jacob’s vow: in order for Jacob to make the stone a house of G‑d, he requires to experience the Almighty as his G‑d. Nachmanides, however, sees the words “and G‑d will be my G‑d” as part of the vow itself, not as a condition. Jacob is saying that if G‑d will provide him with protection, food, clothes and a peaceful return, he will make G‑d his G‑d, and the stone an abode for the divine presence.

What is the deeper significance of these two interpretations? And why does the Torah recount Jacob’s oath in such a way that allows for variant readings?

The Dwelling

Our sages describe the purpose of creation as G‑d’s desire for “a dwelling in the lowly realms.” G‑d desired that there be a realm that is lowly—i.e., a reality that is inhospitable to spirituality and G‑dliness—and that this alien place should be made into a dwelling for Him, an environment receptive and subservient to His goodness and truth.

This lowly realm, explains Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya, is our physical world, “of which none is lower, in the sense that it obscures the light of G‑d . . . to the extent that it contains forces which actually oppose G‑d with the claim that ‘I am the ultimate.’” The physical world is the greatest concealment of the divine truth. A spiritual entity (such as an idea or feeling) exists to express something; a physical entity merely exists. The spiritual conveys that “there is something greater than myself, which I serve”; the physical proclaims “I am”—contesting the truth that G‑d is the ultimate and exclusive reality. But when man utilizes the resources and forces of the physical world to serve G‑d, he sanctifies the material, so that it now serves, rather than obscures, the divine truth. Instead of “I exist,” it now expresses “I exist to serve my Creator”; instead of “I am the ultimate,” it now proclaims, “I, for myself, am nothing; my sole function and significance is that I am an instrument of G‑dliness.”

This is the meaning of Jacob’s oath that he will make “this stone . . . a house of G‑d.” Jacob is pledging himself to man’s mission in life: to fulfill the divine purpose for creation by making the material world a dwelling for G‑d. He is promising to make the stone—the brute substantiality of the physical world—into a divine abode.

To achieve this end, Jacob requires several things from G‑d: protection from harm, food to eat, clothes to wear, a peaceful return to his father’s home. He is not, G‑d forbid, negotiating for payment in return for service rendered; rather, Jacob’s conditions are literally that—the conditions, both material and spiritual, that enable a soul to subsist in a physical body and achieve its aim of making the world a home for G‑d. On the material level, there are the basic needs (food, clothing, security, etc.) that are required to keep body and soul together. On the spiritual level, Jacob is also asking for the divine gifts without which man could not gain mastery over his environment and develop it in accordance with G‑d’s will. These include:

  1. “Safeguards”—laws that identify those forces and influences that are harmful to the soul and detrimental to its mission in life. These are the divine prohibitions, known as the mitzvot lo taaseh (negative commandments), which guard us against the spiritual pitfalls in our journey through life.
  2. “Food to eat”—the divine knowledge and wisdom of Torah, which our sages call “food for the soul.” Torah is digested and internalized by the soul, to become “blood of its blood and flesh of its flesh” and form the substance of its mindset and character.
  3. “Clothes to wear”—the mitzvot asei (positive commandments), which clothe the soul, enveloping it with an aura of divine will.
  4. The capacity for teshuvah, “return.” Teshuvah is usually associated with the concept of repentance—the ability to restore a relationship with G‑d that has been compromised by sin or failing. But this is only one expression of teshuvah. In its broadest sense, teshuvah is the G‑d-given potential to make an ally of an adversary. The repentant sinner rectifies his past by channeling the negative energy of his transgressions to fuel his yearning for deeper connection to G‑d; but also one who has not actually sinned can practice teshuvah, by harnessing the ordinary, mundane elements of his life (including those that are not directly involved in the performance of a mitzvah) to serve a G‑dly end.

The Human Element

Where does personal fulfillment figure in all this?

Can the “dwelling for G‑d in the lowly realms” be constructed mechanically, by devoted workers faithful to their employer but devoid of understanding and appreciation of what they are doing? Can man serve G‑d without experiencing Him as a personal and intimate presence in his life?

Ultimately, the answer is no. G‑d desires that we serve Him “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”8—that our life’s work should not be a robotic implementation of arcane commandments issuing from an incomprehensible G‑d, but a labor of love that stimulates our minds, excites our emotions and fulfills our every faculty.

Is this another condition, or is it part of the mission itself? Rashi, who states that “I come only to explain the simple meaning of the verse,” views the issue in its quintessential simplicity. Why was man created? To serve his Creator. Everything else is a condition, a means to this end. If it is required that man experience fulfillment in life, then G‑d provides him with such capacity, just as G‑d provides him with all the other necessary tools to do his job. But this is secondary to his purpose in life, which is to make the world a home for G‑d.

Nachmanides, on the other hand, reads the Torah through the lens of a mystic and Kabbalist—with an eye to the experiential and anthropomorphic dimension of reality. From this perspective, man’s experience of the divine is not just a tool, but the purpose of life. (Indeed, Kabbalistic teachings describe the purpose of creation as “that G‑d be known by his creations,” or “in order to do good to His creations.” Ultimately, these are various expressions of the quintessential purpose, G‑d’s desire for a dwelling in the lowly realm, as explained below.)

As with all variant interpretations of Torah, “these and these are both the word of the living G‑d.” The soul’s elevation to a deeper relationship with G‑d through its sanctification of physical life is both a condition for, and a component part of, the purpose of creation.

Because the egotistical, self-oriented nature of man is also part of “this stone”—part of the obtuse physicality that is the lowest tier of G‑d’s creation. It, too, must be developed into a “house of G‑d,” into an environment hospitable to the divine truth. Thus, if our service of G‑d were to be something to which we merely submitted, there could not truly be “a dwelling in the lowly realm.” It would mean that the physical reality has not truly been transformed, but that an extrinsic state, alien to its nature, has been imposed upon it. A true dwelling in the lowly realm is a product of the lowly realm—a product of physical man, appreciated by his physical mind, desired by his physical heart and motivated by his physical self. So an integral part of G‑d’s dwelling is a human self for whom G‑d is my G‑d—for whom a life in the service of the Almighty is deeply satisfying and the ultimate in self-realization.