All that G‑d created in His world, He did not create but for His glory.

Ethics of the Fathers, 6:11


"I was created to serve my Creator." With these words, the Talmud sums up the purpose of life. But there is also another version of this talmudic passage, which reads. "I was not created, but to serve my Creator." A similar "double negative" is employed by our mishnah: "All that G‑d created in His world, He did not create but for His glory."

The difference is significant. The statement, "I was created to serve my Creator," recognizes man as an existence in his own right ("I was created"), though one whose ultimate raison d'etre is defined by a reality greater than himself. The second version, however, attributes no legitimacy whatsoever to man as an entity distinct from his role: "I was not created, but to serve my Creator"--therein, and only therein, lies the fact of his being.

One of Torah's basic rule is: "These and these are both the words of the Living G‑d." When the Torah mentions two opinions or interpretations it is because both are valid and relevant. Differing versions and manners of articulation of the same statement also complement one another, each providing another perspective to the concept they express.

The same applies to two descriptions of man's identity and purpose: both are integral to our lives. There is an aspect to our mission in life that involves the total abnegation of self. But our service of the Creator also includes an element that allows for—indeed demands—the retaining of an individual identity, an "I" which serves as opposed to an egoless service.

Object and Objective

"G‑d makes the spiritual physical; the Jew makes the physical spiritual" — Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

The universe originated as a concept in the "mind" of G‑d.

In the beginning, there arose within Him a vision of a home in a "foreign" land. He envisioned a world inhospitable to His presence—a world that conceals His absolute truth, a world in which chance and caprice obscure the purpose He invests in its every entity and event. He envisioned a being, man, who would develop this alien environment to house and serve Him. A being with the capacity to transcend the concealment—to recognize the Divine essence of every created thing, to transform the material world into an abode for the manifest presence of its Creator.

In the words of our sages, "G‑d desired a dwelling in the lowly realms."

The birth of this concept was itself an act of creation: G‑d's creation of the "why" of the universe, of its purpose and utility. It is out of this "spiritual" reality that G‑d proceeded to create the physical universe—to embody His concept of reality in the myriads of entities and phenomena that make up our universe.

The task of man, G‑d's "partner in creation," is to reverse the process. Confronted with a concrete and corporeal world, he seeks its soul—its inner essence. He seeks to uncover its significance, to realize its quintessential utility. He labors to transform the raw material of physicality into a home for G‑d, to re-create from it the primordial Divine concept of creation. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov put it this way: G‑d makes what is spiritual into a physical world, while we transform this physical world into a spiritual reality.

So the very act of serving G‑d is an act of negation. The making of a "home for G‑d" means divesting the world of its physical "somethingness." It means redefining reality in terms of its Divine essence and function rather than its physical husk.

The same applies to man himself. Man, too, is part of creation. He is thus both the developer and the developed object: his mind, his heart, his energies and talents—of these, too, his goal is to remake substance into spirit, to shift the focus from object to objective. To make his role as a servant of the Almighty supplant his physical identity--"I was not created, but to serve my Creator."

From Concept to Blueprint

How do we develop our self and our environment into a Divine abode?

A person desires a home. Initially, its dimensions and qualities are undefined: it is its quintessential homeness that he conceives of and desires. Then, the image of his home begins to form in his mind's eye. Putting pen to paper, he sketches its floor plan, its furnishings, the landscaping of its grounds; he notes the type and color of its materials, the architectural details of its facade, the precise design of its fixtures. But the blueprint contains nothing "new." Everything in it, down to the squiggle on the base of its door handles, is an outgrowth of his original concept of "home."

Blueprint in hand, the aspiring homeowner will now procure the necessary materials. He will entrust the blueprint and materials to a contractor, whose job is to transform unhomey things such as logs and stones into the inviting sanctum he has envisioned.

The Torah is G‑d's "blueprint" of home, His detailed description

of what He wants His "contractor" (man) to create out of the materials He provides (the physical creation).

Each of the Divine commandments (mitzvos) of the Torah instructs us to take a specific object or resource and fashion it into an instrument of the Divine will: a pair of tefillin, a sukkah, a prayer book, a check made out for charity. Each time we do a mitzvah, we forge another element of an "inhospitable" world into something that is receptive to and expressive of the Divine truth. With each such act, we make the Almighty that much less "inhibited" by the concealments and distortions of the physical universe, that much more "at home" in His creation.

Our development of the resources of creation as a Divine "dwelling" falls under two general categories:

A. Elements that are themselves made into "articles of holiness." These include the parchment and ink that are formed into a Torah scroll, the citron and palm branch (etrog and lulov) taken on Sukkot and the annual 26 hours of time that are sanctified as Yom Kippur. Their very substance has been sanctified and elevated as objects of G‑d's will.

B. Elements that retain their material nature while supporting and enabling our service of the Almighty. For example: food is consumed and converted into energy, which, in turn, fuels the mind's toil in study, the heart's fervor in prayer and the body's efforts on behalf of a fellow in need.

Concerning the "holy" areas of a person's life, it can truly be said that the recognition that "I was not created, but to serve my Creator" has been effected. What is a Torah scroll, a pair of tefillin, a lulov and etrog? The very appearance and design of these objects now attest to their true function and essence. The fact that they exist solely to serve G‑d becomes readily perceived, completely divesting them of any other function and identity.

The same is true of a person who is engaged in the performance of

a mitzvah. The hand that distributes charity, the mind that studies G‑d's Torah, the heart and lips that pray---these are all actively and demonstratively realizing their quintessential function: to serve their Creator.

But G‑d wanted more. He wanted "a dwelling in the lowly realms."

What is a "dwelling in a lowly realm"? The basic meaning of these words is that what was previously "lowly" and unconducive to G‑dliness has now been remade as a "dwelling" for the Almighty. But the deeper significance of our sages' words is that the "lowly realm" of the material as it is, in all its ordinariness and mundanity, is made to house the Divine presence.

This is where the second category comes in. Though these elements actively serve the Divine will, they remain ordinary food and drink, clothes, structures, etc. The same is true on the individual level. For the person who lives to serve his Creator, the pursuits of material life—earning a living, eating, sleeping, recreating—exist only to support this end; nevertheless, they remain "lowly" and material pursuits. First perceived is our existence and our needs ("I was Created") and only then their utility ("to serve my Creator").

But it is in this domain of our lives, where our physical self remains a "reality" distinct from its exalted purpose, that the ultimate "dwelling in the lowly" is constructed.

Blueprint To Model

"G‑d spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel that they bring Me an offering ... Gold, silver and copper. Blue, purple and scarlet-dyed wool, fine linen and goat's hair. Ram's skins dyed red, tachash skins and acacia wood. Oil ... spices ... shoham gems ... gems for setting ... And they shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell within them." — Exodus 25:1-8

"The verse does not say, "Make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell within it," but "within them"--within each and every one of them." — Shaloh

A significant part of the Book of Exodus is devoted to the construction of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary built by the Jewish people in the Sinai desert. The Mishkan was more than an interim house of worship for a wandering nation; it was the original model and prototype for our development of the material world into a "dwelling for G‑d."

The division of our lives into two domains parallels a similar distinction within the components of the Sanctuary. Here, too, are substances that possess the existent identity of "I was created," as well as an element of the totally self-negating "I was not ... but."

Our sages stated: "The world was not considered worthy to make use of gold. So why was it created? For the Mishkan." Gold exists also outside of the Sanctuary, and Torah sanctions its use to beautify one's personal life; but the recognition that, its true, ultimate function is to house the Divine presence, drives home the lesson that also our "personal" gold is enlisted, directly or indirectly, to serve this end.

But another of the fifteen materials to comprise the Mishkan provides the model for the even more "selfless" dimension of our lives. The outer covering of the Sanctuary's roof was made of the hide of a tachash, an animal that "existed only in the days of Moses ... it was provided to Moses, who used it for the Mishkan; then it disappeared." Here we have the prototype for the "I was not created ... but" identity: a being utterly devoid of a "self" that is distinct of the end it serves.

And so it is in the "dwelling" that is "within each and every individual." Each and every one of us is empowered to "make spiritual the physical"--to sanctify certain aspects of life so that they are utterly and exclusively identified with their Divine purpose and essence.