Why are we here?
This, the mother of all questions, is addressed in turn by the various streams of Torah thought, each after its own style.
The Talmud states, simply and succinctly, “I was created to serve my Creator.” The moralistic-oriented works of mussar describe the purpose of life as the refinement of one’s character traits. The Zohar says that G‑d created us “in order that His creations should know Him.” Master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria offered the following reason for creation: G‑d is the essence of good, and the nature of good is to bestow goodness. But goodness cannot be bestowed when there is no one to receive it. To this end, G‑d created our world—so that there should be recipients of His goodness.
Chassidic teaching explains that these reasons, as well as the reasons given by other Kabbalistic and philosophical works, are but the various faces of a singular Divine “desire” for creation, as expressed in the various worlds, or realms, of G‑d’s creation. Chassidism also offers its own formulation of this Divine desire: that we make a home for G‑d in the material world.
A Home For G‑d
What does it mean to make our world a “home for G‑d”?
A basic tenet of our faith is that “the entire world is filled with His presence” and “there is no place void of Him.” So it’s not that we have to bring G‑d into the material world—He is already there. But G‑d can be in the world without being at home in it.
Being “at home” means being in a place that is receptive to your presence, a place devoted to serving your needs and desires. It means being in a place where you are your true, private, self—as opposed to the public self you assume in other environments.
The material world, in its natural state, is not an environment hospitable to G‑d. If there is one common feature to all things material, it is their intrinsic egocentrism—their placement of the self as the foundation and purpose of existence. With every iota of its mass, the stone proclaims, “I am.” In the tree and in the animal, the preservation and propagation of the self is the focus of every instinct and the aim of every achievement. And who more than the human being has elevated ambition to an art, and self-advancement to an all-consuming ideal?
The only thing wrong with all this selfishness is that it blurs the truth of what lies behind it: the truth that creation is not an end in itself, but a product of and vehicle for its Creator. And this selfishness is not an incidental or secondary characteristic of our world, but its most basic feature. So to make our world a “home” for G‑d we must transform its very nature. We must recast the very foundations of its identity from a self-oriented entity into something that exists for a purpose that is greater than itself.
Every time we take a material object or resource and enlist it in the service of G‑d, we are effecting such a transformation. When we take some leather and make a pair of tefillin out of it; when we take a dollar bill and give it to charity; when we employ our minds to study a chapter of Torah, we are effecting such a transformation. In its initial state, the leather proclaimed, “I exist”; now it says, “I exist to serve my Creator.” A dollar in the pocket says, “Greed is good”; in the charity box it says, “The purpose of life is not to receive, but to give.” The human brain says, “Enrich yourself”; the brain studying Torah says, “Know your G‑d.”
The Frontier Of Self
There are two basic steps to the endeavor of making our world a home for G‑d. The first step involves priming the material resource as a “vessel for G‑dliness”: shaping the leather into tefillin, donating the money to charity, scheduling time for Torah study. The second step is the actual employment of these “vessels” to serve the Divine Will: binding the tefillin on the arm and head, using the donated money to feed the hungry, studying Torah, etc.
At first glance, it would seem that the second step is the more significant one, while the first step is merely an enabler of the second, a means to its end. But the Torah’s account of the first home for G‑d that was built in our world places the greater emphasis on the construction of the “home,” rather than its actual employment as a Divine dwelling.
A sizable portion of Sefer Sh’mos is devoted to the construction of the Mishkan (Sanctuary) built by the Children of Israel in the desert. The Torah, which is usually so sparing with words that many of its laws are contained within a single word or letter, is uncharacteristically elaborate. The 15 materials used in the Mishkan’s construction are listed no less than three times; the components and furnishings of the Mishkan are listed eight times; and every minute detail of the Mishkan’s construction, down to the dimensions of every wall-panel and pillar and the colors in every tapestry, is spelled out not once, but twice—in the account of G‑d’s instructions to Moshe, and again in the account of the Mishkan’s construction.
All in all, 13 chapters are devoted to describing how certain physical materials were fashioned into an edifice dedicated to the service of G‑d and the training of the kohanim who were to officiate there. (In contrast, the Torah devotes one chapter to its account of the creation of the universe, three chapters to its description of the revelation at Mount Sinai, and eleven chapters to the story of the Exodus.)
The Mishkan is the model and prototype for all subsequent homes for G‑d constructed on this physical earth. So the overwhelming emphasis on its construction stage (as opposed to the implementation stage) implies that in our lives, too, there is something very special about forging our personal resources into things that have the potential to serve G‑d. Making ourselves “vessels” for G‑dliness is, in a certain sense, a greater feat than actually bringing G‑dliness into our lives.
For this is where the true point of transformation lies—the transformation from a self-oriented object to a thing committed to something greater than itself. If G‑d had merely desired a hospitable environment, He need not have bothered with a material world; a spiritual world could just as easily have been enlisted to serve Him. What G‑d desired was the transformation itself: the challenge and achievement of selfhood transcended and materiality redefined. This transformation and redefinition occurs in the first stage, when something material is forged into an instrument of the Divine. The second stage is only a matter of actualizing an already established potential, of putting a thing to its now natural use.
You meet people who have yet to invite G‑d into their lives; whose endeavors and accomplishments—no matter how successful and laudable—have yet to transcend the self and self-oriented goals.
You wish to expand their horizons—to show them beyond the strictures of self. You wish to help him put on tefillin, or to share with her the Divine wisdom of Torah.
But they’re not ready yet. You know that the concept of serving G‑d is still alien to a life trained and conditioned to view everything through the lens of self. You know that before you can introduce them to the world of Torah and mitzvos, you must first make them receptive to G‑dliness and to a life of intimacy with the Divine.
So when you meet them on the street, you simply smile and say, “Good morning!” You invite them to your home for a cup of coffee or a Shabbos dinner. You make small talk. You don’t, at this point, suggest any changes in lifestyle. You just want them to become open to you and what you represent.
Ostensibly, you haven’t “done” anything. But in essence, a most profound and radical transformation has taken place. The person has become a vessel for G‑dliness.
Of course, the purpose of a vessel is that it be filled with content; the purpose of a home is that it be inhabited. The Mishkan was built to house the presence of G‑d. But it is the making of vessels for G‑dliness that is life’s greatest challenge and its most revolutionary achievement. v
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt’l; adapted by Yanki Tauber. Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com via Chabad.org. Find more Torah articles for the whole family at www.chabad.org/parshah.