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—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 a piece of 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 piece of leather proclaimed, “I exist”; now it says, “I exist to serve my Creator.” A dollar in pocket says, “Greed is good”; in the charity box it says, “The purpose of life is to not to receive, but to give.” The human brain says, “Enrich thyself”; the brain studying Torah says, “Know thy 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 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 the book of Exodus is devoted to the construction of the 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 fifteen materials used in the Sanctuary’s construction are listed no less than three times;the components and furnishings of the Sanctuary are listed eight times;and every minute detail of the Sanctuary’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 Moses, and again in the account of the Sanctuary’s construction.
All in all, thirteen 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 (priests) 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 Sanctuary is the model and prototype for all subsequent homes for G-d constructed on 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 a person who has yet to invite G-d into his or her life. A person whose endeavors and accomplishments—no matter how successful and laudable—have yet to transcend the self and self-oriented goals.
You wish to expand her horizons—to show him a life beyond the strictures of self. You wish to put on tefillin with him, to share with her the divine wisdom of Torah.
But he’s 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 her to the world of Torah and mitzvot, you must first make her receptive to G-dliness, receptive to a life of intimacy with the divine.
So when you meet him on the street, you simply smile and say, “Good morning!” You invite her to your home for a cup of coffee or a Shabbat dinner. You make small talk. You don’t, at this point, suggest any changes in his lifestyle. You just want her 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 Sanctuary 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.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Chanukah 5747 (1987)
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. Talmud, Kiddushin 82b.
. Zohar, part II, 42b.
. The “Holy Ari,” 1534-1572.
. Etz Chaim, Shaar HaKelalim, ch. 1.
. Tanya, ch. 36 (after Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16); Yom Tov Shel Rosh Hashanah 5666, p. 7; ibid., p. 446; see Likkutei Sichot, vol. VI, p. 21, notes 69 and 70.
. Isaiah 6:3.
. Tikkunei Zohar, 57.
. “Gold, silver and copper; blue-, purple-, and red-dyed wool; linen and goat hair; red-dyed rams’ skins, tachash skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, and spices for the anointing oil and the incense; shoham stones and gemstones for setting in the ephod and in the breastplate.” The above verses are from Exodus 25:3-7, in G-d’s initial instructions to Moses; the list again appears in full in Moses’ repetition of these instructions to the people of Israel (ibid., 35:5-9), and a third time in the Torah’s account of the people’s donation of these materials and G-d’s appointment of Betzalel to head the construction of the Sanctuary (ibid., vs. 22-35).
. In G-d’s instructions to Moses (ibid., chs. 25-27); in G-d’s instructions to anoint the Sanctuary’s parts and “vessels” (30:26-28); in G-d’s appointment of Betzalel (31:7-11); in Moses’ instruction to the people (35:11-19); in the Torah’s account of the making of the parts and vessels of the Sanctuary (36:8-39:32); in the Torah’s account of how the finished parts and vessels were brought to Moses (39:33-41); in G-d’s instructions to Moses to erect and anoint the Sanctuary (40:3-11); and in the account of the Sanctuary’s erection (40:18-33).
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXV, pp. 424-435.