“Shimon the Righteous was of the last survivors of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say, the world is based upon three things: on Torah, on service [of G-d], and on acts of kindness.”
Shimon the Righteous served as High Priest in the early Second Temple period. As our mishna attests, he lived at the end of the period of the Great Assembly. Placing him in historical context, the Talmud records that he led the Jewish delegation to greet Alexander the Great upon his conquest of the Holy Land (Yoma 69a). As we will see in coming weeks, with his passing yet another transition occurs in Jewish religious history — from the period of the Great Assembly to the period of the “pairs”.
This mishna discusses what is perhaps the most fundamental question of Judaism — and really of life: What is the purpose of the world? What is the world “based upon” — meaning, what underlying objectives did the L-rd have in creating it? Did G-d create the world to operate of its own momentum, handing over its reins and fate to mankind? Or does G-d have His own agenda in creation, and the world exists — and continues to exist — only insofar as it furthers G-d’s Divine plan? And just what is that Divine plan? Why exactly did G-d create the world, and what are we to do about it?
Needless to say, such questions are not the sort we can answer in a single essay or in any limited amount of space. G-d’s Master Plan is not something which can be explained in logical and straightforward analysis, nor can it probably be fully understood by human beings altogether. Yet Shimon the Righteous, in one short sentence, hints to some truly profound ideas, ones which will begin to lead us in the proper direction. We will attempt to gain some insight into his words in the coming paragraphs.
(Many of the ideas below are based on R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s The Way of G-d (Derech Hashem). I’m going to attempt to quickly summarize a number of different concepts in Jewish thought below. In the interest of brevity (not one of my specialties) we’re going to have to keep it fairly superficial for now. In future classes, G-d willing, we will dwell on some of these themes at greater length.)
Jewish thinkers sum up G-d’s creation of the world as follows: It was the ultimate act of goodness. G-d is perfect and infinite. He has no need for a universe; He has nothing to gain from creating mankind. Thus, we can only view creation as an act of altruism — for the sake of man.
Further, if G-d is truly perfect, His acts must be viewed as acts of perfect goodness. G-d created man in order to have creatures upon whom He could bestow goodness. Creation was therefore the ultimate selfless act: A G-d who needs nothing created a world in order to give man everything.
So let’s ask an obvious question. If G-d wanted to grant good to man, why didn’t He just place us directly in that place of heavenly reward, the World to Come? Give us good! Why did He place us in a world containing so much evil and temptation — only promising us reward if we forgo all of the “good stuff” and instead study His Torah and observe His commandments? Why the roundabout good? Why is G-d seemingly doing things the hard way?
The answer to this is a concept we can all appreciate deep down, yet which all the same must be grown into. It is what the Zohar and kabbalists refer to as “the bread of shame” (“nahama d’kisufa”). If G-d were to “reward” us for doing nothing it would not be reward; it would be humiliation. Receiving a handout is an embarrassing, mortifying experience. Getting something we did not earn does not make us feel good about ourselves. It makes us feel crushed, ashamed to show our faces in public. Try looking in the face of someone who did you an enormous favor. You’d much rather never have to see him again. If G-d were to give us what we did not earn, we would hardly feel “close” to Him. We would never be able to have any kind of meaningful relationship with G-d in the World to Come — which is really what the World to Come is all about.
Thus, rather than handing us free “reward”, G-d affords each of us the opportunity to earn it and become deserving of it. And this world is the place in which we do it. We are given commandments — what to do and what not to do in order to forge a relationship with our Creator. At the same time, the world is full of temptations, attempting to draw us away from our Divine calling. We must contend with our own lethargy, our human passions, and all sorts of negative manners in which we might misuse our spiritual drives.
The entire physical world is thus in a state of equilibrium. Man is poised between the choices of good and evil — constantly, throughout his lifetime. If he chooses good, he sanctifies himself and truly earns the ultimate reward which awaits him. If he chooses evil, he harms his own spirituality and distances himself from G-d and the ultimate purpose of creation. But G-d had to allow for the possibility of sin and evil in this world — in spite of all its concomitant destruction. Without it, the choice of good would not be truly meaningful — and would not be deserving of reward.
We have thus far explained the concept in our mishna of “service”. G-d created man in order that man serve Him. Service (“avodah”) is often used to refer more specifically to Temple service or to prayer, but more generally means service of G-d in all its forms.
We next arrive at a related concept. G-d did not just create x billion individuals, commanding each of them to serve G-d in a vacuum. He did not create 7 billion little mazes, promising each little human being a piece of cheese for getting to the end. G-d created an entire world, in which individuals are interconnected — into families, communities, nations, and societies — who somehow must get along with one another.
This too is a part of man’s cosmic mission. Spirituality does not lie in man’s relationship with G-d alone. It resides in his behavior towards his fellow man as well. By caring for one another, by building meaningful relationships and harmonious societies, we serve G-d through our interactions within the world. Further, we create an entire world of peace and harmony, making it a reflection of the G-d of Truth and Peace who created it. Thus, by serving G-d, we not only improve ourselves but perfect the entire universe — left unfinished by G-d for man to complete.
Thus, by fostering interpersonal relationships, man becomes deserving of reward on an entirely different plane — not only for his personal accomplishments, but for fulfilling his cosmic mission to the universe and to G-d. And through this man upholds the second pillar of the world: “acts of kindness.”
One more concept will complete this discussion. What is the ultimate reward G-d grants man in the World to Come? It is the ultimate good possible. What is the ultimate good? G-d Himself. The World to Come will allow us the infinite pleasure our souls truly crave (whether or not we recognize it smothered under so many corporeal layers down here): closeness to G-d. Observing the mitzvos (commandments) does not earn us “reward” which we “cash in” after 120 years. It sanctifies our souls, making us more G-dlike and able to enjoy a relationship with the Divine. The mitzvos condition us for closeness to G-d in the World to Come.
This concept is best appreciated through Torah study. It is the one commandment which allows us more than any other to sense our closeness to G-d. We understand G-d’s wisdom and values, and we begin building that relationship with Him right here and now. Ultimately, this is the purpose of all the commandments. But Torah study allows us that feeling in this world as well.
Thus, the true purpose of the world: that we serve G-d and earn reward, that we perfect G-d’s creation as a whole through acts of kindness, and that we, via Torah study, develop ourselves into people who will one day enjoy the ultimate pleasure of closeness to G-d in the World to Come.
It’s both amazing and frightening that we go through so much of our days and lives giving little heed to such matters. But in truth, in a few short paragraphs we may begin to discern the pattern of G-d’s universe. There is much more we will discover, G-d willing, over our years of study, but the basic pattern emerges almost from the start. And as the years go by, we will ever increasingly recognize that Judaism at its core is a religion of logic, of meaning, and of understanding — of both G-d and mankind.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.