Why Did God Create Us?
Rabbanit Sally Mayer is the Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum‘s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program
Why did God create us? From time to time, this question arises, especially around the the Yamim Nora’im (The High Holy Days), as we remember the creation of the world and take stock of our relationship with Hashem. Perhaps one answer lies in a brief, beautiful passage in the Talmud, Chagiga 16b. The Talmud states six facts about human beings, three ways in which humans are similar to God’s ministering angels, and three ways in which we are similar to animals. We are like angels in that we have intelligence, we walk upright, and we speak the “holy language,” Hebrew; we are like animals in that we eat and drink, reproduce, and must eliminate waste as the animals do.
This simple passage carries a profound message for us. Hashem’s angels are heavenly beings, with no physical bodies, no temptations – and no free will. They follow God’s commands perfectly, as a robot would carry out its programmed mission. Animals, on the other hand, are purely physical; they act on instinct and have no commandments. There is no expectation that they will behave in any other way, no moral choices that they face. We human beings are unique – we are physical and limited, like the animals, and yet we have intelligence and holiness, like the angels. We are a unique creation, suspended between heaven and earth, pulled toward both.
How are we meant to manage this dichotomy within us? Some would argue that our challenge is to push away the physical, placed within us merely to distract and tempt us; indulge only what we must and focus on the spiritual. I’d like to suggest that we are meant to elevate the physical, to take the same actions that we share with animals and to do them differently. We eat and drink like the animals, but we eat kosher food, make blessings beforehand and afterward, and ideally even eat for the sake of Heaven – not only for enjoyment but also to strengthen ourselves for the important goals we are accomplishing. We reproduce like animals, but our union is meant to be sanctified and elevated, circumscribed by halakha (Jewish law) and an opportunity to give to one’s partner. It is not merely a physical act. We eliminate waste as animals do, but in a private and dignified manner, and we even make the blessing asher yatzar after that action.
It seems that Hashem created people to stand up to the unique challenge of being human: to synthesize the physical and the spiritual, not to deny the physical or even to severely limit it, but even more challenging, to use the physical in our service of God. A moving piyyut from Yom Kippur, Asher Eimatecha, ascribed to Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir, expresses this idea. It poetically describes the perfect service of the angels, but emphasizes Hashem’s preference for imperfect human praise. We are blessed with the challenge and opportunity to take the physical and make it holy, by refining our relationships, channeling our desires, and serving God as only we have the capacity to do. Hashem loves and appreciates our ability to synthesize the physical and the spiritual, despite – and because – we are imperfect.
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782