July 24, 2024
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I. Hashem Has No Needs

On first thought, it seems outrageous to suggest that Hashem would need us. In order to need something you have to lack something. If Hashem needs something, that would mean His perfection is incomplete. Therefore, Hashem cannot need anything. All of His actions must be done out of His own will and not any external need (Moreh Nevuchim 2:18,48). Along a similar line of thought, Ramban (Deut. 22:6) says that the commandments must be for the benefit of people, not Hashem. Hashem cannot receive benefit from the fulfillment of commandments because that would imply a divine need, i.e., a divine lacking and imperfection.

At the beginning of Parshat Terumah, Hashem tells Moshe: “Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me (li) an offering” (Ex. 25:2). Rashi (ad loc.) says that “for Me (li)” means “for My sake (li-shmi).” Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi (16th cen., Turkey; Commentary, ad loc.) explains that Rashi was prompted by the theological impossibility of saying that the Jews should bring a donation to Hashem. Hashem does not need to fundraise; the whole world belongs to Him. Rav David Pardo (18th cen., Italy; Maskil Le-David, ad loc.) is even more explicit, saying, “We cannot explain it as meaning simply ‘to me’ because it does not apply, Heaven forbid, because Hashem does not need His creations.”

 

II. Hashem Needs Us

And yet, we see the Sages sometimes refer to a divine need. Consider Rashi (Ex. 11:2), based on Brachot (9a-b). Hashem tells Moshe to instruct the Jews to ask the Egyptians for valuables before leaving Egypt, “Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request of his fellow and each woman from her fellow silver vessels and gold vessels” (Ex. 11:2). The word “please” seems out of place. Rashi says: “Please is a language of request. I request you to instruct them with regard to this so that the righteous Avraham should not say, ‘He fulfilled for them “They will enslave them and afflict them’ but He did not fulfill for them ‘And afterwards they will depart with great possessions” (Gen. 15:13-14).’”

Hashem promised Avraham that his descendants would leave their place of affliction with wealth. If the Jews fail to request valuables from the Egyptians, Hashem will have failed to fulfill this part of His promise to Avraham. Therefore, Hashem needed the Jews to approach the Egyptians.

Commentaries point out that Hashem could have fulfilled this promise in other ways. After the splitting of the sea, the Jews acquired wealth that washed up on shore. This would have been a fulfillment of the promise. For whatever reason, Hashem felt that the fulfillment should take place as the Jews leave Egypt. In order to accomplish this, He needed the Jews and therefore asked them using the word “please.”

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 89b) explains the use of the word “please” in Hashem’s instruction to Avraham regarding the Akedah (Gen. 22:2). Hashem approached Avraham and said, “I have tested you with many trials and you have passed them all. Now, pass this test so that people will not say that there was no real value in the earlier trials.” It seems that Hashem needed Avraham to pass the test of the Akedah. Therefore, He asked Avraham with the word “please.”

 

III. Perspectives

I have found only one explicit discussion of this subject. Perhaps that is because it can be resolved easily with classical methods, whether by ascribing metaphor to the rabbinic discussions of Hashem’s need, ascribing them to Hashem’s actions, or reading them as negation of the opposite. For example, we could say that Hashem acts as if He needs us, even though there is no actual need for the perfect being. However, the one explicit discussion I found of this subject takes a different approach.

Rav Norman Lamm, in his book on the Shema, discusses our obligation to love Hashem and asks whether Hashem needs our love (“The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism,” ch. 15). Rav Lamm quotes rabbinic passages and modern stories demonstrating that Hashem needs man. However, he also notes the theological difficulty in ascribing imperfection to Hashem.

In order to reconcile these conflicting pulls, Rav Lamm says that we must acknowledge both competing concerns: “There are indeed grounds in the Jewish tradition to reject the existence of divine ‘needs’—and yet we must also acknowledge our very human need to speak of Hashem’s ‘needs’ in some fashion” (p. 114). Therefore, we must distinguish between the perspectives we use when speaking about Hashem. “[F]rom the point of view of ultimate reality—understood fully only by God and only asserted philosophically but never fully comprehended existentially by human beings—we can never attribute such imperfections as need, injury, vulnerability and loneliness to God; God is beyond all emotion, including love. Nevertheless, in our daily lives as thinking, feeling, and active beings, we relate to God psychologically as a sentient, feeling, reacting Being” (p. 125).

The idea of a personal God does not imply an emotional and imperfect God. However, from our limited perspectives, we relate to Hashem as if He has emotions and needs. It is Hashem’s will that we relate to Him this way. Hashem does not need us; He did not need the Jews to ask the Egyptians for silver and gold vessels before the Exodus. We act and think as if He did need us to do that, as our interpretation of the human-divine relationship. When we say that Hashem needs us we are saying more than a mere metaphor. From our point of view He needs us, and that is the only point of view we can see because it is impossible to see from Hashem’s point of view. It is not heretical to say that Hashem needs us but it must be understood in a non-literal way or as merely our perspective.


Rabbi Gil Student is editor of www.TorahMusings.com.

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