Pirkei Avot ends with a powerful and critical message. Building off Sefer Yeshaya, the mishna writes, “Everything that Hashem created in His world, He created only for His honor.” Though we may not be able to fully understand Hashem’s intentions, we know that—at least on some level—all of creation exists to honor Him.
Sefer HaTanya (36-37) links our mishna to the midrash’s description of Hashem wanting His presence to reside in a world in which it is unclear (Tanchuma Naso 16). Our world allows Him to illuminate (through man) an otherwise dark reality.
Based on this mishna, the Ramban (Shemot 13:16) saw man’s recognition of God as the world’s purpose: “The goal of all the mitzvos is for us to believe in our God and recognize that He created us. This—and only this—is the creation’s intention. God above seeks from this world only that man should know Him and admit that He created him.”
Interestingly, another midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 7:19) uses the same formulation (“kol mah shebara”) in a (seemingly) very different way. It explains that when Hashem showed the world to Adam HaRishon, He told him that He created it all for him. This midrash implies that everything Hashem created was for man’s use, not Hashem’s honor.
Rav Yosef Karo (Maggid Meisharim, parshat Bereishit) and Ramchal (Da’at Tevunot 18) take this idea further by explaining that Hashem created the world to allow people to develop their souls through personal choice and struggle. Instead of being naturally close to God within a reality devoid of alternatives, Hashem allows us to choose closeness to Him in a world where His presence is hidden. Mesilat Yesharim (1) adds that our mission is to realize that real, meaningful pleasure is closeness to Hashem in the next world and (thus) a relationship with Him in this one.
These sources seem to imply that the world was created for us and our own personal development, not for Hashem’s honor. How can we reconcile these contradictory understandings of why Hashem created the world?
The Goal Versus the Means
Rav Chaim Freidlander (comments to Da’at Tevunot 58) explains the relationship between these two ideas by distinguishing between the goal and the means. Obviously, Hashem does not need this world nor the honor He “receives” from it. The world exists (as depicted by the midrash, Rav Yosef Karo and the Ramchal) to allow us to develop ourselves.
The mishna in Avot, on the other hand, is explaining the means—how we achieve this growth. The mishna teaches that personal growth hinges on our appreciation that we and the world exist only to recognize and glorify God. Though the ultimate goal is personal growth, this growth occurs through committing ourselves to glorifying God.
The idea that our recognition and service to Hashem help us grow is emphasized by Moshe’s description of yirat shamayim (fear of heaven). On the one hand, he presents yirat shamayim (and mitzvah observance) as Hashem’s requests from us. On the other hand, he emphasizes that this “request” is made for our own good (Devarim 10:13). Hashem does not need and gains nothing from our world. Yirat shamayim and mitzvah observance are for our benefit.
The Universe and Man
The centrality of kavod Hashem as the world’s goal helps us understand why Hashem created such a vast and intricate universe. Dovid HaMelech exclaimed, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims His handiwork,” (Tehillim 19:2). Pesukei D’Zimra reinforces this idea with the pasuk, “Our Lord is great and full of power. His wisdom is beyond reckoning,” (Tehillim 147:5). The universe reflects the God who created it. Only Hashem could have created the boundless, sophisticated world we can only scratch the surface of understanding.
Man—created in the image of God—is able to appreciate and express this recognition on a higher level than the rest of creation. That is why we exclaim in our tefillah: “Blessed is He, our God, Who created us for His honor,” (Siddur Ashkenaz, Weekday Shacharit, Uva Letzion). Man is created for the glory of God, to recognize and appreciate Him.
That said, sometimes our unique, God-given abilities go to our heads, and we see our lives as about ourselves. This “forces” God to remind us of our rightful place in His world.
The snake claimed that Hashem forbade eating from the eitz ha da’at because He did not want man to be like Him (Bereishit 3:5). The snake was correct: Hashem does not want us to be like Him. We need to know that we exist to serve and glorify His name, not to focus on ourselves.
This problem continued in the generation after the flood with their tower building. The stated goal of the builders was to “make a name” for themselves. To keep them from focusing on themselves and their own name, Hashem dispersed them by introducing multiple languages. When man recognizes God and works on His behalf, he can enjoy the world and work with others on this sacred mission. When he focuses on his own name, Hashem foils his plans and breaks up the misguided unity. This is the backdrop to Hillel’s words at the end of Avot’s first perek: “One who advances his (own) name, destroys his name,” (Avot 1:13).
The contrast to the tower builders was Shem ben Noach and his descendants. Shem facilitated the first Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of Hashem’s name) when his noble actions caused Noach to exclaim, “Blessed is Hashem, the God of Shem,” (Bereishit 9:26).
His descendant, Avraham Avinu, was the first to disseminate Hashem’s name among the masses (Bereishit 12:8). Avraham’s mission was to bring people close to Hashem. Understandably, Hashem promised to make Avraham’s name great (Bereishit 12:2). When we realize that we are here to serve and glorify Hashem’s name, the greatness of our name contributes to this higher goal.
The midrash (Mishlei 18:10) attributes the contrast between focusing on our name versus Hashem’s name to Avraham himself. Avraham responded to those who asked for his help building the tower, “You’ve
abandoned God’s name, and you want me to help you make a name for yourselves?!” (Yalkut Shimoni to Tehillim 26).
Hashem chose Avraham’s descendants—the Jewish people—to be a nation focused on glorifying His name. Instead of being focused on a tower that celebrates our name and achievements, we build a Beis Hamikdash that marks Hashem’s name and centrality. Our next piece will elaborate further on our people’s unique role.
Rav Reuven Taragin is the dean of overseas students at Yeshivat Hakotel and the educational director of World Mizrachi.