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World of Love #2 - Perceiving the Infinite

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

What ultimate good does God offer His creations? Our ability to connect to Him.

We say that God created the world in order to bestow good to it. But what is this good? What good does God have to offer His world?

First of all, we must realize that any good that God gives must be the ultimate good that His creation can accept. The psalmist said, "How great is Your good, stored up for those who fear You" (Psalms 31:20). Our sages interpret this to say that God bestows good in the greatest possible abundance. In another place, they teach us that this verse means that God is telling us, "You according to your strength, and Me according to Mine." In other words, God gives us the greatest good that we can possible accept.

But what is this ultimate good? What is the greatest possible good that God can bestow?

If we think about it, the answer is really quite simple. The greatest possible good is God Himself. There is no other ultimate true good. The psalmist thus said, "I have no good but You" (Psalms 16:2). In the Talmud, Rabbi Acha interprets this to mean that no true good exists in the world, except that of God Himself. (Yerushalmi Brachot 6:1)

The ultimate good is therefore to partake of God, and it is this good that He planned to give to the world. He would create a world where creatures ultimately could partake of His essence. The psalmist sings of this, "Taste and see that God is good, happy is the man who finds refuge in Him" (Psalms 34:9).

Ultimate good is nearness to God -- a deep knowledge and perception.

God therefore created the world in such a way that man could draw close to Him and partake of His essence. Of course, we are not speaking of physical closeness, but of spiritual closeness. Such closeness involves the knowledge and understanding of God, as well as resembling Him to the greatest degree possible. We will later discuss how these two concepts are related, but ultimately, both are spiritual closeness.

Here again, we hear this in the words of the psalmist, "But for me, the nearness of God is good. I have made God my refuge, that I may tell of His works" (Psalms 73:28). The psalmist is teaching us that his ultimate good is nearness to God. This nearness involves "telling of His works" -- that is, a deep knowledge and perception of the Divine.

The ultimate good that God offers is therefore the opportunity to perceive Him. In one place, our sages thus teach us that God created the world in order that men may know Him. This is not a separate reason, but the way in which He bestows His good upon us. God thus told us through His prophet, "I am your God, I teach you for your good" (Isaiah 48:17). The psalmist expresses the same idea when he says, "You are good and You do good: teach me Your statutes" (Psalms 119:68).

To know God and understand Him in any way is to have a deep awe and dread of His majesty. All true wisdom is that of God. But such wisdom and knowledge imply the fear and reverence of God. The psalmist thus said, "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God" (Psalms 110:10). The wise Solomon expresses the same idea when he says, "The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge" (Proverbs 1:7).

We can therefore say that the ultimate goal of creation is that we should come close to God, and therefore both know and fear Him. Again we hear the words of Solomon, "Whatever God does shall be forever... God has made it so that man should fear Him" (Ecclesiastes 3:14). The Talmud comments on this, saying that the world was created for the fear of God...

When our sages say the world was created for the fear of God, they are not contradicting the teaching that it was created as a vehicle for His good. What they are doing is expressing what this good ultimately is. It is a knowledge of God that is most perfectly expressed by the reverence and awe that we call the "fear of God."

The fear of God is the beginning of knowledge.

The ultimate place where we will be worthy of this vision and perception will be in what we call Olam Haba -- the Future World or the World to Come. It is a world of absolute life and goodness. It is of the vision of the World to Come that the psalmist is speaking of when he says, "I believe that I will gaze upon God in the land of the living" (Psalms 27:13). This "land of the living" is the Future World.

It is this future world that is the goal of all creation. Our sages thus teach us, "This world is like an antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber before you enter the palace."

Since this Future World is the ultimate goal of creation, it is also the place of ultimate good. In the language of the Talmud, it is called, "the World where all is good." It is a good that surpasses anything that this world may possibly have to offer. This is what our sages mean when they say, "One moment of delight in the Future World is more than all the good of this world." (Avot 4:17)

We can obtain some idea of what this Future World will be like from a common saying of Rav, quoted in the Talmud. He said, "In the Future World, there will be no eating, drinking, childbearing or business. Neither will there be jealousy, hatred or strife. The righteous will sit with their crowns on their heads, delighting in the radiance of the Divine Presence." (Brachot 17a)

Our sages teach us that this "radiance of the Divine Presence" is a perception of the Divine. In the Future World, we will perceive and comprehend God in the greatest degree possible.

This perception of God in the Future World is totally beyond our present grasp. That of the least of us will pale the achievements of the greatest sages in this world. Still, of course, it will be impossible to perceive God in his entirety. This is impossible for any being other than God Himself. Although incomparable to anything in this life, our perception will still be less than a drop in an infinite ocean. Nevertheless, it will far exceed anything possible in this world.

In order that we may approach Him, God created a dimension of nearness to His being. By moving through this dimension, we are able to come closer and closer to God, even though we can never actually reach Him. This dimension is what we call the spiritual world. Our sages call the highest spiritual world Atzilus -- the World of Nearness. All the spiritual worlds were created as vehicles through which we may draw near to God. In a sense, they serve as a filter, allowing us to draw near, and still not be obliterated by His infinite Light.

In a number of places, our sages speak of these worlds as the Celestial Treasuries. Thus, Israel sings of God, "The King will bring me into His chamber" (Song of Songs 1:4). Our sages comment that God will bring the righteous into His celestial chambers and allow them to probe the treasuries on high.

The spiritual worlds serve as a filter, allowing us to draw near, without being obliterated by God's infinite Light.

This is also the meaning of the light that was made on the first day of creation. Our sages teach us that it was not mere physical light, but a wondrous light with which one could see "from one end of the universe to the other." This was the light of perception, shining in all the spiritual worlds, with which one could experience this vision of God. Our sages thus continue, "God set this light aside for the righteous in the World to Come." (Midrash - Genesis Raba 3:6)

This is the light of perception with which we will partake of the Divine -- the "radiance of the divine Presence." Elihu was speaking of this when he told Job (Job 33:30) that God will "turn back his soul from destruction, and light him with the light of life." The wise Solomon tells us that this light is the source of eternal life, when he says, "In the light of the King's face if life..." (Proverbs 16:15)

God's ultimate goal in creation was therefore the World to Come, where man could perceive a vision of God. Not God Himself, of course, but a vision. Perhaps through many filters, but still, a vision of God. The psalmist sings of this vision, "In righteousness, I will se Your face, when I awake, I will be satisfied with a vision of You" (Psalms 17:15).

The psalmist is speaking of the time when he will awake to the delights of the Future World. Our sages comment on this verse, "God will satisfy the righteous with a vision of the Divine Presence." The bliss of the Future World will be endless. In His endless goodness, God will give us a world of good without end. The psalmist is speaking of this when he exclaims, "In Your presence is fullness of joy, in Your right hand is bliss forever" (Psalms 16:11).

Of course, everything about this Future World is totally beyond our powers of description. Even if the visions of the greatest prophets will pale in comparison. It is something that no human mind can possibly imagine in this life. It cannot come through human understanding, but only as a gift from God, and when He gives it, we will understand. The prophet therefore says when speaking of the World to Come, "Never has the ear heard it -- no eye has seen it -- other than God: what He will do for those who hope in Him" (Isaiah 64:3).

In Part 3, we'll examine the uniqueness of mankind vis-a-vis the divine soul.

Reprinted with permission, from "If You Were God" (NCSY-OU)

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