> Spirituality > Ideas

World of Love #5 - Closeness to God

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

The existence of good and evil allows man to make the right choice, and merit greater closeness to God.

In order that man enjoy the pleasure of his accomplishment, it is imperative that he know that he acted as a matter of free choice, rather than through compulsion. It is for this reason that God gave us free will. We bear full responsibility for our action and full credit for the good we do. We are free to choose between good and evil. This is what makes the choice of good a true accomplishment.

A robot and a puppet can accomplish, but they cannot feel any accomplishment.

If man did not have free will, then he would be little more than a puppet or a robot. Both a robot and a puppet can accomplish things, but they cannot have any feeling of accomplishment. They are mere machines. In a sense, it is free will that makes us more than a machine. If man did not have his free will, his accomplishment would be no more than that of a robot. There would be no feeling of pride or pleasure in it at all.

We can therefore say that free will is required by God's justice. In a deeper sense, we must say that it is required by God's very purpose in creation. For the good that God desired to grant to His world is essentially bestowed as a result of our free will. We can therefore say that free will is one of the most essential ingredients of all creation.


But there is a much deeper way of looking at the concept of free will. As discussed earlier, the greatest good that God could give is Himself. The purpose of creation was therefore to give man a chance to come close to God.

When we speak of coming close to God, we are not speaking of physical closeness. God exists in a realm far beyond the mere physical. When we speak of closeness to God, we are speaking of spiritual closeness.

We said earlier that this spiritual closeness involves knowledge and perception of God. But on a deeper level, this is really a result of our closeness to Him. For we cannot know God by looking at Him. We cannot even know Him by meditating or contemplating about Him. There are no symbols in our minds which we can use to even think of God.

Philosophy is equally futile, and for the same reason. We can only extend our thoughts beyond the immediate, using symbols and concepts that we can conceive. But God is utterly beyond our conception. Therefore, the only way in which we can know God and perceive Him is by coming close to Him in a spiritual sense.

But what is closeness in a non-physical sense?

We find a hint in the words of our sages. The Torah states, "You shall follow the Lord your God, fear Him and keep His commandments, obey Him and serve Him, and bind yourself to Him" (Deut. 13:5). The Talmud (Sotah 14a) asks, "How can one bind himself to God? Is it not written, ‘The Lord your God is a consuming fire?'" (Deut. 9:3). The Talmud answers that we bind ourselves to God by imitating His attributes.

We bind ourselves to God by imitating His attributes.

What the Talmud is teaching us is that in a spiritual sense, closeness is resemblance. Two things that resemble each other are close in a spiritual sense. Things that differ are distant. The more two things resemble each other, the closer they are spiritually.

This is expressed even more clearly in the Midrash, commenting on the verse, "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). The Midrash tells us that this passage explains two other passages: "You, who have bound yourselves to God, are all living today" (Deut. 4:4), and "As a loincloth clings to a man's waist, so shall the whole house of Judah cling to Me" (Jeremiah 13:11).

Although the Midrash does not openly state it, it is asking the same question as the Talmud did above. What does the Torah mean when it says that "you have bound yourselves to God," or that the people shall "cling" to Him? The Midrash therefore tells us that these passages are explained by the verse, "You shall be holy, for I am Holy," we bind ourselves to God by working to resemble Him in His holiness. For in a spiritual sense, the more two things resemble each other, the closer they are.


We can now understand the reason for free will in a deeper sense.

As we discussed earlier, the good that God's plan has destined for His world is the ultimate good, namely God Himself. His plan is to give a creature, namely man, the opportunity to draw close to Him.

But when we speak of giving such good, we immediately face a dilemma. God is the giver and man is the receiver, and as such, they are two opposites. In a spiritual sense, they are as far from each other as north and south. Giver and receiver are exact opposites. As long as man is a mere receiver, he stands at the opposite pole away from God, the Giver. In a spiritual sense, man and God would then be ultimately distant from each other.

Giver and receiver are polar opposites.

Therefore, God arranged things so that man himself would be the creator of good.

God made man in such a way that he too can create good. Man does so every time he obeys God's commandments. In doing so, he draws God's light to his own being, and thus, rather than being a mere receiver, he becomes a partner with God. The good that man ultimately receives is therefore as much the result of his own efforts as it is a gift of God.

Man therefore receives God's good by himself doing good, thereby resembling God in the greatest degree possible. For man draws close to God by imitating Him, and when he does so, he can be a recipient of God's' good. This is what the psalmist meant when he sang, "God is good to the good" (Psalms 125:4). In order to receive God's goodness, one must himself be good. Our sages interpret this verse by saying, "Let he who is good, come and accept good, from He who is good to the good" (Talmud - Menachot 53b).

In order for this resemblance to be in any way complete, man had to be created with free will. Just as God acts as a free Being, so does man. Just as He operates without prior restraint, so does man. Just as God does good as a matter of His own choice, so does man. According to many commentators, this is one meaning of man having been created in the "image of God." (see Maimonides - Laws of Teshuva 5:1)


We can experience a glimmer of this closeness to God, even in the physical world. The pleasure of accomplishment that we experience when doing good is a touch of this closeness. It is a pure spiritual pleasure, and as such is a reflection of the ultimate spiritual pleasure, namely, closeness to God. When we accomplish good, we are imitating God and bringing Him close to us, and therefore feel an inkling of this pleasure.

On the other hand, the ultimate spiritual pain is being separated from God. This explains the psychological pain experienced when one is forced to accept charity from others. When one is a taker rather than a giver, then he is ultimately far from God, the Giver.

Our sages therefore describe this feeling as shame. They say that if God were to give us His good as a free gift, then we would experience shame in accepting it. For what is shame? Most often, it involves being caught in an improper situation. A person experiences shame when he is caught doing something that he should not or when he finds himself in an improper place. But for a mere receiver to be close to God is also an improper place. Therefore, we describe this feeling as one of shame.

In Part 6, we'll examine how "doing good unto others" is a key component of spiritual health.

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

Related Posts

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram