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The Essence of Mankind

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

Human beings are defined by the power of free will.

For man to fulfill the purpose of creation, he must be aware of that purpose.

Understanding the purpose of creation obviously does not mean fathoming God's internal reasons. Since we cannot understand God, we certainly cannot understand His motivation.

Still, we can look at God's creation, and seek to comprehend the reason for its existence. We can also study what God Himself has taught about the purpose of creation.

Since God is absolutely perfect in Himself, it is obvious that he had no inner need to create the universe. It must therefore be concluded that God's creation of the universe was a most perfect act of altruism and love. It is thus written, "The world is built of love" (Psalms 89:3).

God thus created the world to bestow good to His handiwork. It is thus written, "God is good to all; His love is on all His works" (Psalms 145:9). God Himself called His creation good, as it is written, "God saw all that He made, and behold it was very good" (Genesis 1:35).

Even things that appear contrary to this purpose are all part of God's plan. It is thus written, "God has made everything for His own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Proverbs 16:4).

God's ability is limitless, and it therefore follows that His love and altruism are unlimited, resulting in the greatest benefit for all creation.

Partaking of God's Goodness

God defines all good. Therefore, the greatest possible benefit is that which comes most directly from God Himself.

God created a universe where His essence is undetectable.

In order for something to be appreciated, or even detected, some degree of contrast is required. Thus, in order for the universe to experience God's presence, it must first experience His absence. In order to provide the greatest possible contrast God thus created the universe as an environment where His essence would be undetectable.

To fulfill His goal, God created the universe as an environment for a creature capable of partaking of His goodness. The creature would be capable of understanding, joy, and happiness, as well as of communing with God. This creature is man.

Everything in the world is thus a means through which man becomes able to attain God's goodness. It is thus taught that upon completing His creation, before creating man, God said, "If there are no guests, what pleasure has the King with all the good things He has provided?"

Man was therefore created as a creature capable to some degree of understanding, and ultimately experiencing the greatest possible good, which is God Himself. It can therefore be said that God's purpose in creation was to allow Himself to be experienced by a creature far removed and much lower than Himself. It is thus taught that God created the universe because "He desired an abode in the lower world."

God caused man to have a psychological makeup with which he would experience the greatest possible pleasure in doing something that he knew to be good and beneficial. This pleasure is enhanced according to the importance of the authority declaring that a given action is good. Since God Himself is the highest possible authority, there can be no greater pleasure in performing a job well done than in knowingly obeying the expressed will of God.

There no greater pleasure than obeying the will of God.

For this reason God revealed His will to man. God thus said, "I am God your Lord, who teaches you for our profit, who leads you by the way you should go" (Isaiah 48:17).

Obedience to God's will therefore fulfills His altruistic purpose in creation. The Psalmist thus said, "You let me know the path of life; in our presence is the fullness of joy; in Your right hand, eternal bliss" (Psalms 16:11).

Free Will

In order to enjoy the pleasure of such accomplishment, it is imperative that man know that his accomplishment is a matter of his own free choice, and not the result of his nature of compulsion. So that all choices of action be up to the individual, God gave man absolute free will.

Free will is required by God's justice. Otherwise, man would not be given or denied good for actions over which he had no control. Beyond this, however, it is also required by the very purpose for which He created the universe, namely, that He give man good through the pleasures of his own accomplishment.

Since the ultimate good is God Himself, the greatest possible good that He can bestow is Himself. There is no greater good than achieving a degree of unity with God, the Creator of all good. Since God desires to give man the greatest good possible, He gave him the ability to resemble Himself.

This is another reason that God gave man free will. Just as God acts as a free Being, so does man. Just as God acts without prior restraint, so does man. Just as God can do good as a matter of His own free choice, so can man. Man is therefore spoken of as being created in the image of God.

In order for man to have true free choice, he must not only have inner freedom of will, but also an environment in which a choice between obedience and disobedience exists.

So that such a choice can exist, God created a world where both good and evil can freely operate. He thus said, "I form light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I am God. I do all these things" (Isaiah 45:7).

The Purpose of Evil

God made man's psychology so that the more difficult an accomplishment, the more satisfaction there is in doing it. God then created the world so that it should present man with the greatest possible challenge.

The world was therefore created as a place where it would be possible, but very difficult, to obey God. God allows evil and temptation to exist, even though they may cause people to abandon Him and ignore His teachings. Although some may stray through their own choice, this is the price that must be paid so that the reward for those who choose good will be maximized. It is thus taught that for the sake of the righteous the world was created.

God allows temptation to exist, even though people may thus abandon His teachings.

Therefore, even the evil and temptations of the world serve the divine purpose of enhancing the satisfaction of accomplishment of those who overcome them. They thus serve an important function in man's ultimate reward, and hence, in God's purpose.

The greater the barriers that must be overcome, the greater the satisfaction and reward in overcoming them. It is thus taught, "Reward is according to suffering."

God may have created the possibility of evil, but He created it in order that man should overcome it. It is thus written, "Behold, the fear of God, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil, that is understanding" (Job 28:28).

Dichotomy of Reward

There is an important dichotomy between the environment required to serve God, and that required for the satisfaction and reward for such service. In order to gain the maximum satisfaction of accomplishment, one must obey God's will in an environment which presents the maximum allowable challenge for the individual. It must therefore be an environment in which neither God Himself, nor the divine nature of God's commandments, is obvious. On the other hand, both God and the divine nature of His commandments must be as obvious as possible in the environment where man is to enjoy the fruit of his deeds. The more obvious this is then, the greater will be the satisfaction and reward for man's accomplishment.

God therefore created two levels to existence. He created the present world (Olam HaZeh), as an environment of challenge and accomplishment, where man earns his ultimate reward. He also created a second level, the World to Come (Olam Haba), as the world of ultimate reward. This will be a world where the true nature of all our deeds is perfectly obvious.

The existence of these two worlds thus resolves the dichotomy. This present world exists as the place of maximum challenge, where the World to Come is the environment of the greatest possible realization of accomplishment.

All in Your Hands

The principle that man has absolute free will, with the ability to choose between good and evil, is therefore a foundation of our faith. The Torah thus says, "I call heaven and earth to bear witness this day, for I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life, so that you and our children may live" (Deut. 30:19).

Every person can therefore choose his own path in life, whether good or evil. Each individual has the ability to attain the highest human perfection, or to sink to the lowest levels of evil and degradation. If a person chooses evil and fails to heed the call to righteousness, he has no cause to complain, for the decision is his alone. It is thus written, "Evil and good come not from the mouth of the Most High. Why then should a living man complain, a strong man, because of his sins?" (Lamentations 3:38)

A person cannot always determine his circumstances and natural capabilities, and these may limit his sphere of activity. Still, every person has the ultimate choice whether or not to serve God according to his ability. It is thus taught, "All is in the hand of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven."

The very indeterminacy inherent in the quantum nature of matter indicates that the universe was created as an arena for a free-willed creature. It is this freedom of will that gives man a wider choice than merely to react to his surroundings. Therefore, although a person's actions may be influenced by his heredity and environment, neither of these absolutely determines his actions.

No Reduction of Free Will

When we understand God's purpose in creation, we can also understand why an omnipotent God does not force man to do good and obey His commandments. If God would force man to obey His commandments, their entire purpose would be negated. God may want us to do good, but only as a matter of free will.

God does not derive any benefit from our actions.

All ethics and morality only exist for the benefit of man, and this benefit is only attained when man acts as a free agent. Morality as such does not affect God in any way, nor does He derive any benefit from our good. Similarly, evil may ultimately harm its perpetrator, but it can never actually affect God. God thus said, "Am I then the one they anger?… Is it rather not they themselves, for their own shame?" (Jeremiah 7:19). God therefore has no intrinsic reason to force man to do good or refrain from evil.

Since free will is a prime ingredient of God's purpose, He does not do anything in this world that might destroy or diminish man's choice between good and evil. Therefore, He does not openly reward the good or punish the wicked in this world; it would diminish man's freedom to sin. Similarly, God does not permit any manifest miracles where they would determine one's freedom of choice.

Knowing the Future

The fact that God is omniscient and knows the future does not contradict the principle of man's free choice. This apparent paradox stems from the fact that we cannot understand precisely how God knows anything, much less how He knows the future. As long as man is bound to this physical world, and his mind is limited by the bonds of time, he cannot see beyond time where the resolution of this paradox exists. However, to the limit of our understanding, we know that God somehow restricts His knowledge of the future in order to give man free will. The main point is that, although we might not understand how, God's knowledge of the future in no way deprives the individual of his own free choice.

We know that God exists outside of time. Therefore, His knowledge of the future is exactly the same as His knowledge of the past and present. Just as His knowledge of the past does not interfere with man's free will, neither does His knowledge of the future.

As Creator of time, God can do with it as He wills. Moreover, time was not created because God Himself needed it, but because it was required to make the world an arena of action, for man's own ultimate benefit. It is thus taught, "All is foreseen, but free choice is given; the world is judged for good, and all is according to one's works." Both time and the apparent paradox were created so that God would attain His ultimate purpose: to "judge the world for good." It can then be an environment where "all is according to one's deeds."

There are occasions where God reveals the future actions of an individual to a prophet. Nonetheless, such prophecy is contingent upon the individual's free choice, and is not absolutely binding. God merely reveals to the prophet the most probable course of events based on the individual's nature. This does not bar the individual from going against his nature; such a change of mind is by no means precluded by the prophecy.

Similarly, there are cases where God reveals to a prophet that those not yet born will be wicked. Here too, He is merely revealing their most likely future, based on heredity and environment, but he ultimate choice is still up to the individual.

Even when God does reveal to a prophet that an individual will do evil, He does not reveal the extent of this evil. Therefore, the fact that their evil has already been predicted, does not exempt them from punishment.

Thus, God told Abraham, "Know for sure that your offspring will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs… and that nation will afflict them… But I will then punish the nation whom they shall serve" (Genesis 15:13-14). Although there had been a decree that the Egyptians subjugate the Israelites, individuals would be judged for their actions. The Egyptians were also punished for maximizing the suffering of the Israelites. God thus said, "I am sorely displeased with the nations… I was a little displeased, but they helped add to the evil" (Zechariah 1:15).

Course of History

Although God does not determine the conduct of individuals, he does determine the large scale course of history. Therefore, the collective wills of nations and societies are largely determined by God. Still, each individual retains free will to overcome his environment.

To influence the course of history, God often guides the will of kings and other important leaders. It is thus written, "As streams of water, the king's heart is in God's hand, He turns it wherever He wills" (Proverbs 21:1).

Although God does not influence a person's actions directly, He does occasionally plant thoughts in one's mind to lead him along the path He wills.

The individual, however, has the free choice whether to follow these thoughts or not.

It is thus taught that God leads a person along the path that he has chosen to follow. God may plant ideas in his mind that are conducive to helping him follow the correct path, or may otherwise bring about events to encourage him. It is taught, "One who comes to cleanse himself is helped [by God]." The Psalmist thus prayed, "Teach me Your ways, O God, that I may walk in Your truth; dedicate my heart to revere Your name" (Psalms 86:11).

God may similarly bring about circumstances which will be conducive for a righteous person to do good. Likewise, He gives the wicked every opportunity and circumstance in which to continue doing evil. It is thus taught, "When one comes to defile himself, the door is opened for him." In all such cases, however, the final choice is with the individual.

A person may occasionally be so wicked that the ultimate benefit of humanity requires that the choice be taken away from him, and that he lose the power to repent. An example of this occurred when God told His prophet, "Make the heart of this people fat, make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes, so that they will not… return and be healed" (Isaiah 6:10). This is also the significance of God's word to Moses, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and thus multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 7:3). In all such cases, God does not initially decree that the person be wicked, but once his wickedness surpasses certain bounds, free choice to repent is taken away from him. It is thus taught that God first warns the sinner three times, but if the warning is not heeded, then the gates of repentance may be closed.

Reward for Action

Ultimately, then, all of life is a test. However, there are times that God puts an individual through an especially difficult test. In such a case, a person is placed in a situation where his devotion and faith are tested.

God does not put a person to a difficult test unless He knows that the person will pass it. It is thus written, "God tests the righteous, but His spirit hates the wicked" (Psalms 11:5). It is taught, "The potter does not tap vessels that are easily broken, but only vessels that are strong. God similarly does not test the wicked, but the righteous."

Since God is omniscient, He has no need to test people to see what they will do. When He tests a person it is to bring out his latent potential and allow him to express it in action.

God therefore sometimes tests a person in order to reward him. This is because there is no reward for potential alone, as it is written, "Your work shall be rewarded" (2-Chronicles 15:7). A test may also make a task more difficult so as to increase its reward.

Moreover, a test is often needed to make a person's potential and ability known to himself so as to increase his self-confidence. In some cases, God also tests a person in order to make his good qualities known to others. It is for this reason that God often tests a person before choosing him for greatness or leadership.

Although God might guide or test man, the final choice between good and evil ultimately rests with the individual. Whether a person does right or wrong, it is totally up to him. Every normal person can always control his actions, if he only tries hard enough. Man was created to be master of his fate, and as such, he bears the full responsibility for it.

From "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 1), Maznaim Publishing. Reprinted with permission.


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