> Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner

Purpose: Heartbeat of Creation

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner

When "bad things happen to good people," by what standard does one define "bad"?

Click here to read the first part of this series.

Judaism begins with the belief in a Creator of the entire universe. The history of our people commences with Avraham's question, "Who created the world?" (cf. Bereishis Rabbah 39:1). That question led him to the recognition of God as the Creator.

God existed prior to Creation, and that Creation remains dependent upon Him. Creation came into being as an expression of His will and is dependent on Him; it continues to exist only by virtue of a continued infusion of His creative energy. This is stated in the first of the Thirteen Principles of Faith based on Maimonides: "The Creator, Blessed is His Name, creates and guides all creatures, and He alone created, creates, and will create everything."

Intelligent beings do not act without some purpose, and certainly the Supreme Intelligence must be assumed to act in a purposeful fashion.

Now, if God created the world and continues to sustain it, He must have had some purpose. Intelligent beings do not act without some purpose, and certainly the Supreme Intelligence must be assumed to act in a purposeful fashion. Prior to Creation, God was complete unto Himself. He had no need for the world, for He lacked nothing. Indeed, as the Kabbalists put it, He had to make room for the world, as it were, through an act of voluntary contraction.

Creation, then, has a goal. A crucial corollary to this belief is: God created the world in such a way as to ensure that it would eventually reach the goal for which He intended it. No one invests his time and energy for no reason. And neither did God.

True, we often start projects with great expectations and subsequently find ourselves incapable of realizing our hopes for one reason or another. But we err if we project our own limitations onto God. We are incapable of accurately foreseeing all the intervening events that may prevent us from realizing our goal, and our abilities may prove unequal to our aspirations.

God, however, suffers no such limitations. First, it is another one of our fundamental beliefs that God has absolute foreknowledge of everything that will ever happen. Thus it is absurd to suggest that He created a world in which His very purpose in creating it could not be realized.

Furthermore, we, as human beings, try to manipulate the pre-existing materials of the world to achieve our purposes. But God did not create the world from pre-existing material. He is the source of all the raw material from which the world is formed. He imbued everything with its potential. It is impossible to imagine those raw materials acting in a manner contrary to God's will. Moreover, God exercises a constant veto power over the direction in which His creation is headed. Nothing continues to exist except because of His sustaining power.

These points are crucial. Though we believe that God created the universe, we are generally oblivious to the implications of our belief. We continue to relate to God as if He too were a part of Creation -- a bigger and stronger part, to be sure, but a part nevertheless -- rather than as the independent Creator of all that exists. Because of this laziness of thought, we project our own limitations onto God and cannot conceive of Him as capable of overseeing every aspect of Creation.

But when we make ourselves aware of God's true relationship to Creation, we realize that just as God created the world with a purpose so He has the capability to provide whatever guidance is required to accomplish that goal. That ability is Divine Providence. Divine Providence posits that not only did God create the world for a specific purpose -- a purpose which remains constant for all time -- but that He maintains a relationship with His Creation sufficient to ensure that those purposes are ultimately achieved.

A belief in randomness cannot be reconciled with Divine Providence.

The traditional Jewish belief in Divine Providence is thus the antithesis of the view that there is a realm in which randomness governs. A belief in randomness cannot be reconciled with Divine Providence.

One of the crucial corollaries to the belief in Divine Providence is that not only does Creation as a whole have a particular purpose, but so does every single aspect of that Creation. Among those aspects of the created world are our lives. And just as God directs the totality of Creation towards its ultimate goal, so does He direct our lives in such a way as to make it possible for us to fulfill our purpose.

This realization has profound implications for our entire self-perception. For if our lives have purpose, and if God is continually overseeing our lives to ensure that we retain the possibility of fulfilling our purpose, it is impossible that some totally random event could knock us out of the ballpark in such a way as to prevent us from reaching the goal for which we were destined.

Divine Providence guarantees that we are provided with the necessary environment to accomplish our specific tasks. Nothing can destroy that capability.

Divine Providence requires that I think to myself, "I was brought into the world for a reason. God invested in me, and every moment that I am breathing, it is only because He still has hope that I will accomplish the tasks for which I was created." That view cannot be reconciled with the view that my life may be taken away from me at any moment for no reason whatsoever, through the workings of chance.

Providence endows my life with significance. Randomness takes this away. How much value can there be to life that can be snatched away at any moment for no reason?


Harold Kushner asks how God can be good if our lives are not. Based on his perception of the quality of our lives, he proceeds to judge God and finds Him wanting -- too wanting, in fact, to believe that He has anything to do with the quality of our lives.

Judging God is a dangerous game, for it means employing the standards of our finite intelligence to judge His infinite intelligence.

Judging God is a dangerous game, for it means employing the standards of our finite intelligence to judge His infinite intelligence. Yet if we ask the question of why certain things are happening to us, not to judge God, but to clarify the nature of our relationship, the question is not only legitimate but essential. A failure to ask the question would itself betray a lack of trust in God, and imply that He has no connection to what happens to us. A faith too timid to confront these questions cannot anchor our sense of the deeper reality underlying the sensory world.

Now, it must be clear that Kushner's question presupposes a clear cut standard by which to evaluate the quality of our lives. He entitled his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But, if we look at his use of the terms "good" and "bad," it would appear that they are not being used consistently.

Kushner uses "good" and "bad" as synonyms for pleasant and unpleasant. A good life is a pleasant one in his view. As applied to people, he uses "good" to mean affable and pleasant. Classical Jewish thought, however, deals with the issue of the suffering of the "righteous" -- those who lead their lives consonant with God's Will.

The use of "good" and "bad" as synonyms for "pleasant" and "unpleasant" is not very satisfactory. Much that is pleasant nevertheless has very negative consequences, and that which is unpleasant can be very positive.

Smoking may be pleasant, but it kills. Many medicines are bitter -- some, like those used in chemotherapy, extremely so -- yet they can save lives.

In place of pleasant and unpleasant, Jewish thought insists on another standard of evaluation: purposeful and not purposeful. Nothing is more essential to our status as human beings than the pursuit of meaning in our lives. That quest grows from the fact that each of us is made up of a body that is physical, and which will eventually cease to exist, and a soul that is infinite.

The soul craves connection to the Infinite from which it came; a connection to something beyond the confines of the body and physical existence. That connection can only make sense in the context of a structure of meaning anchored outside the self. The search for such a structure in itself reflects the need of the soul for a connection to the Infinite.

The greatest pain that a human being can experience is the sense that the events of his or her life lack any purpose and are not directed towards any goal. Purpose is an essential aspect of all intelligent activity, and as intelligent beings the failure to find any purpose in our lives undermines our entire sense of self. Where a sense of purpose exists, we are able to endure incredible suffering, for that suffering does not violate the awareness of our essential humanity. On the other hand, where it is absent, there is only a sense of inner emptiness, no matter how many pleasurable sensations one experiences.

Once purpose becomes the yardstick by which we evaluate our lives, we are forced to identify the purpose of our lives. Since the quest for meaning reflects the quest of our souls for connection with the Infinite, that meaning or purpose must exist outside of ourselves. This quest for meaning inevitably leads us to ask: Why did God create us?


Why did God create the world? What did He seek to accomplish? Obviously He needed nothing from the Creation since He is by definition complete and perfect unto Himself. "Need" implies that one lacks something, and God could not have lacked anything He Himself created.

To fully understand God's purpose would require knowledge of God prior to His interaction with His Creation -- i.e., knowledge of His essence, not just how He expresses Himself in human history -- and that is beyond the reach of human understanding. We can know nothing of God prior to Creation.

We must therefore turn to the Torah, as we do for all knowledge that is both essential and beyond our capacity to derive by ourselves. And when we look into the Torah, we find that God created the world out of a desire to give. As King David says in Psalms, "... a world which manifests Your loving kindness, You did build" (Psalms 89:3). Giving requires a receiver. So God created human beings to be the recipients of His bounty.

God's giving bears no comparison to our giving. When we reach into our pocket to give charity to a poor individual, for instance, we do so, in part, to relieve a feeling of discomfort caused by the sight of a fellow human being in need. Prior to Creation, however, there was nothing outside of God, nothing to arouse feelings of pity. Thus His desire to give was completely generated from within Himself. It was an expression of His overflowing goodness.

We human beings may give out of a variety of motivations, some good and some bad. Giving in order to aggrandize oneself at the expense of another or to manipulate another by fostering dependence fall into the latter category. Such giving is in reality taking. But since God needs nothing, His giving is never motivated by a desire to take. It is of necessity without taint of self-interest and solely for the benefit of the recipient.

As a perfect giver, God wants to give the perfect gift. That gift is the possibility of a connection with God Himself, for He Himself is the source of all true good. Therefore God created a being who is capable of cleaving to Him.

God could give endlessly, but that would not be for our ultimate good as recipients. Indeed, it would ultimately destroy the possibility of giving at all. Were God's goodness to flow automatically to us, we would cease to be independent beings and become mere extensions of Him. The first condition of giving -- the existence of an entity distinct from the giver -- would be destroyed.

True giving, then, is predicated on the existence of the human self. Free gifts undermine our sense of self. When we receive something without earning it or being worthy of it, we disappear in the awareness of our total dependence upon the giver. Anyone who has received an undeserved gift recognizes this. As much as we might enjoy the gift itself, we experience an embarrassment that is akin to a little death of self.

We enjoy that which is the product of our efforts far more than any gift. A person prefers one kav (a measure of 2.2 liters) of his own produce to nine kav of others, say our Sages (Bava Metzia 38a) precisely because that kav represents the fruits of his own efforts. Similarly, a teenager who works for a year to buy an old Ford, which he himself then keeps running smoothly, derives more pleasure from it than a peer who borrows his father's BMW whenever he wants. It makes no difference that the BMW is the better car, for it represents nothing of his own efforts.

We prefer what we earn over what is given to us because the desire to earn reflects the underlying nature of reality. Creation, as an expression of God's giving, is only comprehensible in the context of our capacity to earn His bounty, for only that capacity makes us independent recipients.

Now we can understand why God does not simply give us everything that we want, unrelated to our worthiness to receive. To do so would not be to our benefit, for we would lose our ability to enter into a relationship with God. And giving which is not for our good would itself not be consistent with God's desire to give.

Note that this description of God's giving also imposes obligations upon us. For if the sole purpose of Creation is only that God be able to give, then we have a reciprocal obligation to make ourselves the worthy recipients of His bounty. Our failure to do so stymies the purpose of Creation itself.

This description of God's purpose provides us with an entirely new measuring stick to evaluate our lives. No longer will we judge our lives in terms of pleasure and pain, for pleasure and pain do not by themselves provide meaning to life. True, we still hope that our lives will be pleasurable, but even very great pain need not raise fundamental questions about God's goodness. For even great pain may be judged good if it prepares us for our purpose in life, which is to enter into a relationship with God. From this standpoint, our maturity as Jews is measured by the degree to which we define ourselves, not in terms of our immediate circumstances, but in terms of our ultimate goal of becoming worthy of receiving from God.

Viewing life through the perspective of purpose forces us to ask: Is my pain bringing me closer to my ultimate goal in life?

Applying the standard of purpose to judge the events of our lives dramatically alters our perspective on the challenge that suffering poses to faith. We typically perceive human suffering as unjust, and thus a contradiction to our belief in a just God. Purpose, however, broadens our frame of reference in such a way that the question disappears.

Viewing life through the perspective of purpose forces us to ask: Is my pain bringing me closer to my ultimate goal in life? To answer that question requires a good deal more information than simply evaluating the degree of present suffering. The relevant time frame now includes the future. In order to justify God's ways, we are no longer limited to evaluating present experiences as responses to past actions; our present experiences are also opportunities for future growth. A particular experience, for instance, may offer such potential for growth as to far outweigh the immediate pain.

We are not prophets, and so we cannot know the future. But all of us know from personal experience that what appears to us today as a devastating setback may turn out to be the source of our greatest blessing. Certainly we know many who have reached their fullest potential as human beings only in the face of adversity.

Judgments based on the narrow lens of the present must be tempered by the knowledge that we are observing only a small fraction of the relevant tableau. The present pain threatens to overwhelm all else and obscure the magnitude of the reward that potentially awaits us. That reward, as we shall see in the next chapter, is far greater than any pleasure in this world. But without awareness of its existence, we lack the tools to properly assess whether our present suffering is "worth it."

Asking ourselves whether present suffering is purposeful -- i.e., is it bringing us closer to God -- not only helps us reevaluate suffering that seems undeserved, but also that which may appear to us to be deserved. If someone does something wrong, and subsequently something bad happens to him or her, the natural tendency is to chalk up the latter event as some form of punishment from God -- the just desserts of his action, as it were.

Yet there is no such concept in the Torah of God meting out punishment in this world. God never simply inflicts pain as punishment, for such punishment has nothing to do with His purpose in creating the world. His purpose was to give. What we term "deserved suffering" from our perspective is not designed to punish, but rather to make it possible for God to give to the person thus afflicted, either by purging him of impurities caused by his sins or by directing him back to the correct path. What we perceive as "punishments" are pathways to enable man to come closer to God.


We might still ask: If God created the world in order to give, why must He be the one to define the nature of the gift? If we are content with the immediate pleasures of this world, why can't God just give us these? Why must we accept pain and suffering as prods to return us to a path leading to closeness to God? After all, true giving is for the benefit of the recipient, not the one giving. Why can't we choose the good we want to receive? Why must our lives run according to His standard?

From what we have already said, the answer to these questions should be apparent. Man's search for meaning, as described above, is the quest of a soul seeking to break free of the constraints of the finite body to fulfill a purpose that has been determined outside of itself. That external standard is established by God, the Infinite Other, Who stands completely independent of us.

God imbued the universe with purpose. He created us in order to make possible the most perfect gift, a relationship with Him. Anything that does not facilitate that relationship is by definition devoid of meaning and deters us from the purpose for which we were created.

The above questions betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of our existence. They start with the attitude that having been brought into existence against our will, we nevertheless possess our lives once here. We, not God, should determine the conditions of our further existence.

The Jewish view, however, is the opposite. Our existence requires God's continual support every moment. Were He to cease to sustain us for even one instant, we would vanish completely. And He only continues to support our existence as a vehicle for reaching the goals for which we were brought into this world in the first place. God wants us to choose life over death. If we choose not to draw close to Him, we are effectively choosing death. By pursuing the pleasures of the world we cut ourselves off from Him.

Because of His desire to give, God cannot simply let us kill ourselves (though we may eventually succeed). Imagine a father who gives his college-bound son a credit card. Rather than using the credit card for school expenses, the son uses the credit card for drugs and fast cars. One day the father receives news that his son overdosed in his new sports car. Needless to say he immediately cancels his son's credit card. The father did not give his son a credit card to facilitate his self-destruction, and will show no sympathy to his son's protestations that he is entitled to use the credit card as he wishes.

Similarly, God does everything in His power to keep us from destroying ourselves, which is what we do when we render ourselves unfit to receive His bounty.

An excerpt from "Making Sense of Suffering: A Jewish Approach" by Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner, prepared for publication by Jeremy Kagan and Yonoson Rosenblum (Artscroll Publications).

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