At the risk of stepping on many a philosopher’s toes, we shall address a classic question: Why did Hashem create the world? This question is difficult for a philosopher who has no handed-down tradition with which to base an answer on and instead has to rely on the subjective, and time and socially-sensitive human mind. Fortunately, we have the framework of tradition and a wealth of sources to draw on, as the Kuzari highlights. Note that we cannot fully fathom any of G-d’s actions; a finite understanding of the infinite is futile and impossible and many sources state this expressly. The Rambam states that we cannot work out why Hashem would want to create a world. The most we can do, as the Abarbanel points out, is work backwards and determine our role and the purpose of this world now that the world has been created. If we examine a factory that produces plastic bottles, we will only see what the factory produces, and not the intention behind the factory’s creation. We would never assume that a love for plastic bottles is the reason the factory was created. All we can do is describe the factory’s output. So too, when looking at the world we cannot gain a complete understanding of why G-d might have decided to make a world (no less than we can gain a complete understanding of G-d Himself). But we can work backwards; we can see how the world functions and learn about G-d and our mission from this. As the Rambam and Radak write, examining the world should lead us to some understanding of and both love and awe of Hashem. The Ramchal goes further and opines that we can understand Hashem’s attributes via the way He set up the world. (Note that since the world echoes Torah, Avraham understood Torah from looking into the world, and that the human body too echoes Torah – this can also be used for a vehicle to understand G-d and His kindness; see Radak, Yeshaya 43:7). So, now we can ask, why did Hashem create the world?
The classic answer to ‘Why was the world created’, as outlined by the Ramchal in his sefer Derech Hashem, is that Hashem is goodness embodied, and something that is good by nature bestows good upon others. In other words, Hashem created this world in order to give us reward. But in order to give us true, non-fleeting, eternal spiritual reward, we need to earn and acquire it ourselves. This way, we would not feel bad for having received a free gift, and crucially, we would become more like Hashem who is completely independent.
In brief, this world was created for our benefit: to allow us to earn reward, which will be given to us in the World to Come. However, this seems to be in major conflict with several sources that imply a different reason for the world’s creation.
The Netziv in his introduction to Shemos writes that this world was created to give Hashem honor, and cites a wealth of sources as proof. In our daily uva letzion prayerwe say ‘Blessed is our G-d who created us for his honor’ (‘baruch Hu Elokeinu shebaranu lichvodo’). And the final sentence of the sixth perek of Pirkei Avos reads: “Everything that Hashem created in this world was created for His honor” – with the same sentiments echoed in the Gemara Shabbos. Indeed, no less than the prophet Yeshaya declares (43:7) “Everyone who is called by My Name and whom I have created for My glory.” The Ramchal argues that the world was created for us, while the Netziv and his sources seem to say that the world was created for Hashem. And the Ramchal certainly has no authority to argue against the calibre of sources brought by the Netziv. How are we to reconcile these two positions?
As is often the case in Torah, and especially in matters of such depth and centrality, if we look deeply enough, we will understand that there is no argument whatsoever. Let us examine the Netziv’s idea that the‘world was created for Hashem’s honor’. It is axiomatic and undisputable in Jewish thought that Hashem is all-powerful and lacks nothing: such is the notion of an Omnipotent G-d. Yet surely the Netziv and the opinions he quotes have gone against this, for if the world is here to give Hashem honor, then it suggests that Hashem is lacking; before the world came about, He lacked honor, which He had to fill by creating this world? In his footnotes to the Ramchal’s Da’as Tevunos, Rav Chaim Freidlander provides the missing link here, shedding light on this problem.
Rav Freidlander writes that essentially both the Ramchal and the Netziv’s positions are true, but one touches on the underlying cause, while the other outlines our mission in this world. Hashem lacks nothing; before the world was created He lacked no honor whatsoever. And Hashem did create the world to give good to us, so we could perform mitzvos through our own choice. But in order to facilitate our free will to perform mitzvos, Hashem created a mechanism whereby we could give honor to Him, so to speak, by every mitzvah giving Him glory. Therefore, in order to give us good, Hashem allowed us to give Him honor via our actions in this world. So both the Ramchal and the Netziv are correct. The reason the world was created was for our good, but our mission in this world (and the mechanism through which we earn this good) is via giving honor to Hashem. Thus, in Da’as Tevunos (58) the Ramchal also mentions that this world was created for Hashem’s honor, for this is our goal here.
One can ask further. It is interesting to note that the wealth of sources seemed to focus on the concept of giving glory to Hashem.. If, as we explained, the underlying reason for the world’s creation is to give us good, why do the sources focus on the secondary concept(or mechanism) of giving glory to Hashem?
There is limited value in merely philosophying about why Hashem created the world. Hashem gave us a rulebook called the Torah, and as long as we sincerely adhere to all that is written therein, what difference do the various philosophical nuances and reasoning make to our lives as observant Jews? In fact, Rav Dessler used to reprimand some of his students for engaging too much in philosophical endeavours at the expense of more practical disciplines. Therefore, the majority of sources focus on the concept of giving G-d honor, for that is our practical goal in this world.