Rabbis, inspirational speakers, and psychologists alike invariably proclaim that we should strive for greatness; it seems as if the goal of life is to become great. Yet, very few people actually articulate or explain why we should strive for greatness.
Psychologists from across time and disciplines have often claimed that the secret to happiness is largely found in achievement and personal fulfillment. However, this obsession with achieving happiness reveals the assumption of popular psychology: The goal and purpose of life is to be happy.
Is this true? What is the Jewish perspective on this? Do we limit ourselves to our own individual happiness, or should we be striving for something even deeper and greater? Furthermore, some people might claim that they’re perfectly happy not striving for perfection. If greatness is merely to attain happiness, then if we achieve happiness without achieving greatness, there would be nothing wrong with that. This begs the question: Is there perhaps a deeper purpose to achieving greatness and striving for perfection?
In order to gain perspective on these questions, let us go back to a root topic that can shed light on the topics of happiness and striving for greatness. Many people who sincerely want to believe in Hashem, who have embarked on a genuine spiritual journey, are troubled by the following paradox: If we are to claim that Hashem, God of the universe, is perfect, then how can He create such an imperfect world? Wouldn’t a perfect God create a perfect world? Furthermore, if the purpose of life is to become perfect, why did Hashem create a world full of challenges and ordeals, making it difficult, if not nearly impossible, to reach perfection?
The Maharal, the Ramchal (Daas T’vunos), and many other key Jewish thinkers explain a fundamental reason for why Hashem created the world. Hashem is absolute and ultimate goodness. However, there are two aspects of goodness. Hashem is good, but He also has the ability to do good unto others. Before Hashem created the world, there was only Hashem Himself. Therefore, Hashem was internally good, but He was not actively expressing this goodness by giving or doing good unto others. Hashem chose to actualize His potential ability to give good unto others by creating Man, upon whom Hashem would bestow the ultimate goodness.
The Ultimate Good
If Hashem’s goal in creating the world was to bestow the ultimate goodness unto man, we must then ask: What is the ultimate goodness that Hashem can give? If Hashem Himself is the ultimate goodness, then the ultimate goodness Hashem can give is the ability to enjoy Hashem Himself, to enjoy G-dliness, enjoying the ultimate connection with Hashem. This is the ability to be all-knowing, all-kind, all-loving, all-powerful, to have complete self-control. These are truly G-dly experiences.
Marriage with Hashem
To explain this approach from a different angle, when Hashem created man, He did so to create a marriage relationship with him. Marriage is when two people connect in such a deep way that they fuse existentially into one. As we’ve explained in the past, this is why Adam and Chavah were originally created as one being: It was to show them, and us, that the goal of marriage is to become one, to recreate the original oneness that they once shared. This is also why the relationship between klal Yisrael and Hashem is referred to as a marriage. At Har Sinai, the Jewish people married Hashem; the mountain served as the chupah, the marriage canopy. Shir HaShirim is a sefer that Chazal interpret as being a description of the love relationship that exists between Hashem and the Jewish people. This is the original connection that Hashem intended to forge with Man when He created Him. Hashem therefore created us in this world to earn Olam HaBa, the World to Come, the place where each of us can enjoy this existential connection and oneness with Hashem. However, there is an obvious problem:
Why Not Free?
If Hashem’s goal was to give us the ultimate goodness, defined as connection and fusion with Him, and Olam HaBa is the place of this ultimate connection, then what’s the purpose of this world? Why did Hashem create us in this world, where we have to earn our share in the World to Come? If Hashem really wanted to give us the ultimate good, then why not give it to us to begin with? Why do we have to go through the difficult process of earning it in this world?
We Only Enjoy That Which We Earn
The Ramchal explains, based on the Talmud Yerushalmi, that human beings are created in such a way that we don’t enjoy free handouts. A poor person is embarrassed to receive money from people, as there is shame in receiving money you did not work for. This concept is referred to as “nahama d’kisufa” (the bread of embarrassment). There is an inherent embarrassment in receiving that which we did not earn, which is why, according to Halachah, it is better to give a loan to someone in need than a free handout. A loan will be paid back, granting the borrower a feeling of independence instead of shame. The ideal is to find him a job, because this gives him a more permanent sense of independence and dignity.
Had Hashem created us in Olam HaBa, the goodness we would have received would have been free, unearned. This is the type of perfection that mal’achim (angels) enjoy. However, this is not the ultimate enjoyment. The ultimate enjoyment is perfection that is earned, that is chosen, that is an expression of all the hard work you have invested. Psychologically, we feel so much more connected to achievements and rewards that we’ve earned than those that we received for free. Just think about a child who works for a week to earn $20 compared to that same child who gets $20 for free. He would feel very differently towards that money. Yet, while this appears to answer our question, there is still a very obvious problem.
Why Not Create Us Differently?
We understand that Hashem put us in this world in order to give us the opportunity to earn our reward, so that it can be infinitely more enjoyable than had we received it for free. Yet, if Hashem created the world, including humanity and our psychology, why couldn’t He simply create us in a way that we do enjoy gifts and free handouts as much as we enjoy things that we’ve earned through hard work? Understanding our current psychology and our need to earn our reward does not answer why our psychology is wired this way in the first place. Why did Hashem create us in this way?
Marriage: True Oneness
It’s crucial to understand that this enjoyment is not an artificial or external one. It is not a gift that can be given from one person to another. This is an existential relationship, a connection of true oneness. It is impossible for a human being to have any kind of meaningful relationship with a rock. A rock is fundamentally different from a human being and, as such, there cannot be true connection between the two. A true relationship, and deep connection, is only possible between two beings that are similar. This is why human beings are able to build such deep relationships with one another.
Had Hashem created us in Olam HaBa in such a way that we enjoyed free handouts, we would have been diametrically opposed to Hashem’s essence. Hashem is the ultimate giver, and we would be the takers; Hashem acts out of complete free will – we would have no choice. Hashem is the creator, we would be the created, with no power of creating; Hashem’s perfection is intrinsic (no one gave it to Him), while ours would be granted by Hashem. As fundamentally different, this would not allow for the ultimate connection with Hashem, and thus, Hashem would not be able to reveal the ultimate expression of His ability to give of His goodness to another.
This is why Hashem created us imperfect. We get to choose and earn our perfection, our G-dliness. Hashem is perfect; we get to become perfect. Hashem is good; we get to choose to become good. We are born imperfect with the goal of becoming G-dly, to become perfect, all-knowing, all-good, all-kind, to have complete self-control. However, this is the goal, not the starting point. We start out as animalistic beings. We are born with limited intellectual abilities and undeveloped character traits. We are selfish, we think that we are the only person who exists; we perceive ourselves as the center of our own universe – the exact opposite of G-dliness. The goal of life is to then become G-dly, to actualize our potential, and to become a perfected tzelem Elokim. As we’ve explained in the past, the fetus learns kol haTorah kulah in the womb, and then loses access to it upon being born into this world. We are born imperfect so that we can take the journey through this world of becoming perfect, with the goal of recreating and earning what we originally received as a gift.
This is why we are given free will. We are tasked with the mission of choosing good, choosing perfection. Our mission in this world is to become great, to become G-dly. We live in a world of time and movement, of process and change, as our job in this world is to evolve and grow. Perfection lies in a transcendent realm, beyond process, beyond time. Becoming perfect requires time, movement, and process. We need to learn to ride the waves of time, the 86,400 seconds in our day, utilizing them to the best of our ability.
The challenges we face are not meant to stop us from achieving our greatness, but the opposite. The Ramban explains that the purpose of challenges is to push us out of our comfort zone, to help us achieve our true potential. Only when we are pushed to our limits do we begin to realize what we are truly capable of.
Our Olam HaBa Experience
Olam HaBa is the experience of everything we’ve built in this lifetime. Some people mistakenly think that the World to Come is a place where you receive an enjoyable reward, some kind of external prize. In reality, as the Ramchal, the Nefesh HaChayim, and others explain, Olam HaBa is where you experience you. It is where you enjoy the ecstatic experience of the person and consciousness you’ve created – everything you’ve built and become during your lifetime. The problem is that many people think that they’ll live forever. In truth, time is dying. Every second fades away. But the question isn’t “How much time do we have left?”; it’s: “What will we do with the time we have left?” May we be inspired to utilize as many of the 86,400 seconds of each and every day, and may each of us achieve our true greatness.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.