I found myself consumed in the liturgy by the phrase “HaYom harat olam” (today the world is created) and with questions about the purpose of creation and of my personal existence. As we reflect on the direction of our lives between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we might ask ourselves why humans, generally as well as individually, were created.
In response to this philosophical question, the great 9th century Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon argued that we live in an anthropocentric, centripetal universe. Everything is moving in value towards the center, towards the human. The Rambam, however, rejects this view, arguing instead for a teleological view that God created everything for its own purpose and for the sake of God, not for man’s sake, and that the universe is centrifugal, with everything moving out in value from the center.
I feel personally challenged and inspired by the Rambam’s position for which there is a lot of textual support that everything has a purpose, not only humans, and that humans are not the center of reality and value. Everything has a purpose and nothing is purposeless (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3:17, 8:6). Rav Yehudah taught, “Of all that G-d created in the world, G-d did not create a single thing without a purpose” (Shabbat 77b); the Maharal understood this statement as follows: “All creatures were created because of the good inherent in them, and if the beings in existence did not have some good inherent in them they would not have been created. For whatever is not good, in essence, is unworthy of existence” (Derech HaChayim, Avot 1:2).
This notion of existence’s inherent goodness helps us to cultivate a humility that we humans are not above the rest of creation. Sustainability of the universe and all its inhabitants must be honored. We do not downplay the unique human dignity imbued in us when we embrace our lack of centrality. Rabbi Norman Lamm puts it well: “There is no need to exaggerate man’s importance, and to exercise a kind of racial or global arrogance, in order to discover the sources of man’s significance and uniqueness.”
When we don’t see ourselves as the sole purpose of existence, we can live in a complex society as more responsible beings. I quote 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas:
“If (the Other) were my only interlocutor, I would have nothing but obligations! But I don’t live in a world in which there is but one single ‘first comer’; there is always a third party in the world… my central idea is what I called an ‘asymmetry of intersubjectivity:’ the exceptional situation of the I. I always recall Dostoyevsky on this subject; one of his characters says: ‘we are all guilty for everything and everyone and I more than all others. But to this idea…I immediately add the concern for the third and, hence, justice.’”
When the purpose of creation is all about us, we may feel entitled. When we are not at the center, we may be more responsible and perhaps even “guilty.” We have responsibilities to the “other” on an interpersonal level, to the “third party” on a social justice level, and to all of existence on a teleological level.
Harvard Psychologist Bob Kegan explains that adults can progress through developmental stages from the impulsive, to the imperial, to the interpersonal, to the institutional, to the inter-individual. We are always fundamentally locked into our own minds but we can also transcend our egotistical limitations to reach greater levels of consciousness, mutuality, and intimacy. The foundation of our reality can become much more interconnected and interdependent. Our personal purpose is enhanced and actualized when it is interconnected with the multi-faceted purposes of other forms of existences.
Perhaps Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Psycha demonstrated it best when he taught that one should keep a slip of paper in each of one’s two pockets. On one it should be written, “the world was created for me,” and on the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” He taught “The true wisdom is to know which pocket to use and when one should read which slip.” We can embrace both aspects of life, what Rav Soloveitchik referred to as “Majesty and humility.” We should feel humbled that we were chosen for life, but also empowered to fulfill our calling in this world fulfilling our full human and individual potentials.
This Yom Kippur, may we realize our importance in creation and thus our responsibility, but may we embrace a larger perspective of our lives, of our planet, and of the cosmos. This can inspire awe, humility, and responsibility.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life and the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel, and a 6th year doctoral student at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” will be coming out in early 2012.