CONCERNING MAN'S DUTY IN THE WORLD
THE FOUNDATION OF SAINTLINESS and the root of perfection in the service of God lies in a man's coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors all the days of his life.
Our Sages of blessed memory have taught us that man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in God and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His Presence; for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found. The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avorh 4:21), "This world is like a corridor to the World to Come."
The means which lead a man to this goal are the mitzvoth, in relation to which we were commanded by the Lord, may His Name be blessed. The place of the performance of the mitzvoth is this world alone.
Therefore, man was placed in this world first - so that by these means, which were provided for him here, he would be able to reach the place which had been prepared for him, the World to Come, there to be sated with the goodness which he acquired through them. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Eruvin 22a), "Today for their [the mitzvoth's] performance and tomorrow for receiving their reward."
When you look further into the matter, you will see that only union with God constitutes true perfection, as King David said (Psalms 73:28), "But as for me, the nearness of God is my good," and (Psalms 27:4), "I asked one thing from God; that will I seek - to dwell in God's house all the days of my life..." For this alone is the true good, and anything besides this which people deem good is nothing but emptiness and deceptive worthlessness. For a man to attain this good, it is certainly fitting that he first labor and persevere in his exertions to acquire it. That is, he should persevere so as to unite himself with the Blessed One by means of actions which result in this end. These actions are the mitzvoth.
The Holy One Blessed be He has put man in a place where the factors which draw him further from the Blessed One are many. These are the earthy desires which, if he is pulled after them, cause him to be drawn further from and to depart from the true good. It is seen, then, that man is veritably placed in the midst of a raging battle. For all the affairs of the world, whether for the good or for the bad, are trials to a man: Poverty on the one hand and wealth on the other, as Solomon said (Proverbs 30:9), "Lest I become satiated and deny, saying, "Who is God?' or lest I become impoverished and steal..." Serenity on the one hand and suffering on the other; so that the battle rages against him to the fore and to the rear. If he is valorous, and victorious on all sides, he will be the "Whole Man," who will succeed in uniting himself with his Creator, and he will leave the corridor to enter into the Palace, to glow in the light of life. To the extent that he has subdued his evil inclination and his desires, and withdrawn from those factors which draw him further from the good, and exerted himself to become united with it, to that extent will he attain it and rejoice in it.
If you look more deeply into the matter, you will see that the world was created for man's use. In truth, man is the center of a great balance. For if he is pulled after the world and is drawn further from his Creator, he is damaged, and he damages the world with him. And if he rules over himself and unites himself with his Creator, and uses the world only to aid him in the service of his Creator, he is uplifted and the world itself is uplifted with him. For all creatures are greatly uplifted when they serve the "Whole Man," who is sanctified with the holiness of the Blessed One. It is as our Sages of blessed memory have said in relation to the light that the Holy One Blessed be He stored away for the righteous (Chagiga 12a): "When the Holy One Blessed be He saw the light that He had stored away for the righteous, He rejoiced, as it is said (Proverbs 13:9), "The light of the righteous rejoices.' " And in relation to the "stones of the place" that Jacob took and put around his head they said (Chulin 916), "R. Yitzchak said, "This teaches us that they [the stones] gathered themselves into one spot, each one saying, "Let the righteous one lay his head upon me." Our Sages of blessed memory drew our attention to this principle in Midrash Koheleth, where they said (Koheleth Rabbah 7:28) - 'See the work of God...' (Ecclesiastes 7:13). When the Holy One Blessed be He created Adam, He took him and caused him to pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden. He said to him, "See how beautiful and praiseworthy are my works; and all that I have created, I have created for your sake. Take heed that you do not damage and destroy my world.' "
To summarize, a man was created not for his station in this world, but for his station in the World to Come. It is only that his station in this world is a means towards his station in the World to Come, which is the ultimate goal. This accounts for numerous statements of our Sages of blessed memory, all in a similar vein, likening this world to the place and time of preparation, and the next world to the place which has been set aside for rest and for the eating of what has already been prepared. This is their intent in saying (Avoth 4:21), "This world is similar to a corridor ...," as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Eruvin 22a), "Today for their performance and tomorrow to receive their reward," "He who exerted himself on Friday will eat on the Sabbath" (Avodah Zarah 3a), "This world is like the shore and the World to Come like the sea ..." (Koheleth Rabbah 1:36), and many other statements along the same lines.
And in truth, no reasoning being can believe that the purpose of man's creation relates to his station in this world. For what is a man's life in this world! Who is truly happy and content in this world? "The days of our life are seventy years, and, if exceedingly vigorous, eighty years, and their persistence is but labor and foolishness" (Psalms 90:10). How many different kinds of suffering, and sicknesses, and pains and burdens! And after all this - death! Not one in a thousand is to be found to whom the world has yielded a superabundance of gratifications and true contentment. And even such a one, though he attain to the age of one hundred years, passes and vanishes from the world. Furthermore, if man had been created solely for the sake of this world, he would have had no need of being inspired with a soul so precious and exalted as to be greater than the angels themselves, especially so in that it derives no satisfaction whatsoever from all of the pleasures of this world. This is what our Sages of blessed memory teach us in Midrash (Koheleth Rabbah), "'And also the soul will not be filled' (Eccelesiastes 6:7) What is this analogous to? To the case of a city dweller who married a princess. If he brought her all that the world possessed, it would mean nothing to her, by virtue of her being a king's daughter. So is it with the soul. If it were to be brought all the delights of the world, they would be as nothing to it, in view of its pertaining to the higher elements." And so do our Sages of blessed memory say (Avoth 4:29), "Against your will were you created, and against your will were you born." For the soul has no love at all for this world. To the contrary, it despises it. The Creator, Blessed be His Name, certainly would never have created something for an end which ran contrary to its nature and which it despised.
Man was created, then, for the sake of his station in the World to Come. Therefore, this soul was placed in him. For it befits the soul to serve God; and through it a man may be rewarded in his place and in his time. And rather than the world's being despicable to the soul, it is, to the contrary, to be loved and desired by it. This is self-evident. After recognizing this we will immediately appreciate the greatness of the obligation that the mitzvoth place upon us and the preciousness of the Divine service which lies in our hands. For these are the means which bring us to true perfection, a state which, without them, is unattainable. It is understood, however, that the attainment of a goal results only from a consolidation of all the available means employable towards its attainment, that the nature of a result is determined by the effectiveness and manner of employment of the means utilized towards its achievement, and that the slightest differentiation in the means will very noticeably affect the result to which they give rise upon the fruition of the aforementioned consolidation. This is self-evident.
It is obvious, then, that we must be extremely exacting in relation to the mitzvoth and the service of God, just as the weighers of gold and pearls are exacting because of the preciousness of these commodities. For their fruits result in true perfection and eternal wealth, than which nothing is more precious.
We thus derive that the essence of a man's existence in this world is solely the fulfilling of mitzvoth, the serving of God and the withstanding of trials, and that the world's pleasures should serve only the purpose of aiding and assisting him, by way of providing him with the contentment and peace of mind requisite for the freeing of his heart for the service which devolves upon him. It is indeed fitting that his every inclination be towards the Creator, may His Name be blessed, and that his every action, great or small, be motivated by no purpose other than that of drawing near to the Blessed One and breaking all the barriers (all the earthy elements and their concomitants) that stand between him and his Possessor, until he is pulled towards the Blessed One just as iron to a magnet. Anything that might possibly be a means to acquiring this closeness, he should pursue and clutch, and not let go of; and anything which might be considered a deterrent to it, he should flee as from a fire. As it is stated (Psalms 63:9), "My soul clings to You; Your right hand sustains me." For a man enters the world only for this purpose - to achieve this closeness by rescuing his soul from all the deterrents to it and from all that detracts from it.
After we have recognized the truth of this principle, and it has become clear to us, we must investigate its details according to its stages, from beginning to end, as they were arranged by R. Pinchas ben Yair in the statement which has already been referred to in our introduction. These stages are: Watchfulness, Zeal, Cleanliness, Separation, Purity, Saintliness, Humility, Fear of Sin, and Holiness. And now, with the aid of Heaven, we will explain them one by one.