A bachur who had just arrived in yeshiva for his first day was speaking to the mashgiach to get settled, and during that conversation he asked the mashgiach “Is there a phone I can use? I need to call my mother.” The mashgiach looked at him incredulously and repeated back to him in a sarcastic tone “I need to call my mother?” The boy understood the message and corrected, “Is there a phone I can use? My mother needs me to call her.”
The Alter Rebbe responded: “You are speaking about what you need. But you have not given a thought to what you are needed for.” (To Know and To Care Vol. II)
Does Hashem need us. The Lubavitcher Rebbe cautioned us in a letter that if you are going to use the word "need", you must explain what it means. I have found this is a confusing and sometimes misunderstood topic, so I hope to try to provide a comprehensive, clarifying, well sourced answer (that 30,000 characters allows, it’s never enough!) and provide lots of further reading to useful english-language resources for people of all levels of learning.
The Artscroll Schottenstein Edition Sefardic Siddur's overview has an excellent 15 page explanation on how Hashem needs our prayer (צורך גבוה), that is well worth reading.
In the original language, a vital resource is this kuntres by HaRav Avraham Bergstein, with HaRav Manis Friedman's guidance, which has all the detail, and many sources.
To cut to the chase: Yes, Hashem needs us. Not the "things about us", and not as a means to an end; it’s just Him. Because of this simple need for us, though, all of the "things about us" become equally important to Him too. It is another way of saying we and our performance of Mitzvot are essential to Him.
Now the explanation, and spoiler alert: it's not going to “explain away” need, but make it deep, romantic, and infinite. It is the very core of the question of what we and our performance of Mitzvot means to Him, afterall…
What does "need" mean?
Like Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim and the theology of negation, let’s start by asking what does it not mean? Our common usage of this word is likely to be a source of confusion and friction, when in relation to Hashem, so it's important we disregard the following types of need:
- It implies weakness or lack. The word need doesn't have to imply these. For example, the "need to find meaning" is not a weakness, but a strength, a perfection, in a human being. Secondly, anything that is lacking in us is not a need, it is something we don’t need. The “need to eat” is actually something we could and would do without!
- Acquired needs. Needs that are superadded to us, i.e. they are not our needs, but needs imposed upon us by our Creator. Even in a finite human being, that’s not a true need
- Needs that change with time. If it only applies when we are young but not old, it’s clearly not a real need
- A need that may never be fulfilled. This is a flawed need. A true, perfect need must be fulfilled
Torah talks about Hashem needing in the following ways, lowest to highest (some sources follow):
Practical need, for the Plan
Firstly, it is used in the sense of pragmatism, i.e. He needs us to do our mission in the correct way for His plans to succeed. For example, the Zohar explains that Hashem created the world to be known, and for that He needs us to know Him. The word used for this in Hebrew is generally צריך, such as in the Zohar, or the terms צורך עליון (Avodat HaKodesh), צורך מקום (Rashi), צורך גבוה (countless, back to gemara).
Necessary, the opposite of frivolous
It is also used to mean that His plan is not frivolous, or arbitrary, but necessary to Him. What He wants is essential to Him, which makes it a need. This plan He has to be known is authentic. This concept in Hebrew is generally referred to as עצמי.
Essential need, not secondary, with no external influence at all
Need has a higher meaning in terms of Him Himself (Essence), i.e., in the realm of someones as opposed to the realm of somethings, and here it carries the romantic and intimate connotation. Up until now, we are explaining what it means in terms of Hashem’s revelations, גילוים. However, the highest truth about Hashem is that He Himself is beyond all revelation. The Tanach and Chazal prefer the terms תשוקה or תאווה when discussing this essential need, to highlight that it is a need that is beyond reason, but we also use the word need in English this way too (Rashi, we will show later, connects these words to צורך in Lashon Hakodesh also): “My mother needs me to call her”. The mother’s need is superrational, it is bound up with her identity; herself.
The main point: this type of desirous need is loftier and infinitely more essential than a need that comes from lack: it is nogeah to me, myself! In fact, this type of need comes from within, rather than as a response, and is therefore a primary need.
Lastly, to demonstrate that it is not a deficiency or imperfection, consider the husband who thinks of his wife, “if she were to disappear tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter to me, I don’t need her”. Does he sound perfect? Clearly not. Consider this deeply.
Hashem is One, Ein Od Milvado
In chassidic teachings of Essence, Oneness is intimately connected with the notion of need outlined here. קודשא בריך הוא, אורייתא, וישראל. וכל חד – Hashem, Torah and Yisrael are all One (Zohar III 73a). This is a real need like a husband needs his wife, the someone that is the other half of his soul, and the object of his choice and desire: we need to be together, we belong together, we desire each other, we think and feel only for each other, we are inseparable, indivisible. We need each other; we are one. This is what the Torah says, right?
This same Oneness unifies all the levels of need we just discussed, as His plan is to become One with us, and this is essential to Him, and it is beyond reason and not a means to an end; it’s coming from Him Himself, to us, ourselves through His Torah (and that is very romantic indeed). As Rambam states
...for the sake of Himself, or His will which is identical with His self… “Everything that is called by My name: I have created it for My glory, I have formed it; yea, I have made it” (Isa. 43:7); that is to say, everything that is described as My work has been made by Me for the sake of My will and for no other purpose (Moreh Nevuchim 3:13)
What about using the word "want" instead?
The word “want” is also true. His Will is the Body of Torah (see Zohar III:152a) along with His Wisdom, and complements His need, which is the Soul of Torah. In other words, He is One with the Torah and Mitzvot, they are indispensable, will never change, can’t fail, and are not a means to an end, a.k.a Emet. At the highest rung, Hashem needs us and wants us; they are the same. When they are separated, they are no longer Godly. Needing that which one doesn’t want is not Godly, it is immature. Wanting something we don’t need is… a yeitzer hara. The word “want” adds the implication of choice: Hashem isn’t just Himself arbitrarily, but freely and truly.
So, even though Hashem is also choosing to need, that doesn’t mean it was optional to Him, and this is understood better from the theology of Divine Free Will (and discussion of רצון ובעל הרצון etc.) When we understand how authentic and true Hashem is, whatever He chooses is essentially Him, not optional; He doesn't change. Therefore saying “He chose to need” is only coming to strengthen the concept of Him needing it - teaching us that He has infinite, unfathomable Self Definition (see Shalah 1:8) – this does not weaken or add optionality to the argument, ch’v. He wants us to be this way as well, in our own finite way, and choose to be who we are, freely, becoming the masters of our own ship, real mentschen. This frees us to be available for others, but that is another topic.
Where in the Torah does it say He needs us?
There are countless examples of the Torah telling us explicitly and implicitly that Hashem needs us, and needs us to fulfil the Mitzvot, and the OP has brought some very important ones. Here are just 10 more to keep things brief
- The Tanach does not use the word צורך, however when it comes to the plan, the Torah is replete with stress on the non-negotiable, essential seriousness of keeping Torah and Mitzvot. The higher, essential need (see above), however, is discussed in Tanach. The most explicit Pasuk is Shir Hashirim 7:11; אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְעָלַי תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ. This is in the Holy of Holies work, Shir Hashirim, our allegory for the highest mashal of Oneness with Hashem: the spousal Oneness, and the word for need is the one used only for husband (see Yoma 75a) and wife (Bereshit 3:16): תשוקה. These were the last words on Rashbi’s lips when he died (Malbim)
- וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם, I will dwell among/within them (Shemot 25:8) is a Pasuk that Chazal comment on as a source of our idea. Dira Betachtonim, the purpose of creation and Hashem’s תאווה according to Midrash, is directly connected. The Alshich explains that Hashem is not interested in a Dira, but the Tachtonim, i.e. us; needs us. Ramban (and others) brings up צורך גבוה on his commentary to this Pasuk, igniting an 800 year discussion on this very topic, which is even codified into the comprehensive halachic work Aruch Hashulchan in OC 89:8. More on this in point 9 below.
- In case we weren’t sure what צורך גבוה means, Rashi explains in no uncertain terms: לא עשאה צורך ישראל אלא צורך מקום (Sotah 38b); Hashem’s need, not ours. This perhaps sheds light on what Rashi means by “for the sake of Yisrael Hashem created the world” in the second Rashi on Torah. This is based on the word תאווה in the gemara!
- Many pasukim show that Hashem, speaking Himself (first person – see the maamar בשעה שהקדימו, יום ב׳ דחג השבועות תשי״ב), tells us that it is for Him, not us; "Be Holy for Me", "My Mitzvot" in the daily Shema, for example. Also in Nach, pasukim such as כֹּל פָּעַל ה לַמַּעֲנֵהוּ (Mishlei 16:4), which the Rambam quotes in Moreh Nevuchim 3:13 as demonstrating this point. It is for His will and Self (not ours), and is thus essential to Him. "For His Sake", "Lishma", "Leshem Yichud" etc
- It is related to the concept that Hashem, so to speak, keeps the Mitzvot (Shemot Rabbah 30:9), which tells us that the Mitzvot are not external or superficial to Him, but personal. Indeed, the Kabbalists and Chassidim teach us they are נוגע בעצמות.
- Rashi on Vayikra 25:43: The word Avodah implies that the Adon has a need that must be fulfilled by the eved (us, see 42). See also Chovot Halevavot 3, and, as per the previous point, note that this is codified in halacha in Rambam Hilchot Avadim 1:6 etc
- The logic of the Rambam, Ramchal et al. As we will show, it is a perfection, so we can say in negated terms "however much a human can have that perfection, God has it at least as much". The philosophy of this is discussed in Jewish Philosophy, Mussar and Chassidus, and will be brought up below. For now, the Rambam says: in Moreh Nevuchim 1:55 “Hence it follows that all perfections must really exist in God, and none of them must in any way be a mere potentiality”
- In case we are still unclear, the Zohar Bereshit 16 (I 23a) says in no uncertain terms, a point that was "kept secret even from the prophets and the sages": דודאי לא ברא קודשא בריך הוא מלתא דלאו איהו צריך, Hashem definitely didn’t create anyone or anything He doesn’t need!
- The Lubavitcher Rebbe, concludes the “800 year discussion” on צורך גבוה - which Rabbi Shimon Jacobson explains has gradually raised the need higher up towards Hashem's Essence throughout this time - by saying it very explicitly: Our fulfilment of the Torah and Mitzvot is relevant to Hashem Himself, Essentially. Not only is it an “absolute need” (verbatim) in terms of the revealed creation, but reaches all the way up to Him. See בשעה שהקדימו תשי״ב, and לא תהי׳ משכלה תשי״ב
- The wonderous point in Moreh Nevuchim, that Hashem and His Will are identical, is the very same point of essential need as above, expressed philosophically
How can He need us?
Thus far, we have dealt with 2 of the most common disputes about the notion that Hashem needs us. We have shown that a true need is a perfection, not a lack. We have also disputed, quite conclusively, any claim that the Torah does not speak of Hashem's need in this way.
Now we come to the important philosophical objections, namely that Hashem’s Essence is unreachable, indescribable, “no thought can apprehend Him”, and therefore all language the Torah uses to describe Hashem is “lashon benei adam”, a mashal aimed at the ear of a finite human being, and the mashal of need is no different.
I would break this problem down into 4 parts which often get muddled:
Who Is Hashem?
The Baal Shem Tov told us that the simple Jew knows Hashem best. Why? Because for the simple Jew, there’s no need for complexity; it’s just Him!
There is a very abstract philosophical concept regarding "essence" and "expression/revelation". Due to the subtle nature, it will be diluted here, but here is a quick overview:
What is “essence”, and what is “revealed”? These correspond to what we've been discussing, namely "myself" vs. "the things about me", respectively. Essence is “the subject in and of themselves”. What it is, as it is; who I am, me. Philosophically, this is something that is not revealable or sharable. I.e. one can’t give you a piece of themselves; myself is indivisible, it can’t be chopped up into pieces. Everything has an essence, even essences can have essences:
The essence of the soul, Kabbalah teaches us, is intellect and heart – I am what I know and my character. The essence of these is will. The essence of the will of our Neshama is the Chaya, and then the Yechida and so on.
One can ask, who am I? Am I my character and knowledge? Yes. However, they are mine, and therefore on a deeper level, they aren’t the real me, but more "the things about me": my expressions. Want is higher still, but even that can be viewed as not the "real me", but it's much closer, as what I want can be a very fundamental "expression" of who I am...
So, if my body and soul are not me, then what is? We realise that anything which can be reduced to a description or property, cannot be something essential. I am me, saying any more is talking about the things “about me”, not me. This is also true, l’havdil, with regards to Hashem.
Hashem “as He relates to creation”, many commentators point out, is not His true Essence, but His expression.
We have a term in Kabbalah – “His existence from His Essence” – to describe the Ohr Ein Sof (which is also beyond comprehension - see Chagiga 18b), implying that He is above even this Infinite Light (עִלַּת עַל כָּל עִלּוֹת, Zohar).
Hashem Himself. The Shalah informs us that, He Himself is absolutely beyond all description whatsoever, and a key point is that it is not just due to our lack of comprehension, but fundamentally nothing limits Hashem Himself in any way whatsoever. Anything is possible. The Lubavitcher Rebbe in לא תהי׳ משכלה תשי״ב explains that we are now just talking about Him, the One Who narrates the Torah, whom the simple Jew knows; דוֹדִי וְעָלַי תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ.
The philosophy of Hashem’s Essence is described in great detail in Moreh Nevuchim, and dealt with at length in Derech Mitzvotecha.
How do we reconcile the teachings that "He is incomprehensible, doesn’t have any parts or attributes, and is unlike anything in creation at all"?
Very importantly, we must put this into context. Pardes Rimonim, Tanya, Derech Mitzvotecha, all give us that context: if we find this concept of Hashem Himself and His relationship with His "the things about Him" hard to understand, we should look to ourselves, because man’s inability to know Hashem finds its parallel (so to speak) in his inability to know his own self. We can’t talk about our true self, which is simple, one, indivisible, indescribable... familiar? These are philosophical statements about essence.
The lesson our Chachamim are stressing is that we must learn to think essentially, not superficially, and doing so raises us and is a moral imperative: we should view ourselves and each other as above our superficialities; as someones. We raise our awareness and gain mastery of this through Torah study and keeping Mitzvot, elevating our conception of need, will, wisdom, love, to more Godly understandings along the way. The more we are able to raise our awareness on this point, the more demystified this theology of Hashem becomes, and the more we can understand the differences and connections between "essence" and "expression".
For example, we have already discussed need on the level of "expression": we’ve mentioned the need to have a plan fulfilled. Deeper is the meaning of need that something is essential to us. When it comes to "essence", it means something deeper and ineffable: “I need to be me” or “I can’t not be me”. Or “I can’t be without you, I need you”.
There is also a mysterious unity between expressions and essence, which we must take on faith (see Tanya Shaar HaYichud VeHaEmuna Ch. 9, "רָזָא דִמְהֵימְנוּתָא"). More on this when we discuss Hashem’s authenticity, below.
Of course, there are still differences between Him and us, and this must be studied too. Hopefully though, many will be surprised and glad to know that we don’t have to remain ignorant of Hashem, but can get much true knowledge of Him, as well as ourselves, our souls, and the connection between His Essence and ours. We achieve this from studying His Torah and performing Mitzvot, which is His loving Self-revelation to us (see Shabbat 105a). Along the way, with the guidance of our Chachamim, we will learn the differences too, and avoid the dangerous pitfalls into heresy, and other serious mistakes (beware; it is a very delicate subject, with a lot of history, and must be approached with a lot of awe, humility and sensitivity); having incorrect knowledge about Hashem is extremely serious, see Moreh Nevuchim 1:54. Both studies, each endless and deep, complement each other like awe and love.
What do we do about all the warnings and forbidding that our Gedolim made about this topic?
Each should be taken by itself, and weighed against the many statements of the Gedolim who taught the opposite, that it is vital to learn the parts of the secrets of the Torah that have been explained. By 5783, more has been explained than ever before. These explanations from our Gedolim have taken into account, and helped us with the warnings and dangers, such as the worries of heretical ideas like seeing Hashem as corporeal, or having eternal partners, or other serious mistakes like this, ch'v.
This is weighed by the needs of the time. The Nefesh HaChaim’s teachers would never have taught these secrets to the public, but he, when worrying that people were studying it anyway and getting it wrong, felt the need to teach it (see 3:1-3). However, he also only did the absolute minimum to avoid people erring, such as “making a beracha in the bathroom” (because they learned that Hashem is everywhere). Now, we have way worse problems than that, and deeper explanations have been made by our Chachamim. Chabad Chassidus has made explaining this its main topic, with 7 generations of wisdom, and much of it being translated into many languages.
These dangers are at least in part why the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated that if we are going to use the valid word "need", we must explain what it means. Meaning that by now, the Chachamim have been able to bring this down into good enough vessels of explanation, that it is possible to explain more of this secret to the public, with care and caution.
תּוֹרָה הִיא, וְלִלְמוֹד אֲנִי צָרִיךְ
What is the connection between Him Himself and the גילוים, the revealed matters that we can comprehend. Is it authentic, or completely “pretend”, or something in between?
Note this well, as it is addressing one of the main concerns at the heart of this discussion, for many.
The teachings that there is a difference between the way Hashem relates to creation and Him Himself, as well as the parallel differences between us and Him, can lead to phrases in our learning that make us question whether Hashem is being authentic in the way He relates to us, especially when the stress is on the difference. Whatever the lesson, Hashem is being authentic and sincere; He is One, He is True.
But how can this be? How can the Infinitely Removed be Infinitely Immanent? The Rebbe Rashab (who taught us that Mitzvot are נוגע בעצמות) gives clear insight into the matter of authenticity in Maamar Veyadata, which elucidates how, miraculously, everything in creation is what’s called a “perfect mashal” i.e. everything about the Nimshal is expressed in the mashal. The Rambam as well, in Moreh Nevuchim, when explaining that everything is a mashal, tells us how the mashal informs the Nimshal (through negation etc). Shaarei Orah Hakdama 6 and Shalah 13b are good Kabbalistic references on this point as well.
So, when the Rambam says “know for sure that Hashem doesn’t have an attribute of love” he doesn't mean He doesn’t love us, ch'v. He means that, if you like the idea of Him loving you, and needing you, then when you find out the truth of this, which is beyond words and beyond your comprehension right now, you will find it is even better than what you thought!
An helpful mashal I’ve heard Rabbi Friedman use:
When a sophisticated father gets down on the floor, simplifies, and plays with his child, he is not acting or being inauthentic. The opposite: this is more the real essential him, than the sophistication! His love and unity with his child is essential to him. The child may not know the father “in and of himself”, but the child knows what is essential to the father and thus knows about the father himself*.
Please note that this connection between "expression", "essence" and His Essence is very recondite and there are many areas to learn. Even the phrase “His expressions are authentic” does not do justice to the depth of that authenticity, with what we’ve been able to explain here! Keep this in mind.
Regardless of how deeply we understand Him needing us, knowing that it is authentic on every level is vital. All this means that we aren't reducing anything by saying they "are 'just' how Hashem relates to creation" etc. (in fact, with what we’ve learned, we can see that such statements are meant to impress upon us how much more magnified the truth of these matters really is, such as Hashem’s need for us!) The "things about Him" are authentically Him, (mysteriously, but truly) connected to Him, and there should be no barriers in being in a real and soulful relationship with Him!
Common points of confusion
Hashem never changes
This is a philosophical point. Nothing can affect Hashem because He is the only one who can bring about any affect whatsoever. We don't have any power, it is all from Him, so indeed it is a true statement: we have not got the power to affect. This is very inspiring, as Hashem's bond to us is personal to Him, owned by Him. A mashal is a husband telling his wife that he has come to totally own his love for her. It is an essential and free love, uninfluenced: he loves her with his very self (indeed, it is way more than love). She herself is now intrinsically important to him, and nothing can damage that bond with her. This is what Chazal were alluding to in Avot 5:16, a love not based on a thing. This doesn’t mean it is based on nothing, but no thing; it is based on each other. Think about this well.
This more philosophical point of Hashem Himself not changing doesn't limit Him (nothing limits Him). Pardes Rimonim 6:4 shows an advanced analogy with the essence of our soul: our life force vitality is also, l'havdil, undifferentiated and unchanging. The only thing that changes is the vessel that it is expressed in, whether it be in the foot, walking, or in the brain, knowing. This is a good mashal towards how, in Hashem's infinite Oneness, His actions and expressions are not in any way changes, even though we are clearly in a very dynamic relationship with Him.
We also mentioned that a true need never changes. This comes out from this idea of Hashem never changing too.
Rambam says explicitly that Hashem doesn’t need anything, and anyone who says so is a heretic
That’s right. We haven’t fully covered this here, but the truth is that Hashem simply needs us, not the "things about us", not as a means to an end, and the truth of this is not only beautifully romantic, but also very recondite. As we have enjoyed explaining, we are not "the things about us": we are just our essential selves, not things! We’ve also explained the difference between needs that are lacks, and how this is a true need, which is a perfection and not a lack. It is the need for us, Self to self, we are His and He is ours, and nothing will ever change that (see Gittin 57b). We must attach ourselves to Him (see Derech Hashem 1) by emulating Him, through Torah and Mitzvot.
At one of my sheva berachot, I was describing something or other to the host, and I said "that's my favourite thing", and he incredulously asked "what about your kalla?", and somehow I found the answer and said "my wife is not a thing!" and everyone laughed, because it's obvious, right?
The Rambam says that we cannot know why Hashem created the world, and it is heretical to say otherwise
Nothing here should contradict this. We have explained the words of our Chachamim, but the reality of the need, from His point of view (so to speak), and the "why", are beyond us. See also the discussion surrounding Megilla 25a, that the Mitzvot are “decrees of the King” and therefore important to Him in a way that is beyond reason, even though they are also good for us.
We only have the mashal, and the sources in Torah. We are making the point that this need is beyond reason. We have tried not to add to what the Chachamim have explained, yet haven't even covered everything. Please review the provided sources!
There are statements in Chazal that the Mitzvot are only given to refine human beings
The Lubavitcher Rebbe deals with this at length in לא תהי׳ משכלה תשי״ב. It is true, He doesn’t need the light of the Menora, that is there to refine us. However, who needs us to be refined? Not us, but Him.
When teaching we are relevant to Hashem Himself, the Gedolim say He is not bound by that, does that mean it is not a "need"?
This point means that the need is coming from Himself, not externally, like we have described in the point above about Hashem not changing. See this comment, and this shiur, for another mashal.
The Torah itself says “if you are a tzaddik, what do you give Him?”
Again, this is a philosophical point. Hashem doesn’t need us to be tzaddikim - what are we trying to impress Him? - He just needs us to perform the Mitzvot, whether we are a tzaddik or not, because His bond with us is essential. Saying the Mitzvot are for us is like saying "our mother giving us directions to find our way home" is for us. It will help us get home, to our mother, who needs us there.
Tl;dr. "Need" is appropriate to describe Hashem's essential bond with us and how essential it is to Him for us to perform Mitzvot, study Torah, find Him, and become One with Him. This type of need is actually a perfection, not a lack. There are many lengthy sources that have worked to explain this idea, treating it carefully, and showing how it is a unifying idea that helps resolve theological machlokeses. It is a point that fits well with all of Torah when understood properly, and explains many mysteries such as what Avodah means, and "for His sake". It is an important idea to allow us, and take us, closer to Yediyat Hashem than we thought possible. When we say He needs us, we mean it in the strongest, most infinite and romantic manner imaginable; He needs us, not the things about us, and this allows intimacy and Oneness. This is Godly, this is Him.
Points not touched on. For research and contemplation:
- Love without vulnerability (the consequence of need) is not real love
- Intimacy, dvekut, yichud: the bonding and unifying of two people, self to self, essence to essence, without any superficialities between them.
- What other difficult Torah concepts make sense in light of this idea?
- "Belonging", "home" and "One" - connection?
- Essence and "beyond reason" - connection?
- How does "Mitzvot are נוגע בעצמות" relate?