6

Does God need us?

In Nitzavim, God says:

This commandment [in the singular], that I command you today, is not hidden from you and is not distant. [Deut. 30:11]

The Midrash explains:

What [single] “commandment” [does the Torah refer to]? The Rabbis say: It is a difficult concept to state. [Maharzu: It seems inappropriate to say that because it implies we can "help" God.] ... It means: “If you observe the Torah, you have done a charitable act both for you and for Me.” [Deut. R. 8:5]

In other words, God derives some benefit from Jews following the Torah.

On Yom Kippur, we say:

Avinu Malkenu 'aseh l'maancha im lo l'maanenu -- Our Father, our King, act for Your sake if not for ours.

This implies that God has a stake in forgiving us.

The Psalmist says:

תְּנוּ עֹז לֵאלֹהִים T'nu 'oz l'Elokim -- Give strength to God. [Ps. 68:35]

The Midrash adds:

Rabbi Azariah said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah ben Rabbi Simone: When Israel perform the will of the Omnipresent they add strength to the heavenly power; as it is said [in Psalms], “To God we render strength” [Ps. 60:14]. When, however, Israel does not perform the will of the Omnipresent, they weaken, if it is possible to say so, the great power of He Who is Above; as it is written [in the Torah], “You weakened the Rock that begot you.” [Deut. 32:18]. [Lamentations Rabbah 1:33]

The Psalmist says:

Ve-atta kadosh, yoshev tehillot Yisrael. And You are the Holy One, enthroned upon the praises of Israel. [Ps. 22:4]

This implies that without the praises of Israel to sustain Him, God is not enthroned.

The Midrash goes further:

It is written [in Psalms], “Your throne is established of old.” [Ps. 93:2]. Rabbi Berekiah said in the name of Rabbi Abbahu: Although “You are... everlasting” [Ps. 93:2], Your throne was not firmly established, nor were You known in Your world, until Your children [Moses and the people of Israel] recited the Song: [He is my God, and I will praise him; my father’s God, and I will exalt him.] [Exodus 15:1-2] This is what the Israelites said: In truth, You existed both before and after You had created Your world, but You were standing, as it were… Since… we recited the Song before You, only then did Your kingdom and throne become firmly established [and you could sit!] [Exodus Rabbah 23:1]

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said: “Why was man created? To perfect his soul? No. To lift up the heavens!”

Sifre Devarim [Sifre Devarim 34:6; also Pesikta de Rav Kahane 12:6] says clearly that God needs us because, when we keep our part of the covenant, we not only affirm God's existence, we allow God's existence. In the words of the Rashbi (Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai):

-It is written [in Exodus]: “This is my God and I will glorify Him” [Ex. 15:2]. This means: “When I acknowledge Him, He is glorified, but when I do not acknowledge Him, He is glorified only in name.”

-It is written [in Deuteronomy]: “Because I proclaim the name of the Lord, [ascribe greatness to our God].” [Deut. 32:3] [This means,] when I call His name, He is great, but when I don’t… [it is as if He is not great].

-It is written [in Isaiah], “You are my witnesses, said the Lord… and I am God” [Isaiah 43:10]. This means: “When you are My witnesses, I am God, but when you are not My witnesses, it is as if I am not God.”

-It is written [in Psalms], “Unto You I lift up my eyes, O You, my enthroned One in the heavens” [Ps. 123:1]. This means: “If it weren’t for me, it is as if You would not be sitting in the heavens.”

The Rashbi seems to be saying that, if we do not bear witness to God, God vanishes into unreality.

The Midrash [Exodus Rabbah 52:5] implies God needs us to "take over" for Him:

-[Rabbi El’azar, the son of Rabbi Yosei said:] The Holy One, blessed be He, first addressed Israel as “daughter” [then “sister”, then “mother”.] -[As “daughter”,] as it says [in the Book of Psalms]: Hearken, O daughter, consider and incline your ear… [Ps. 45:11].

-When He loved Israel more, He called them “My sister”, as it says [in the Song of Songs], Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled; for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night. [Song of Songs 5:2].

-And when He loved Israel even more, He called them “mother”, for it says [in Isaiah],
Listen to Me, My people; and give ear to Me, O My mother... [Isaiah 51:4]

-Thereupon Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai arose and kissed [Rabbi El’azar] on his forehead [saying]... “If this had been the only thing I learned in life, I would have been satisfied.”

Modern Hassidic Rabbi YY Jacobson writes:

The message here is too daring to be spoken clearly. Yet the Jewish mystics picked up on it and articulated it... We became, as it were, mentors to [God], showing Him how darkness can be transformed into light, how imperfection is the beginning of deeper perfection, and how destruction is the commencement of renovation. And this is the message of the third holiday, the festival of Sukkot, when we celebrate the renewed relationship between God and Israel forged on Yom Kippur following their estrangement. From sister we turn into mother. From partners with God, we became teachers to God... Yet here is the catch: To become a healthy mother, you first need to be a daughter and a sister. [http://theyeshiva.net/Article/View/12/Do-You-Know-How-To-Be-a-Mother]

So: Is the notion that "God needs us" (1) a mainstream teaching, (2) a rejected minority opinion, or (3) a heresy?

  • 2
    G-d is not in need of anything. – Jonathan Oct 4 at 18:17
  • Indeed, a Tehillim verse that we tend to say during Yizkor asks, "What is mankind that you should know him, the son of a man that you should think of him?" – DanF Oct 4 at 18:59
  • It looks like you brought a number of sources suggesting that, in some sense, God does need us. You did not give any sources which reject this, so why would we think this is (2) a rejected minority opinion, or (3) a heresy? – simyou Oct 5 at 19:19
  • @simyou -- I know of no sources that reject directly the claims made by the rabbis I quoted, but there are plenty of separate quotes that imply that God does not need anything. I'd like to see the two groups address eacjh other directly. – Maurice Mizrahi Oct 6 at 1:58
  • An excellent question that unfortunately falls into a theological and philosophical trap - please define G-d, define needs and define us that we all be on the same page. The vagueness of those terms allows us to justify just about any statement - G-d is above and G-d is below, He has no emotions but He gets angry, etc. the only explanation I have is that since we can't get hold of infinity, everyone pictures a subset he's interested in. – Al Berko Oct 6 at 20:16
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This is a very subtle question.

On the one hand:

  • G-d does not change.
  • He is beyond time, and all of history is already laid out before Him.
  • Therefore, out actions cannot affect Him.

On the other hand:

  • We are created to have a "real" existence.
  • We have an essential connection to His Essence, and He loves us.
  • Therefore, what we do matters and we are rewarded according to our deeds.

It says in Eyov 35:6-7:

אִם־חָ֭טָאתָ מַה־תִּפְעָל־בּ֑וֹ וְרַבּ֥וּ פְ֝שָׁעֶ֗יךָ מַה־תַּעֲשֶׂה־לּֽוֹ׃

If you sin, what do you do to Him? If your transgressions are many, >How do you affect Him?

אִם־צָ֭דַקְתָּ מַה־תִּתֶּן־ל֑וֹ א֥וֹ מַה־מִיָּדְךָ֥ יִקָּֽח׃

If you are righteous, What do you give Him; What does He receive >from your hand?

And in Yeshaya 63:

בְּֽכָל־צָרָתָ֣ם ׀ לא [ל֣וֹ] צָ֗ר וּמַלְאַ֤ךְ פָּנָיו֙ הֽוֹשִׁיעָ֔ם בְּאַהֲבָת֥וֹ וּבְחֶמְלָת֖וֹ ה֣וּא גְאָלָ֑ם וַֽיְנַטְּלֵ֥ם וַֽיְנַשְּׂאֵ֖ם כָּל־יְמֵ֥י עוֹלָֽם׃

In all their troubles He was troubled, And the angel of His Presence delivered them. In His love and pity He Himself redeemed them, Raised them, and exalted them All the days of old. This verse is read that "He is troubled" by our pain, but it's written that He "is not troubled" be our pain.

Our sages explain there is a level when He is pained, and a level where He isn't pained.

One analogy given to explain the relationship is like a parent and a child. The parent has an essential, unchanging love for the child. Nothing the child does can add or subtract from this love.

The parent wants or "needs" the child to make good choices because it is in the child's best interest. Yet, there is nothing inherently important to the parent about the child's choices.

For example, in one sense it doesn't affect your parent if you get an A or an F on a test. It only matters because the parent loves you and wants you to develop your potential. If getting a good grade on a test reflects on your effort and growth, then it matters.

In a similar way, our actions, mitzvos, and sins don't change or affect G-d because He "needs" anything. Yet, because He loves us and created us to need to grow, He cares about and "needs" us to make good choices so that we will develop.

This explanation is part of a very in-depth discussion of the topic in Derech Mitzvosecha, Mitzvah of Beleif in G-d, ch. 8, pg. 54a.

והוא כמו האב המדריך בנו קטן בן שנתו, להועילו באיזה ענין כמו שמלמדו לילך או לדבר ומראה לו בעשותו רצונו פנים שוחקות וממלא משאלותיו ונותן לו אגוזים וכה"ג ובעוברו רצונו מראה לו פנים זועפות ומונע משאלותיו הללו ממנו, ובאמת בדעת האב עצמו גלוי וידוע שאין הבן למיעוט השכלתו בערך שיחול שם התפעלות אליו אלא שזה מראה לו כן רק כדי שיתחזק הבן בענין הנ"ל ומראה לו איך שראוי להתפעל ממנו עפ"י שכל המצומצם כמוהו ושמתפעל בזה, ועד"ז יובן למעלה שבאמת בעצמותו ית' אין הנבראים תופסים מקום כלל שיחול עליהם שם התפעלות דכלא וכאין ואפס ממש חשיבי' ואיך יהי' התפעלו' על דבר שאינו וכאמרם אין לך דבר שחוץ ממנו כי ממך הכל (דה"א כ"ט י"ד), אך שמעלים אורו הגדול ומגלה רשימו בלבד שהוא ענין דעת המצומצם עד שממנו יוכל להיות נמשך התפעלות על הנבראים

Hebrew English Edition:

וְהוּא כְּמוֹ הָאָב הַמַּדְרִיךְ בְּנוֹ קָטָן בֶּן שְׁנָתוֹ,

The analogy involves a father who desires to train his one-year-old son,

לְהוֹעִילוֹ בְּאֵיזֶה עִנְיָן

to improve him in a particular matter,

כְּמוֹ שֶׁמְּלַמְּדוֹ לֵילֵךְ אוֹ לְדַבֵּר

e.g., to teach him to walk or talk.

וּמַרְאֶה לוֹ בַּעֲשׂוֹתוֹ רְצוֹנוֹ פָּנִים שׂוֹחֲקוֹת

When the child carries out his father’s will, the father shows him a smiling countenance,

וּמְמַלֵּא מִשְׁאֲלוֹתָיו וְנוֹתֵן לוֹ אֱגוֹזִים וּכְהַאי גַּוְנָא

satisfies his desires, and gives him nuts and the like, to reinforce the son’s positive behavior.

וּבְעָבְרוֹ רְצוֹנוֹ מַרְאֶה לוֹ פָּנִים זוֹעֲפוֹת וּמוֹנֵעַ מִשְׁאֲלוֹתָיו הַלָּלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ,

Conversely, if the son violates his father’s will, the father shows him an angry countenance and withholds the things that the son desires from him.

וּבֶאֱמֶת בְּדַעַת הָאָב עַצְמוֹ גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ שֶׁאֵין הַבֵּן לְמִעוּט הַשְׂכָּלָתוֹ בְּעֶרֶךְ

Now, in truth, the father is aware that because of the son’s limited intellectual capacity, the son is not on a level

שֶׁיָּחוּל שֵׁם הִתְפַּעֲלוּת אֵלָיו

that the father would be emotionally aroused to such an extent by the son’s actions.

Nothing his son does is really significant enough for him to be aroused. Of course, the father loves his son and cares about him, but the son’s acts in and of themselves are not important to the father. Certainly, those acts mean a lot to the father but not because of the acts themselves, but because it is his son who performed them. For example, when his son takes his first steps, those steps do not benefit the father.

אֶלָּא שֶׁזֶּה מַרְאֶה לוֹ כֵּן

Nevertheless, the reason he shows him these responses

רַק כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּתְחַזֵּק הַבֵּן בָּעִנְיָן הַנִּזְכָּר לְעֵיל

is only so that the son will be reinforced to adopt these behaviors, as explained above.

When the son sees his father’s reaction and encouragement, the son will be motivated to continue this course of conduct.

וּמַרְאֶה לוֹ אֵיךְ שֶׁרָאוּי לְהִתְפָּעֵל מִמֶּנּוּ עַל פִּי שֵׂכֶל הַמְצֻמְצָם כָּמֹהוּ וְשֶׁמִּתְפָּעֵל בְּזֶה,

The father shows emotions to the child in the manner that is appropriate to respond to the child’s conduct and acts as if he is affected by his conduct in a manner befitting the child’s limited understanding.

The actions the child performs are not, in and of themselves, on a level sufficient to arouse such an emotional response on the part of the father. Nevertheless, out of his love for his child, the father goes beyond his ordinary pattern and involves himself with his child on his child’s level in order to train him.

וְעַל דֶּרֶךְ זֶה יוּבַן לְמַעְלָה

The analogue to the above can be understood in the spiritual realms.

שֶׁבֶּאֱמֶת בְּעַצְמוּתוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ אֵין הַנִּבְרָאִים תּוֹפְסִים מָקוֹם כְּלָל

In truth, in relation to G‑d’s Essence, the created beings are not significant

שֶׁיָּחוּל עֲלֵיהֶם שֵׁם הִתְפַּעֲלוּת

and are not worthy of generating an emotive arousal,

דִּכְלָא וּכְאַיִן וְאֶפֶס מַמָּשׁ חֲשִׁיבִין

for all existence is actually considered as nothingness and void before Him.

וְאֵיךְ יִהְיֶה הִתְפַּעֲלוּת עַל דָּבָר שֶׁאֵינוֹ

How is it possible that something that does not exist generate emotive arousal?

וּכְאָמְרָם אֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁחוּץ מִמֶּנּוּ

And it is said: There is no existence aside from Him,

כִּי מִמְּךָ הַכֹּל (דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים א' כ"ט י"ד),

as it is written (I Divrei HaYamim 29:14): “Everything is from You.”

אַךְ שֶׁמַּעֲלִים אוֹרוֹ הַגָּדוֹל

Nevertheless, He hides His great light

וּמְגַלֶּה רְשִׁימוּ בִּלְבָד

and reveals only a trace of it

שֶׁהוּא עִנְיַן דַּעַת הַמְצֻמְצָם

which brings into being a framework of limited knowledge

עַד שֶׁמִּמֶּנּוּ יוּכַל לִהְיוֹת נִמְשָׁךְ הִתְפַּעֲלוּת עַל הַנִּבְרָאִים,

from which an emotive arousal can be drawn down in response to the created beings.

The Tzemach Tzedek has thus resolved the first aspect of the question raised above. For in truth, the actions of the created beings are not, in and of themselves, significant enough to generate emotive arousal on G‑d’s part. That is possible only because G‑d chose, as it were, to enable them to generate such an arousal.

  • You seem to be saying that the only way God "needs" us is in the sense deriving satisfaction from us following His commandments. This is far below the "need" claims made by the rabbis I quoted. I would be happy if someone could address these quotes directly. – Maurice Mizrahi Oct 6 at 1:57
  • There are many places where these sources and this theme is discussed. However, I have never seen anywhere that concludes that G-d "needs" us in the simplistic sense. This notion is rooted in the assumption that we are separate than G-d, and that He can change. Neither of these ideas are true in an ultimate sense. However, within creation, He creates a reality where this is true. G-d creates an Avatar from Himself as the Creator (midos of Atzilus) and at that level He is effected by our deeds and "needs" us for his desire and revelation to be complete. Yet, this Avatar is created, per analogy. – Benyomin Walters Oct 6 at 16:19

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