The Meaning of Life: A Life of Meaning


Moshe Ben-Chaim



My friend Howard puzzled me with an intriguing question: why did Adam, or for that matter does man, require commands, “mitzvahs”? Yes, we may offer a simple answer that we require mitzvahs to perfect ourselves. But I feel this question goes deeper. Howard mentioned that Adam was a perfect creation, and Ibn Ezra backs him up, he was a “chacham Gadol”, a “great intellect”[1]. Nonetheless, God decreed that Adam possess a command. And this applies to all subsequent giants, such as Abraham, who received the command of circumcision.

Interestingly, the prohibition of the Tree of Knowledge was commanded immediately upon Adam’s creation:


“And God, Elohim, took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it. And God, Elohim commanded upon the man saying, ‘From all the tress you may eat. And from the Tree of Knowledge [of] good and evil you may not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you shall surely die’.[2]


Death is quite a deterrent, yet Adam succumbed. What was so difficult about this command, and why did God select this specific command?

Why does man require commands? This is an important question.


Reviewing the verses above, we wonder the purpose behind the Torah using precious ‘real estate’, recounting that God “took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it”. Of what significance is this fact? Why did God require man to work and watch the Garden? Additionally, we find no “command” to work and watch the Garden…simply that God did so without a command, and man did not reject this obligation. Evidently, a command is unnecessary in connection with procuring food, but man does require a command concerning human “restraint”. We must understand the distinction. And we must seek an answer for the severity, the punishment of death. Furthermore, we note that God commanded man prior to creating woman. Evidently, man cannot exist, even briefly, without God’s commands. Why? Strong questions, but as always, God places the answer “at the side” of the questions.


Let’s take one question: why did God “take the man and place him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it”? Doesn’t something about this verse sound familiar? It does to me. This verse immediately precedes the prohibition of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. We are drawn to God’s ‘purposeful’ contrast: in both cases, God made something obligatory on man: in the first verse, working the Garden; and in the next, restraint.

What occurs to me is that God wishes us to observe a parallel between man’s toil in the physical, and between his ability to observe God’s command – the metaphysical or spiritual. In both spheres of our lives – the physical and metaphysical – God planned our existences to be “dependent”. We depend on food, but we also depend on something greater: God’s commands. But why?

I feel this is the core idea: man must know his existence is “conditional”. Man must further appreciate that the physical world, and his life on Earth, are not as important as the metaphysical world, meaning wisdom, and man’s soul. I feel this is a central lesson in our receipt of commands, and why God created us as “dependent” beings. For with no commands, and no obligation to secure our food, man might erroneously assume his existence is necessary. But as just we know that God needs nothing, the universe too can go on without us.

Gratifying emotions of ambition, success, ego and a host of others are required, human assets. However, man is very susceptible to abusing these psychological gifts. He may become so self-absorbed, that he lives without regard for his Tzelem Elohim, his intellect. So important is a life of wisdom, for it enables us to appreciate the Creator, that a Rabbi taught that God labeled our intellects with His name, Tzelem “Elohim”. The Rabbi taught that this naming was to direct our attention to the great import of engaging our intelligence.

Adam denied the damage caused by deviating from God’s word, but not the damage caused by denying bodily needs. And Adam was a “great intellect” as we mentioned. Even with the deterrent of death, this great person sinned. And the command was not so difficult: simply restrain from one, single fruit…all others were permissible. This teaches that man’s imagination can get the best of him. Even at the risk of his very life, man will seek that which is unnecessary. Why? It is because the fruit of the Tree of Life contained a lure, of which man did not even apprehend. Yet, the unknown was so enticing; man’s imagination caused his downfall.

God gave man one command, as an indication that the physical world, in all its splendor, is merely a “means”, but our true objective is to approach God. This is “mitzvah”. If we violate God’s word to procure more physical pleasures, ironically, we will in fact be counterproductive, and we will lose them, as Adam proved. Following God’s commands secures life and happiness, not like Adam imagined.

“For on the day you eat from it, you shall surely die” underscores this very idea, that man’s existence is conditional. Man must appreciate this.

One purpose of commands is clearly to teach that our existence is dependent: “…not on bread alone does man live, but by all that comes from God’s mouth does man live.”[3]

Howard also mentioned the Rabbis lesson on Tzitzis: in our physical needs such as clothing, we are reminded of the commands: “And you shall see them [Tzitzis], and you shall remember all God’s commands, and you shall perform them. And you shall not go astray after your hearts and after your eyes, that you are estranged after them”.[4]

Tzedaka too teaches the lesson that we must not be convinced that wealth is acquired by monetary retention, but the opposite is true: God promises, “And I will open up the storehouses of heaven and empty out a blessing for you until there is more than enough.”[5]

And one of our greatest mitzvahs – the Sabbath – is also to direct us away from the physical, towards a day engaged in Torah, where physical activity is greatly curbed. Our Licha Dodi prayer states, “Last in creation, but first in His thoughts” regarding the Sabbath. Although the last day, Sabbath was the goal of creation: the epitome of counterintuitive thinking, but true. God created the universe – or at least Earth – as a laboratory for man to recognize God’s wisdom, for our own good and happiness. The life of wisdom far exceeds any other lifestyle, as we just learned from one of the wisest men, King Solomon, in his book of Ecclesiastes, Koheles.


Adam required a deterrent of such gravity, since man’s imagination and ability to deny God is equally strong. Man overemphasized the physical, and required a threat to awake him to the tenuous nature of Earthly life. God wished to impress upon Adam that just as food is obviously required, he should adhere to God’s word as well. But God knows man’s nature, and therefore formed a mitzvah, a decree, to redirect him from overindulgence. From the very first human, God wished to educate us on what is primary in life. We appreciate the wisdom in God’s formulation and arrangement of Torah verses. The very verses and their order, create questions, and provide answers.


If we appreciate and become convinced of our temporal, Earthly stay…if we consider the sublime lessons derived from analyzing the Torah’s words, we will live without the damaging fantasies embodied in our society that promotes man, over God. We will enjoy what is true, and abandon our plans of grandeur, since we realize this world is a means for us to study, to approach the Creator, and not abuse for selfish goals. If we truly wish to live a peaceful and satisfying life as the Creator decreed, then we will enjoy not only individual mitzvahs and their respective benefits, but we will appreciate that the very institution of mitzvah has a powerful lesson: our existence is conditional. This further embellishes the primary ideal of focusing on God. This is the meaning of life.

[1] Gen. 2:17

[2] Gen. 2:15-17

[3] Deut. 8:3

[4] The Shima Prayer, Deut. 15:39

[5] Malachi 3:10, Deut. 16:10