What should be our attitude towards the material world and its pleasures?
We find two approaches in this matter. One position is that we should focus all of our energies on spiritual growth. The material world is only a means towards the ultimate goal of enlightenment and holiness.
According to this approach, we should be involved in worldly matters as little as possible. We should limit our mundane activities only to what is needed for the sake of our spiritual goals. This viewpoint, that all aspects of life should be dedicated to the highest spiritual aspirations, is expressed in the verse, “The earth and its fullness belong to God” (Psalm 24:1).
But chapter 115 projects a different outlook. “As for the heavens, the heavens are God’s; but the earth He entrusted to humanity” (115:16). The earth, the psalmist taught, is entrusted to our care. This indicates that there is an intrinsic value in using our talents and knowledge to develop the material world.
Which approach is correct?
The Sages took note of the apparent contradiction between these two verses. They gave an elegant resolution, explaining that each verse refers to a different situation.
“'The earth and its fullness belong to God’ — this is before reciting a blessing. ‘The earth He entrusted to humanity’ — this is after reciting a blessing.” (Berachot 35)
Before taking pleasure from this world — eating a juicy apple, smelling a fragrant spice, looking out at the expansive ocean — the rabbis decreed that one should recite a berachah, a ‘blessing over enjoyment.’
This Talmudic statement may be understood simply, that reciting a blessing grants us permission to enjoy the pleasures of this world. According to Rav Kook, however, blessings reflect how we should relate to the physical world. These two verses refer to different stages in this relationship.
Before reciting a blessing, we have not yet discovered the spiritual light that a particular physical pleasure provides. At this stage, we should recognize that “The earth and its fullness belong to God.” We may only take from the world the bare minimum that we require.
But after the blessing — after we have learned to recognize the spiritual benefit that is connected to this physical enjoyment — then involvement in this pleasure will not hinder our spiritual efforts. On the contrary, it will promote them.
If we do not recognize the intrinsic value of developing the physical world, if we are not aware of the spiritual benefit present in every material entity, then involvement in material matters will only serve to debase the spirit. But if we can appreciate the value of advancing the physical world, appreciating its progress to a higher, more equitable state, then we can acknowledge the contribution of those who work towards the world’s material advancement. Such an attitude serves to widen one’s horizons and enrich one’s spiritual vision.
For this reason, the prophets spoke of worldly rewards — rains of blessing, bountiful crops, and material wealth. If the world’s physical progress only detracts from its spiritual advance, why should they promise such rewards? From here we see that physical riches may complement spiritual growth, when pleasures and wealth serve to advance our spiritual aspirations.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 172)