How much should we be involved in this 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. Material life — eating, sleeping, and so on — is but a means to attain our goals 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 to what we need to accomplish our spiritual goals.
This view, that we should dedicate our lives to our highest spiritual aspirations, is expressed in the verse,
“לַה’ הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ תֵּבֵל וְיֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ”
“The earth and all that it holds is God’s, the world and its inhabitants.” (Psalm 24:1).
But in chapter 115, the psalmist proclaims a much different outlook:
“הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם לַה’ וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵי אָדָם”
“As for the heavens, the heavens are God’s; but the earth He entrusted to man.” (115:16)
The earth is entrusted to our care. This suggests that there is an intrinsic value in using our talents to cultivate and develop the physical world.
Which approach is correct?
The Sages took note of the contradiction between these two verses. They provided an elegant resolution, explaining that each verse refers to a different situation:
“The earth and all that it holds is God’s” — this is before one recites a blessing. “The earth He entrusted to man” — that is after one has recited the blessing. (Berachot 35)
Before taking pleasure from this world — biting into a sweet apple, smelling a fragrant myrtle, gazing at an expansive ocean — the rabbis decreed that one should recite a berachah, a “blessing over enjoyment.”
We may understand this Talmudic statement in a simple, legalistic fashion: reciting a blessing is a mechanism permitting us to enjoy the pleasures of this world. But Rav Kook explained that the system of berachot indicates how we should relate to the physical world. And the two verses refer to different stages in this relationship.
Before reciting a blessing, we have not yet uncovered the spiritual light that a particular physical pleasure provides. At this stage, we should recognize that “The earth and all that it holds is God’s.” We may only take from the world the bare minimum that we require.
But after the blessing — after we have reflected on the nature of this physical enjoyment, and recognized the spiritual benefit connected to it — involvement in this pleasure will not hinder our spiritual aspirations. 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 debase the spirit. But if we can appreciate the value of cultivating the 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 our horizons and enrich our spiritual vision.
For this reason, the Torah speaks of worldly rewards: rains of blessing, bountiful crops, and material wealth. If the world’s physical progress only detracts from our spiritual advance, why promise such rewards? This teaches that physical riches may complement spiritual growth — when beauty and pleasure serve to advance our spiritual aspirations.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 172)
Illustration image: Izaak van Oosten, ‘The Garden of Eden’ (between 1655 and 1661)