Does God need us? Exploring this question through the lens of the Midrash

The Torah is replete with descriptions of the deep and powerful interrelationship between God and the Jewish People. However, what are the contours of that relationship? Is it theologically appropriate to use the word “need” in terms of God “needing” anything from mankind in this relationship? This issue comes to the foreground in trying to make sense of the following debate in the Midrash on the relationship between God and our Forefathers. Perhaps this Midrash appears in Parshat Noach for good reason. The destruction and renewal of mankind certainly calls in question the interrelationship between God and mankind:

רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר לְרוֹעֶה שֶׁהוּא עוֹמֵד וּמַבִּיט בְּצֹאנוֹ. רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ אָמַר לְנָשִׂיא שֶׁהוּא מְהַלֵּךְ וּזְקֵנִים לְפָנָיו. עַל דַּעְתֵּיהּ דְּרַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָנוּ צְרִיכִים לִכְבוֹדוֹ, וְעַל דַּעְתֵּיהּ דְּרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן לָקִישׁ הוּא צָרִיךְ לִכְבוֹדֵנוּ.

Rabbi Yochanan said [God’s relationship with our Forefathers] is like a shepherd standing and looking after his sheep. Reish Lakish said it’s like a head of state surrounded by an entourage of senior advisors. According to Rabbi Yochanan, we need God to bestow honor on us. According to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, God needs our honor to be bestowed upon Him.” (Midrash Rabbah: Parshat Noach—  30:11)

(Note: The scope of this inquiry could include many sources in Rabbinic literature but is limited to the great 16th century commentator to Midrash Rabbah (Shmuel ben Yitschak Ashkenazi of Constantinople) the “Yiffei Toar.”)

A distant relationship

According to the Yiffei Toar, when Rabbi Yochanan says that God is like a shepherd “looking after his sheep“ this seems to define the relationship in stark terms. Just as a shepherd owns his flock, we are the property of God. We didn’t do anything to deserve being “watched over” by God. It certainly follows that “we need the honor of God. God sustains everything in the world and we are dependent on God providing for our protection and sustenance. God has no “needs” whatsoever. God is complete, however, like a shepherd, God ‘desires’ to bestow goodness upon His flock.

In some ways, the paradigm is easy to understand. However, what does Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish mean when he says that God “needs our honor”?

A more intimate relationship

The Yiffei Toar draws upon the Mishnah and Talmud to define how God can possibly “need” our honor. 

כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּעוֹלָמוֹ, לֹא בְרָאוֹ אֶלָּא לִכְבוֹדוֹ

“Everything that God created in His world was only for His honor.” (Avot – 6:1)

Seen through a spiritual lens, the many wonders of creation, from ecosystems to the solar system, give honor to God. Does this signify that God “needs” our honor? Not at all, rather what God “needs” is more people recognizing God’s divinity so that God can direct His goodness to them. Think of it as more channels through which God can send His divine blessings.

The Yiffei Toar also quotes a perplexing piece from Talmud Brachot discussing the question of whether God prays. The Talmud concludes that God does indeed pray. God prays that His compassion should always override His anger and that He refrain from being exacting if he must meet out punishment.  The Talmud then relates that God asked the High Priest, Rabbi Yishmael son of Elisha, for a blessing. The High Priest proceeded to bless God with exactly what God “prayed“ for. At the conclusion of his prayer

 וְנִעְנַע לִי בְּרֹאשׁוֹ “God nodded His head [and accepted the blessing].” (Talmud Brachot 7b)

God “asking” to be blessed certainly sound like God “needs” something. However, even when God is “asking” for blessing, it is not because God “needs” anything from man.  It’s the Jewish People’s need for God’s compassion.

A more prestigious view of mankind

According to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, the metaphor for the relationship between God and our Forefathers was a head of state surrounded by prestigious, senior advisors. It seems fair to say that the prestige of the head of state is enhanced by the delegation. This, perhaps, is as close as we can get to assigning a “need” to God.

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish believes that God’s objective in creating the world is hidden and unknown. However, the Yiffei Toar will concede the following:

 כי לולי בריאת העולם היה מציאותו מוגבל

“Without creation, God’s presence in the world would have been restricted.”

In that way it can be said that God “needs” to make His presence known to as many people as possible.

Man vs. animal

Of course, one of the stark differences in the paradigm of Rabbi Yochanan and that of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish is how our Forefathers (or all of mankind) are portrayed. By portraying our Forefathers as advisors rather than sheep, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish aligns with what was later expressed by the Rambam (Maimonides), in the Guide for the Perplexed:

“ שהשגחת ה’ הוא כפי השכל” “God’s supervision and control over His individual creations is commensurate with the level of intelligence of his creation.”

That’s why animals can experience less direct divine supervision. Because of our intellect, mankind can reach a higher level than angels. When Rav Shimon ben Lakish says that God “needs’ our honor it means that we have to strive to be on a high spiritual level in order to be able to merit a greater divine relationship and intervention from God. In other words, God, so to speak, “needs” us to be on that higher level in order to grant us that higher level of divine intervention.

אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ “(our Father, our King)”

Perhaps these two viewpoints are encapsulated by a term we start using in prayer in the days leading up to Yom Kippur. “Our Father, our King” (אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ) connotes both an intimate and distant relationship with God.  At times we feel like we are closer to God – like the paradigm of  Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish. Other times, contemplation of God’s majesty seems to make us feel more distant – like the paradigm of  Rabbi Yochanan.

Oftentimes in the Midrash, a difference of opinion isn’t at all what it appears to be. The Midrash is challenging you to resolve how both opinions are in fact true.


About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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