He [Rabbi Akiva] used to say: Beloved is man who was created in G-d’s
image. G-d expressed even more love by letting man know (Avot 3:17).
Even though all of Hashem’s creations are important, human beings have unique significance as Hashem created them (both Jew and non-Jew) in His image. This incredible notion is important for us to appreciate. Lowly man bears the image of G-d!
Dovid Hamelech expresses this appreciation in the eighth chapter of Tehillim. The climax of his praise for all aspects of creation is: “What is man that You have been mindful of him, that You have taken note of him, that You have made him just a bit less than Divine and adorn him with glory and honor?”
Body and Soul
Our Godly nature should impact how we treat both ourselves and others. The Medrash tells us that Hillel saw bathing as a mitzvah because washing ourselves shows respect to G-d, whose image we bear. Hillel compared cleansing our bodies to washing the statues of leaders. He seems to view (on some level) even our physical bodies (and not only our souls) as representative of Hashem. This is because Hashem imbued our bodies with G-dlike creative powers.
The Torah portion of Ki Teitzei takes this message even further by commanding us to respect the human body after death as well. Even the lifeless corpse of someone killed by beit din (which needs to be hanged on a tree in order to deter others from committing similar sins) needs to be taken down before nightfall, “for the denigration of G-d hangs.”
Rabbi Meir explains the association of the hanging body with G-d through a mashal, a parable. There were twin brothers who pursued divergent paths – one became king, the other a criminal. When the criminal was caught and hanged for his crimes, observers mistakenly thought that it was the king himself who was hanging. The message is clear and surprising. When a human body hangs, it is as if G-d, Himself (the king) hangs!
Greater Than Kamocha
Our appreciation for having been created in G-d’s image should affect how we relate to other human beings as well. After quoting Rabbi Akiva, who presented the pasuk of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha – Love your fellow as yourself” as the Torah’s greatest principle, the Sifra quotes Ben Azai, who sees the Torah’s description of man as created in G-d’s image as an even greater principle. The Medrash explains that Ben Azai’s pasuk commands us to respect others beyond the level we respect ourselves. We should show all human beings the respect they deserve for having been created in G-d’s image. When we respect others, we are in essence respecting Hashem. This is why the Mishnah in the fourth chapter of Avot compares respecting other people to respecting Hashem Himself.
Knowing and Appreciating
Returning to the Mishnah in Avot, we note that it contains an additional line. It is important that Hashem not only created man in His image, but also that He let man know about it. The Rambam explains that we only fully appreciate something we are cognizant of.
This is especially true regarding our being created in Hashem’s image. Though the Torah describes Hashem creating man in His image in its first chapter, Hashem only tells man about it in chapter nine. The significance of this can be seen in the fate of the generations who lived before the mabul the great flood. Though Adam Harishon and his descendants were created in Hashem’s image, they did not live up to their potential (and in many ways acted like animals) because they were not aware of this. Hashem restarted civilization after the mabul by telling Noach and his children that they were created in His image, in the hope that this knowledge would inspire them to emulate G-d and His ways.
Humans are similar to animals in many ways. We are programmed to ensure our survival by pursuing food and procreation. On the other hand, we are created in Hashem’s image. This awareness is meant to inspire us to live meaningful lives. May we do our best to constantly remember this fact and realize our G-dly potential.