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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 18

This is a long and complicated verse, so I’m going to cut and paste the Chabad translation, to spare myself the typing:

He would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it is says, You are children of the L-rd your G-d. Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious article; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they were given a precious article, as it is stated: I have given you a good purchase; My Torah, do not forsake it.

The three parts here are each making the point that the knowledge of a thing is greater than the thing itself without the knowledge. Which is a true thing, of course, but in some sense a simple and true thing: how could the thing be greater than the thing plus the knowledge? He cannot be saying that the knowledge on its own is greater than the thing on its own, because the knowledge cannot exist without the thing being known—or—

Let’s play around with that for a few minutes. What if the valuable thing really is the knowledge, not the thing known? That is, let’s examine: what if we know that we are created in the image of the Divine, but we are not, in fact, made in the Divine image? Before we go on, let me add that my intention is to play around with it as a hypothetical, rather than determining in any sense whether humans are or are not made in the Divine image, whatever that would mean, physically or spiritually or whatever. Akiba takes it as a basic fact that humans were made in the image of the Divine, because they had been told it, and so it was true. That’s fine. But what would it mean that we are told it, if it is not in any sense true? Is the telling then a proof of Divine love?

YHB immediately goes to the idea of the Divine-Human relationship being like the Parent-Child relationship. When we tell our children that they are pretty, strong, brave or clever—is the telling a proof of our love even if they do not have those qualities? Is the proof of parental love that we see those qualities in our children even when they are hidden to other eyes? (I am of course reminded here of Coach and his daughter, played by the great Allyce Beasley, from about two minutes or so into this clip) Or is this another example of parents telling comforting lies to their children, well-intentioned but ultimately harmful? Or is this the thing where children find in themselves the thing they are told to find, whether it is bravery or beauty, or incompetence or uselessness?

And, of course, the Divine is not just telling children but telling adults that we are made in the image. I don’t like to rely too much on the Divine as Parent, because it infantilizes us as adults, as if we will never be ready to come into our own inheritance as humans. So if the Divine is just saying it, if we believe mistakenly that we are in the image, is this a contributor to our arrogance and recklessness? Or to our humaneness, our mercy and love for each other—and for ourselves, if it comes to that?

Whether we are made in the Image, we are made (somehow) able to believe that we are made in the Image. That is an astonishing thing about humans—we look at the universe and think that the Divine Creator must be in some way like us, and that we must be in some way like the Divine. We may or may not actually be made in the Divine Image, but we have the ability to conceptualize that we are, and perhaps being Created that way is the proof of extraordinary Divine Love that Akiba is getting at here.

For the others, well, I think that Chosen-ness has not been an unmitigated blessing for the people Israel, and I’m not sure that it wouldn’t have been better to have been Chosen without such a fuss being made about it. Still, in the words of the verse, the special love that Israel is shown is not being children of the Divine (which of course everybody and everything is a Created of the Creator), but in being told that we were children of the Divine. Not an unmitigated blessing, as I say, but there it is. Perhaps the evolution of Judaism is such that (as with human understanding of the Divine Image) we have become capable of understanding what it means to be children of the Divine—or what it could mean, anyway.

As for the special gift of our Tribe, well, it could be said that our special gift is not the Torah, which is available to everyone after all, and which (by certain stories) was offered to everyone, but our love for the Torah, our enduring habit of keeping it precious to us, in different ways for different generations, our secure knowledge that it remains ours, remains our Scripture, remains our gift, whatever its apparent flaws and irrelevancies.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,