(photo credit: Gilabrand)
“Man’s origin is from dust, and his end is dust; at the risk of his life he
earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, a withering blade of grass, a
fading flower, as passing shadow, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying
dust, a fleeting dream” – From the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer attributed to Rabbi
Amnon of Mainz
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “We know that man is more
similar to an ape than an ape is to a toad. It may be that ‘man has not
only developed from the realm of animals; he was, is, and shall always remain an
animal.’ But is this the whole truth of man?”
This Rosh Hashana we will spend
two days beseeching God, begging not just for health and wealth, but for our
very existence. Yet the question must be asked: if Man is but “a fleeting
dream,” why is he worthy to stand before the Creator of Heaven and Earth, Time
and Space, and address Him?
The Psalmist is bothered by this same question when
he writes: “What is man [enosh] that thou art mindful of him, mortal man [ben
adam] that you take note of him?” (8:4).
Nahum Sarna points out that “the
two words chosen for the human race, enosh and ben adam, are intentionally
chosen for their inflection of insignificance, being heavily charged with
intimations of the impermanence and fleeting nature of human
The word “enosh” brings to note his frailty and “ben adam”
reminds us of his lowly origins; from the dust of the earth (adama). It is with
the use of these very words that the Psalmist asks his question, in bafflement
And yet in addressing his question directly to God, we find
in his question the implicit recognition that the God of Israel is accessible,
takes an active interest in man, is concerned with man, is “in search of
The Psalmist in the next verse then goes on to do something
strange. He answers his own question, using his very answer to only sharpen the
question that he previously asked.
“You have made him a little less than
divine, and have adorned him in glory and majesty.”
What makes Man “a
little less than divine”?
The earliest insight as to the nature of Man is found
in the Book of Genesis when we are told that Man was created in the image of
God. God of course has no image, so what can this mean?
The rabbis explain that
since we can never be similar to God in our appearance, we are to imitate Him in
our actions. And because nothing can prevent God from doing good things, then
nothing should prevent us from doing good things.
Maimonides as well
stresses this idea in his Mishne Torah when he writes that a human being should
“imitate God as far as he can.” The reason we imitate God is to return to our
very nature; to the image the He created us in. And in by acting like God, we
become even more like Him fulfilling His mandate for us.
stresses this point when it analyzes the position of commandments on the two
tablets of the Ten Commandments. With five written on each side, we find the
command “Thou shalt not kill” lies parallel the command “I am the Lord your
God.” The Mechilta goes on to explain that the reason for this is a subtle
reminder that one who kills man is in fact killing God.
Kedusha, by Rav Haim Vital, echoes this point by commenting on a verse that is
clearly talking about God, “The Lord reigns, He is robed in majesty” (Psalms
93), to ask what is it about Man that makes him so majestic?
Rav Vital wrestles
with the apparent conflict between this idea, Man’s majesty and divine nature,
and the empirical reality of Man’s disgusting physical needs.
Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, writes, as if responding to our question,
that the reason the Torah records that God created us in His image is to teach
us that while all the other animals walk stooped, it is man alone who walks
upright, thus showing that he has dominion over the animal kingdom and is set
apart from them.
In what some have called a “radical theological idea,”
the Maharal goes on to write that the very reason that Man can sin is that he is
created in the image of God. In a radical departure from most Jewish thinkers,
he writes that it is that very freedom of choice that makes us Godlike and thus
puts us even higher than the angels, who have no free will and thus cannot sin
and therefore can never be Godlike.
Having sinned, and therefore proven
our divine status, Man has the right to turn to God and ask to return in
teshuva, repentance, which is in essence a return not just to God, but a return
to our real selves.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish
philosophy and currently teaches in many post-highschool yeshivot and midrashot.