In the story of the creation of the world, the psukim dealing with the creation of Man use the phrase tzelem Elokim three times (see Bereishis 1:26, 27). The phrase is usually translated as the image of G-d, but the true meaning is obviously quite elusive. Some suggest it refers to the power of bechirah, some say it has to do with the very essence of spirituality, others talk about a divine soul. In truth, it is a very broad, deep, esoteric, concept; yet there is also a basic, even simple, angle to it.
Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l asks the following question: Why do we find the mitzvos categorized as being bein adam laMakom (between man and G-d) or bein adam lachaveiro (between man and his fellow-man)? Why isn’t there a third category, i.e., bein adam l’atzmo, between a man and himself! Included in this would be character development, spirituality, and ethical improvement; why did Hashem not create this third category of mitzvos? Why is literally everything cast as either bein adam laMakom or lachaveiro?
His answer: Our assumption that we are working in avodas Hashem with the goal to perfect ourselves, that we reach levels of other-worldliness with our own souls, is all wrong! A person in this world is meant to be a channel to intensify kavod shamayim, the honor of G-d, and also kavod haberiyos, human dignity. All self-improvement, even the law of chayecha kodmin, your own life takes precedence, are all details in how one is to interact with G-d and with humankind (with one’s own body also being part of that) — not in an egotistical, self-centered way, but rather an almost dispassionate perspective of being one of G-d’s creatures. Thus, there are only two categories.
Rav Yerucham goes on to cite the Ramban’s view of the mitzvah of “love your neighbor as [you love] yourself.” Ramban says, “It is plausible to say that since it does not say you shall love your neighbor with the usual phrase, ve’ahavta es rei’achah, but rather l’rei’achah (literally, to, or for, your neighbor), that it means that one is to love for him what one loves for oneself… Even if he were to love his neighbor in regard to all things… but not that [the neighbor] should be equal to him; he will always want in his heart that he should be superior to his fellow in all that is good. And so the possuk here commands that this defect of jealousy shall not be present in one’s heart; rather one should love the increase of goodness for his fellow as a one does for oneself… not place any limits on that love. That is why the possuk says regarding Yehonasan, ‘For he loved Dovid as he loved himself.’ This is because Yehonasan had completely eliminated all feelings of jealousy from his heart, as when he said to Dovid, ‘You will rule over Israel and I will be second to you.’ ” Yehonasan had eliminated any trace of jealousy towards Dovid, which is why the possuk describes him as loving Dovid as he loved himself (Shmuel I ,20:17).
According to Ramban, every Jew is obligated to react as Yehonasan did upon realizing that the kingship would pass over to Dovid. To wish, hope, and facilitate that every good should accrue to his friend, no less than to himself. And such a universal, all-encompassing, almost-unreasonable mitzvah is only conceivable if a person is ready to view himself as a conduit to be a channel for kavod haberiyos and kavod Shamayim.
This, I would suggest, is the basic meaning of tzelem Elokim. Hashem’s most essential feature is His limitless giving, reaching outside of Himself to provide, convey, and bestow.
The Gemara tells of a seudah at which Rav Gamliel was serving his guests. When some of the guest expressed chagrin at this, Rav Tzadok said, “And what about the honor of Hakadosh Baruch Hu? Hashem makes the wind blow, the rains fall, the earth grow its produce… So what is so wrong for Rav Gamliel to be serving us?”
What was Rav Tzadok saying? Surely the question was that it is all very nice for Rav Gamliel to want to serve us, but it is entirely inappropriate for us to allow him to do so?! The understanding of the Gemara is precisely what we have been positing: that serving others is not a loss of dignity, but rather, G-dly. Thus, along with Rav Gamliel’s greatness comes the complete suitability for doing for others — and that is the message of the description of Hashem’s doings which Rabbi Tzadok gave.
Doing mitzvos lishmah (for their own sake, with no ulterior motivations) is a real challenge. For we know that Hashem needs nothing, and thus we tend to turn inwards and think, at the very least, of olam haba, of Divine reward, of schar v’onesh. Yet, commendable though it would be to live a life of service to Hashem with thoughts of ultimate reward spurring one on, it is not the ultimate aspiration. Because after all is said and done, that is the avodas Hashem of a Taker. One whose thought processes only allow for a life of ministration if there is “something in it for me.” Doing a mitzvah lishmah is to do it as a Giver — to do Hashem’s will, to channel His blessings upon the earth, to create kiddush Hashem and to be a vehicle for kavod Shamayim.
One more point. A Giver naturally feels that he must reject “free gifts,” since his desire is to give, not to draw unto oneself things that are outside oneself. Consequently, when one is forced by circumstances to “take,” the Giver is immediately prompted to give something in return. This translates into true gratitude and appreciation — a vulnerability on the part of the temporary, forced-by-circumstances taker, to Give something (“I owe you one”) in return. The Taker feels no need for gratitude, for he believes that everything is his, or at the very least, should be. In other words, Hakaras hatov is the Giver’s response that allows for taking, while a sense of entitlement will always accompany the Taker, to the degree that even his giving is tainted by self-interest.
I guess I should take this moment to give thanks to Chadash newspaper and to my editor for giving me the opportunity to put various thoughts on paper clearly and lucidly (one hopes). And to the readers for reading them.