An excerpt from “Created in G-d’s Image”
A Talk by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt’l, the “Alter of Slobodka” (1849-1927)
Translated by Rabbi Nosson Scherman
All aspects of our life, whether physical or moral, communal or personal, are conducted and directed, founded and based, on the middah (character trait) of recognizing-our-self-worth. Someone who lacks understanding generally, and particularly doesn’t understand who he is, treats himself cheaply and treats all of life cheaply, even to the extent that he might sometimes carelessly endanger himself even for the sake of insignificant benefits. Someone who is wise acts differently. This person recognizes himself and considers his life precious and dear. With all this strength he attempts to uplift himself and his life.
Recognition of our self-worth is the measure of our life, and it is the fundamental middah responsible for human growth. Therefore, the most essential of all essential principles of life is that we must learn to value a person…. Only when we value ourselves appropriately can avodah (our attempt to achieve growth) really begin. Only when we possess a realistic self-evaluation do we possess the yardstick we will need to measure our behavior and actions, our general and particular conduct.
The Mishna (Pirkei Avos 3:18) teaches: “Beloved is man who was created in G-d’s image; G-d revealed an even greater love for us by informing us that we were created in G-d’s image, as it is said (Bereishis 9:6): ‘For in the image of G-d He made man.'”
It is indicative of a greater love that we were informed that we were created in G-d’s image. That revelation informs us of human greatness and value, of our own personal importance and our preciousness to our Creator. If we thoughtfully consider the qualities and value of our Tzelem Elokim (Divine image), and pause to appreciate the extraordinary potential perfection that actually exists within us, then we will realize that we tower infinitely above the most refined and exalted creatures, from the heights of heaven to the depths of the seas.
Then we also will begin to recognize that even the wisest secular scholars in history — who attempted to fathom the uniqueness of the human being and his greatness and value — failed to appreciate even a fraction of the true greatness, the Tzelem Elokim, that the Torah attributes to us. After all, the real value and exaltedness of a person who strives to imitate G-d is no less than the value and exaltedness that our infinite G-d is capable of granting. Our real worth is determined by Him, and He tells us that we are infinitely valuable, even by His standards.
If we recognize how incomprehensibly valuable we really are, then we begin to understand the awesome responsibility we have to work on changing and perfecting ourselves. We begin to understand our obligation to fulfill the duties of the heart found in our Holy Torah, in our great and exalted Torah of mussar which is unparalleled by any of the self-improvement systems designed by the wisest of human minds.
From within the perspective we have assembled we must examine the great mitzvah to “walk in His ways,” to imitate Him, as our sages explained (Tractate Shabbos 133a): “‘This is my G-d and I will glorify Him’ (Exodus 15:2) — I will become similar to Him: just as He is merciful, so must I be….” This mitzvah encompasses all the halachic obligations to change, grow, and achieve perfection by acting like Hashem. We must reach an accurate enough appreciation of who we really are that we don’t respond to this mitzvah with astonishment, “How can a mere human being, with his human weaknesses, be expected to imitate G-d?”
We must recognize and know that the mitzvah to imitate G-d is not an impossible decree of the King to become different than we are; rather, this great mitzvah befits us, especially once G-d has revealed His great love by informing us that we were created in His image. The Divinity within us obligates us to become whom we really are in potential, whom we were created to be — to release the potential within each of us and become people who truly reflect G-d’s image.
Once G-d has revealed his great love by informing us that we were created in His image, that fact must become the seal and emblem emblazoned on the surface of our hearts. We must never be distracted from this seal and emblem. Rather, we must courageously exert ourselves to drive our true identity into all layers of our consciousness, so that we will love ourselves as much as G-d Himself loves us. We are the most beloved creatures in His universe. We must struggle with all our strength to become perfect, as we all are in potential. Our outsides (our real character) must match our insides (our potential). Our bodies’ every move must be guided by the goal of imitating Hashem. Then we will deserve to be described by the Holy One’s proud exclamation (Midrash Bereishis Rabbah chapter 12), “Look at the creation I created in My world, and the form that I formed!”
Personal Growth: The Challenge of Our Generation
Based on an essay by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt’l
When we look at the generations of our grandparents and their parents, we find, generally, that people were intellectually and emotionally stronger, more confident and independent, and better able to deal with the problems and challenges of life. Although they had none of the technological innovation or economic affluence that exists today, they lived spiritually fulfilling and happy lives. Today, in contrast, while the external trappings of our world, such as technology, transportation, and economic affluence, have advanced immensely, the generation has dropped considerably in its perception of what it means to be a great human being.
When people say, “I want to be great,” they say it without knowing what greatness means. They often mean that they want honor or material wealth. True greatness is virtually hidden from our field of vision. Most people have never personally encountered a great person.
People of our generation cannot endure exacting reproof, like the reproof of the great Ba’alei Mussar, the Jewish masters of character development, who used to analyze their students’ deeds and character traits down to their very core level, exposing their hidden flaws and shortcomings. While people in previous generations gained wisdom, insight, and motivation to grow from such deep internal scrutiny, most people today would become crushed from it or suffer from despair.
Today, a new approach to personal change must be taken. The spirit must first be uplifted, the person must become deeply aware of the idea of man’s greatness. Afterwards, he is able to endure the scrutiny of his deficiencies. The first step of character development is to learn the greatness of what man can achieve.
One who begins the journey of personal growth must first gain the ability to perceive attributes of greatness. This requires serious study, for without learning, we cannot know that there are such attributes. We live in a primarily material world, and we are much more in touch with our physicality than with our spirituality, the true root of growth and greatness. After one studies the texts that teach what greatness is, one must introspect, deeply and for an extended period of time, and discover what attributes of greatness rest within himself.
Accordingly, the first practical step is to study the classic Mesilat Yesharim, The Path of the Just (first published in 1738). It is appropriate not to attempt, at first, to discover and build within oneself the particular attribute discussed in each chapter. Rather, one should merely learn about the attribute, understand what it means. He should learn to appreciate it, value its purpose, and desire to develop it in himself. This approach is what the author himself, the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato), advocates in his other classic work, Derech Etz Chaim:
Why does a man not think, every day, even for a moment, thoughts, real thoughts, like “What am I?” “Why have I come into the world?” “What does G-d request of me?” “What should I have accomplished by the end of my life?”
Such thinking about your purpose in life is the most powerful way, and has the greatest impact, to equip you to battle the inclination for indolence and apathy. It is easy to think such thoughts. It changes you rapidly and bears significant results. A man should
seclude himself every day for a period of time, free from distractions, just to think over this matter about which I have spoken, and think about things such as: What did the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) do to endear them so much to G-d? What did Moses, our teacher, do that made him so great? What did King David, and all the great
people before us, do? Contemplate how good it would be for man, all the days of his life, to do like them. Afterwards, explore your inner world to know what your strengths are, and ask yourself, isn’t there something you can do?
Here is the general rule: A person who does not think about how great a person can be will find it very difficult to reach greatness, while a person who thinks about this matter is very close to it.
The benefit of merely thinking about the good traits of others is that it brings one close to those traits. What is the Ramchal asking us to do? He is asking us to engage in self-introspection that focuses not on the deficiencies within ourselves, but on our positive traits.
Discovering one’s strengths, however, is more difficult than knowing one’s deficiencies. Man today is drowning in feelings of lowliness and depression. His base inclination constantly pushes him towards inaction and mediocrity, and his conscience assaults him. If a man concentrates on himself honestly for a little time, he will see his flaws and what he is doing wrong, and as a result he will begin to despair and to lose sight of any way to change. In that state it is difficult for him to think about greatness, especially about the greatness within himself. Nevertheless, focusing on the greatness of man is the only effective way to lift oneself out of a sense of lowliness and insignificance.
Most people think that “knowing ourselves” means knowing what’s wrong with us, our flaws, and our negative attributes. While it certainly is important to be aware of our weaknesses, before we explore our deficiencies we are obligated to recognize the greatness of man, the greatness within ourselves, with candid clarity.
The Vision of Slobodka: Living Life at its Fullest
Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt’l, the Alter of Slobodka
(Transcribed by Rabbi Nachum Meir Karelitz, Chut HaShani, Hilchos Shabbos, p. 31)
We often assume that religious observance, or “service of G-d,” is limited to specific ritual practices, at given times and places. We read from the Torah in the synagogue on Shabbos morning, we recite the evening prayers at nightfall, we say a blessing before and after we eat food, we sit in the Sukkah during Sukkot and we eat Matzah during Passover. What happens to us when we are outside of these given times and places? Since most of the day we are involved in the pursuit of our livelihood in rather mundane and materialistic endeavors and we are not within the contexts for ritual observance, we tend to feel lost; we feel disconnected from G-d.
The truth is that wherever we are, whoever we are, and whatever we are doing, we have the potential to connect ourselves to G-d. The existence of all reality depends on G-d’s will, and thus there exists no time or place in which we cannot serve Him.
This idea is expressed by the Talmud in a fascinating incident (Ta’anis 22a):
Rebbi Beroka Chaza’a used to frequent the market at Bei Lefet, where Elijah would visit him. Once, Rebbi Beroka asked Elijah: Is there anyone in this market who is destined to enter the World to Come?
Elijah said that there was no one. A short while later, Elijah saw a man wearing black shoes (in the manner of the heathens) and who had no thread of blue (Tzitzis) on the corners of his garment, and Elijah exclaimed: That man is destined to enter the World to Come!
Rebbi Beroka ran after the man and asked him: What is your occupation?
The man replied: Go away and come back tomorrow.
The next day, Rebbi Beroka asked him again: What is your occupation?
The man replied: I am a jail warden, and I keep the men prisoners and women prisoners separate. I place my bed between them so that they may not come to sin. When I see that the heathen captors have placed their eyes on a Jewish girl, I risk my life to save her.
Rebbi Beroka asked the man: Why do you have no Tzitzis, and why do you wear black shoes?
The man replied: I dress like a heathen so that I can pass among them undetected. When they pass a harsh decree against the Jews, I inform the sages so that they may pray [to G-d] to annul the decree.
Rebbi Beroka inquired further: When I asked you what is your occupation, why did you say to me, ‘Go away now and come back tomorrow’?
The man answered: They had just issued a harsh decree, and I needed to go and inform the sages of it so that they would pray to G-d.
At that moment two others passed by and Elijah remarked: These two are also destined to enter the World to Come.
Rebbi Beroka approached them and asked: What is your occupation?
They replied: We are professional jesters. When we see men disheartened, we cheer them up. Moreover, when we see two people quarrelling, we strive to make peace between them.
Let’s understand the lesson of this narrative. Of all the people in the world, who could be more distant from serving G-d than these people? A warden of prisoners must feel as though he is a slave to idolaters. Jesters who fill their lives with jokes must feel very little meaningfulness in their lives. Nevertheless, this warden through guarding prisoners and these jesters with their levity achieved the ultimate accolade — they were “destined to enter the World to Come.” They served G-d not in the synagogue, not in the study hall, not even with Jewish garb. They used their professions and their talents in the service of G-d.
Indeed, if a profession exists in the world, then it must have been created by G-d as a tool to accomplish G-d’s will. These people utilized their professions as paths to personal completion, as means for bringing goodness into this world and for acquiring their spiritual world.
If we fail to invest the effort to approach our professions with the understanding that these professions were created by G-d to fulfill His will, then we transform our professions into endeavors of little significance and we miss the opportunity to achieve the greatness for which G-d created us.
This message is relevant not only to our approach to our professions, but also (and even more so) to our approach to life as individuals and to our mission as human beings. Only when we live in harmony with G-d’s will, only when our thoughts, speech, and actions are aligned with our spiritual potential and innate abilities, are we called “humans,” and only then are our lives lived to the fullest. In that sense, even a single moment of true living as a human being makes it worthwhile to have been created.