The second of Rabbi Akiva’s four teachings consists of a repeated pattern of three ideas, each with three elements. The three-by-three framework consists of a starting statement a) “Beloved is X,” b) “especially beloved” is X because his “benefit was made known to him”, and c) a prooftext.
[a1] Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God]. [a2] Especially beloved is he for it was made known to him that he had been created in the image [of God], [a3] as it is said: “for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).
[b1] Beloved are Israel in that they were called children to the All-Present. [b2] Especially beloved are they for it was made known to them that they are called children of the All-Present, [b3] as it is said: “you are children to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1).
[c1] Beloved are Israel in that a precious vessel was given to them. [c2] Especially beloved are they for it was made known to them that the desirable instrument, with which the world had been created, was given to them, [c3] as it is said: “for I give you good instruction; forsake not my teaching” (Proverbs 4:2).
According to Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, “Beloved is man because he was created in the image of God” refers not just to the Jewish people, but to all humanity. This emphasizes the universalistic elements embedded in the Torah. As Zechut Avot points out, the more we bring love and positivity into our relationships with all others, the more peace there will be in the world and the more we will end up loving our brethren, as well. The general posture of choosing love (with necessary exceptions when combating evil), is the preferred approach.
This focus on the positive is accentuated by Abarabanel, who contrasts Rabbi Akiva’s message with Akaviah ben Mehalalel’s teaching from Avot 3:1. Akaviah encourages the use of intensely negative imagery to keep one away from sin. Rabbi Akiva, according to Abarbanel, disagrees with this approach, and recommends contemplating more positive features. Reflecting on the greatness of man being created in the image of God, will have a stronger resonance. This divergence of styles reverberates in the 20th century with two different streams within the Mussar Movement. One highlights the positive capabilities of man (gadlut ha-adam), and another which stresses the lowliness of people (shiflut ha-adam). 21st century psychology saw a similar distinction develop. Martin Seligman spearheaded the positive psychology movement precisely because he thought that the field of psychology was focusing too much on the negative aspects of human nature, and not enough research was being committed to human strengths and the capacity to flourish. It is this strength-based approach that permeates Rabbi Akiva’s message.
Reflecting this positive tone, an essential aspect of this Mishna is that the three benefits were explicitly “made known to them.” Many people have strengths and resources in their lives, but they aren’t aware of them. The fact that God communicates these benefits is meant to foster a healthy self-image and generate further motivation to follow His path. Extrapolating to the interpersonal realm, if we would emulate God’s precedent, it is incumbent upon us to explicitly communicate our love to our loved ones, and make known to them their strengths.
In terms of what it means to be “created in the image [of God],” several scholarly works have been composed trying to fully explicate this lofty concept. Suffice it to say, there are many disparate approaches. Without aiming to be comprehensive, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski presents a helpful list of traits that are said to be unique to humanity, potentially falling under the rubric of image of God:
The ability to acquire and transmit knowledge, to reflect on the purpose of existence, to think of the past and to contemplate the future, to make salutary changes in himself, to sacrifice his own comfort and even his very being for his beliefs or for the welfare of others, and to be totally free to make decisions and to act upon them, even in defiance of bodily urges.
Reflecting on these vast capacities and capabilities generates a responsibility for all of humanity to utilize these blessings for spiritual and moral purposes.
Paired with this first universalistic message are two equally essential particularistic teachings. “Beloved are Israel” in that “they are called children to the All-Present” and “that a precious vessel was given to them” in the form of the Divine teachings of the Torah. The relational and providential aspects of being the children of God, along with the benefit of being blessed with the Torah, a treasured gift from God and a precious tool to help us navigate the physical and spiritual worlds, also generates belovedness, motivation, and responsibility.
One puzzling aspect of the Mishna is that the verse used to demonstrate that mankind was created in the image of God is from Genesis 9:6, “for in the image of God He made man.” Yet, there are two earlier verses that communicate the message that people are created in the image of God: “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26), and “And God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). Rabbi Yosef Yavetz cogently suggests that Rabbi Akiva utilizes the verse from Genesis 9 because that statement is stated directly to mankind, making it “known to him that he had been created in the image.” In their original form, the verses in Genesis 1 are not explicitly mentioned to mankind.
Perhaps embedded in this choice of verses is also a moral message. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in his book Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas, the fundamental difference between Genesis 1 and Genesis 9, is that “Genesis 1 tells me that I am in the image of God. Genesis 9 tells me that the other person is in the image of God.” This challenges us not just to be motivated to act with dignity, but to treat others with dignity. Maybe this is why Rabbi Akiva, the champion of “love your fellow like yourself” (Lev. 19:18), chooses this latter verse from Genesis 9, to remind us that everyone deserves to be treated as they were created in the image of God.