Father or King?
Chapter 3, Mishna 18(b)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"He [Rabbi Akiva] used to say: Beloved is man for he was created in the
image of G-d. It is a greater love that it was made known to him that he was
created in the image of G-d, as it is stated, 'For in the image of G-d did
He make man' (Genesis 9:6). Beloved are the Children of Israel for they are
called children of the L-rd. It is a greater love that it was made known to
them that they are called children of the L-rd, as it is stated, 'You are
children to the L-rd your G-d' (Deuteronomy 14:1). Beloved is Israel that
they were given a precious utensil (the Torah). It is an greater love that
it was made known to them that they were given a precious utensil, as it is
said, 'For I have given you a good possession; do not forsake My Torah'
Last week we discussed the distinction between being fashioned in the image
of G-d, which is the case with all humanity, and being the "children" of
G-d, which is unique to Israel. As we explained, every human being has a
divine soul and a natural inclination towards goodness -- as well as the
free will to follow the dictates of his soul rather than those of his body.
In this sense we are all formed in G-d's image.
This trait, however, goes only so far. If a person ignores his soul and
follows his animalistic and/or selfish desires, given enough time his soul
will ebb away and cease to influence him for the better. And in a spiritual
sense -- and in the eyes of G-d -- he will already be dead.
We, the Children of Israel, are different. We do not only *have* souls, but
they are forced upon us. We are the children of G-d (figuratively, of
course). And just as a truly caring parent never entirely forsakes his
child, G-d never allows our souls to entirely perish within us. Even if a
Jew lapses fully from spirituality and tradition, G-d preserves that divine
spark within him or her, not allowing it to become utterly extinguished. And
the Jew, the child of G-d, no matter where he finds himself and how many
years or generations have elapsed, will feel that inexorable pull towards
his roots. His conscience -- his soul -- will never be fully quieted. He
will know there is something different -- something special -- about him.
Even if hardly audible, his soul will draw him towards G-d. And he will be
plagued with a deep and gnawing sense of lacking until he heeds its call.
Before moving on, I should emphasize what this distinction between Jew and
Gentile does and does not imply. As we just explained, G-d forces the Jewish
people to be in touch with their souls and to never forget Him. But this
does not imply that G-d does not desire a relationship with all mankind. We
are all precious to G-d. The extra level of guarantee was a special gift
inherited from our forefathers -- we have an unbreakable bond with G-d. But
unlike most other religions, this does not imply that G-d is Israel's
exclusive domain. His is the G-d of all mankind, and desires a loving bond
with every one of us. It is just that the other nations can break it if they
so choose while Israel may not.
Another way of looking at the distinction between Jew and Gentile is as
follows. The Children of Israel are referred to here as G-d's children. How,
by contrast, would we describe the relationship G-d has with the rest of
mankind? As His subjects. To the rest of man G-d is King. To us He is King
as well, to be sure -- in fact in many ways His governance of us is far more
demanding than of the world at large -- but He is also Father. I would like
to examine this concept a little more closely.
I believe there are two defining aspects to the master-subject relationship.
The first is in terms of intensity. Say a subject serves his king
faithfully. He will certainly be duly rewarded. And if he openly rebels he
will be punished. Say, however, he neither distinguishes himself for good
nor bad. He will attract little notice. The FBI will not stalk him, the IRS
will not audit his returns, and the NSA will not monitor his correspondence
(maybe they will anyway... whatever). But neither will he ever be
distinguished for superior service. He will likely live out his life unseen
Now, of course, the analogy of being unnoticed is not really applicable to
an all-knowing G-d. G-d knows each of us quite well. He sees a lot more
beauty and value in the human soul than we ourselves are aware of. However,
such a subject will not develop a warm and loving relationship with his
King. He will exist as a mere subject or servant of a remote Creator. It
will be a loss to himself, to G-d, and to humanity, but life will go on.
A second aspect of the king-subject or master-servant relationship is that
it is in essence a pact of pragmatism. Each party is looking out for itself.
It does for the other because (and so long as) it serves its own interests.
If a servant does not obey his master properly, the master can easily
dispose of him and replace him with another more suited. And if a servant
finds his master too cruel or oppressive, he will rebel or run away (or at
least perform as little service as he can get away with). Their bond is no
stronger than the interests thereby served -- what we will learn later is
called "a love which is dependent on something" (Pirkei Avos 5:19
http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter5-19.html), and which is as
transient as the "something" it is dependent upon.
The parent-child relationship is very different in both regards. Parents too
make demands on their children, and children must serve their parents. But
the relationship is not founded on practicality. It is founded on love. A
parent wants his or her child to succeed for the child's sake. A truly
caring parent wants what is best for his child, invariably over and above
what is best for himself. (As I've heard R. Noach Weinberg OBM
(http://www.aish.com/rn/) point out, we get the slightest inkling of G-d's
selfless love and caring for us (whom we refer to as "our Father in heaven")
when we ourselves bear and raise children.)
The child likewise wants the parent's needs fulfilled because he feels an
instinctive bond with his parent. Ideally, he does not serve the parent
because *he* gets something out of it at all, but because it is what his
Further, unlike the subject who might be indifferent to the king's needs, a
child can never shirk his duties to his parent. A subject can be distant
from his king. If he chooses not to distinguish himself, he will earn
neither the king's censure nor his approbation. But a child can never be
indifferent to his parent. There is no greater affront to a parent -- or to
anyone you have a close relationship with -- than ignoring him or her. (Have
you ever had that experience -- the person you're arguing with won't even
dignify you with a response? Just walks off while you're in the middle of
talking? You're not even worthy of being disagreed with. It cuts like a
And such is far worse even than insulting the other. Even if I argue, yell
and insult, I at least feel you are worthy of my insult: I have *something*
to say to you. There are *some* lines of communication: you mean enough to
me to be yelled at. But if I ignore you, you are not worthy of any regard.
You do not exist as far as I'm concerned. You are a nothing, not even worth
Sometimes, a wife in a difficult marriage will say she'd rather be ignored
than treated the way she is. That might well be true. But, as my teacher R.
Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu) pointed out, when spouses begin ignoring
each other rather than yelling, it is clear their relationship is over. They
might find living their own separate lives preferable to living with each
other. But calling a cease-fire is not marriage. It is living separate,
isolated existences. Choosing not to communicate and endure difficult
interactions might improve the lots of the individuals involved (and might
very well be the only practical approach), but it also makes it clear that
the relationship is dead.
We can now appreciate our mishna's final statement. G-d granted Israel the
precious utensil known as the Torah. G-d did not grant it to us as part of a
contractual or king-subject relationship. The idea is not: Do this and earn
reward. A servant or an employee might be offered such: Work overtime and
I'll give you a bonus. And he might well decide to forgo the bonus (or even
suffer the punishment) just to avoid the toil. It's his reward to accept or
But this is not the case with the Torah. Our mishna calls it G-d's "precious
utensil." It is a symbol of G-d's bond with us -- of G-d's marriage contract
with Israel. And such a precious gift cannot be rejected -- just as the
relationship behind it can never be ignored. We must accept and cherish
G-d's precious bestowment, bequeathed from loving Father to child. For G-d
has given us the means to a true relationship with Him. By studying the
Torah's wisdom and values and integrating them into our beings, we become
children worthy of our Parent. For it is a "good possession;" G-d asks that
we not forsake it.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.