by: Rabbi Aharon E. Wexler
“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
“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 Yom Kippur we will spend a whole day 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?
“In the Bible, body and soul are viewed as one and the existence and meaning are attributed to the soul on the physical, human and historical plane.” For Judaism, it is the soul of man that sets him apart from all of creation. “The soul of man is a part of the Divine and, in this respect is a manifestation of God in the world.”
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)
“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 existence.”
The word enosh brings to note his frailty and ben adam reminds us of his lowly origins from the dust of the earth (adamah). It is with the use of these very words that the Psalmist asks his question in bafflement and surprise.
And yet in addressing his question directly to God we find pregnant in his question the implicit recognition that the God of Israel is not some aloof Deity, but one who accessible, takes an active interest in man, is concerned with man, is ‘in search of man’.
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 instance of insight as to the nature of Man is found already in the Sefer Bereishit when we are told that Man was created in the image of God. God of course has no image, so what is meant that we are created in His image?
We can help answer this with the Tomer Devorah. The first line of the Tomer Devorah is an exhortation for man to act God-like. Imitatio Dei. Since we can never be similar to God in our appearance, we are to imitate Him in our actions. And since nothing can prevent God from doing good things, then nothing should prevent us from doing good things. RaMBa”M as well stresses this idea in his Mishneh 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 He created us in. And in by acting like God, we become even more like Him fulfilling His mandate for us.
The Mechilta, stresses this point when it analyzes the position of commandments on the two tablets of the Aseres HaDibros. With five written on each side we find the command “Thou shalt not kill” lies opposite 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.
The Sharei Kedusha, by Rav Chaim Vital, proves this point even more by commenting on a passuk that is clearly talking about God, “The Lord reigns, He is robed in majesty” (Tehillim 93) to ask what is it about Man that makes him so majestic? Rav Vital goes on to wrestle with this idea Man’s majesty and divine nature, with the empirical reality of Man’s disgusting physical needs.
The MaHaRa”L 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 on the animal kingdom and is set apart from them.
In what some have called a ‘radical theological idea’, the MaHaRa”L states 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 believes 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 can not 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 which is in essence a return not just to God, but a return to ourselves.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who is Man? (California: Stanford University Press 1965) pg. 20
 Rachel Elior in in Arthur A. Cohen, Paul Mendes-Flohr Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (New York: The Free Press) 1987 pg. 889
 Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, (New York: Basic Books Inc. 1980) pg. 51
 Nahum M. Sarna, On the Book of Psalms (New York: Schocken Books 1993) pg. 62
 See Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1976)
 Chapter 1
 Hilchot Deot 4:6
 Parshat Yitro Parsha 8
 Gate 2 Part 1
 See Part 2 Gate 4
 Derech HaChaim pg. 142
 ibid. pg. 148