Chapter 3.8: Expression, Connection and Union: The Threefold Identity of the Jew

“Rabbi Akivah would say... Beloved is man, for he was created in the Image (of G‑d); it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the Image, as it is stated: ‘For in the image of G‑d He made man.’ Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of G‑d; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they are called children of G‑d, as it is stated: ‘You are children of the L‑rd your G‑d.’ Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious article; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they were given a precious article, as it is stated: ‘I have given you a good purchase; My Torah, do not forsake it.’ "

(Ethics of the Fathers, 3:14)


He was one of the greatest sages the Jewish people had ever known. But, as a descendant of converts to Judaism, he could not even claim Jewish ancestry. And although he grew up as a Jew, for the first four decades of his life he was completely ignorant of Torah. An illiterate shepherd until the age of 40, he eventually became one of the most authoritative figures in the history of the study and transmission of Torah.

So Rabbi Akivah was able to relate, firsthand, to the three dimensions of our identity which he enumerates in the above-quoted Mishnah: our humanity, our Jewishness, and the specialty achieved through the study of Torah. Or—as expressed in terms of our relationship with G‑d—our reflection of, connection to, and union with the Almighty.

Reflection and Connection

On the most basic level, man is the expression of the Divine. His discriminating intelligence, his empowerment to will and choose freely, are wholly G‑dly qualities - qualities that the Almighty imparted to the crown and apex of His creation, making humanity the mortal mirror of His omnipotence.

Our identity as Jews represents a deeper aspect of our relationship with G‑d, one that the Almighty compares to the intimate and quintessential bond between father and son. Of all the peoples of the world, G‑d chose the nation of Israel to be the purveyors of His immanence in our world. To this end He commanded us the mitzvos, providing us with many and diverse avenues - as diverse as life itself - for us to make our lives an abode for His presence.

The word mitzvah means both "commandment" and "connection." In commanding us to perform a certain deed, G‑d creates an opportunity for us to form a connection with Him. He is willing Himself to want something from us, although He certainly does not want for anything in the "lack" sense of the word. He does this so that we may be able to relate to Him by fulfilling His will.

In other words, while our identity as beings created in His image has more to do with what we are than with what we do, our identity as Jews means that we have been imbued with the potential to actively create a connection with Him - by living our lives as instruments of His will.

Clothing and Nourishment

But a person's performance of mitzvos can be a wholly “external” act - something in which he is involved only on the behavioral level, to little or no effect on his character and personality. This is not to say that merely going through the motions of a mitzvah's performance is of no significance. These "motions" are acts, words or thoughts whose execution the Almighty chose to define as the implementation of His will. But regardless of the magnitude of what a person's deed is accomplishing, he himself may remain unmoved and unchanged.

Torah, however, introduces a new dimension to our ability to connect to the Divine. Like the mitzvos, Torah is a channel opened by the Almighty to enable us, confined as we are to our finite and material existence, to form a connection with Him. The difference is in the medium He chose: with the mitzvos, He made that certain (mostly physical) actions should embody His "will"; with Torah, He communicated His "wisdom" in terms digestible to the human mind.

In other words, through the performance of mitzvos our daily lives become an exercise in the performance of the Divine "will," while through the study of Torah our minds become saturated with G‑d's "wisdom."

This is one of the reasons why the Torah is often described as "food" for the soul and the mitzvos as the soul's "garments." The hand that dons tefillin or dispenses charity, the heart and lips that pray, are immersed in an activity that is an extension of the Divine - an activity in which the Almighty chose to invest His will. But, in a sense, this is a one-way relationship: the limbs and faculties involved in the mitzvah's performance are fully immersed in the act, but the act may not penetrate their being. They are doing the mitzvah, but the mitzvah may not be doing anything to them - at least not anything internal and permanent. They are effecting a connection with the Almighty, but a connection involving only their conduct and behavior, not their inner makeup and character. This is comparable to the relationship between a garment and its wearer: the wearer is encased in the garment, yet the garment remains something that is outside and distinct of the wearer.

Torah, however, is food for the soul. Food that is absorbed by its consumer to become the very substance of his being. The thinking mind is not only absorbed by an idea, but also absorbs it, making for "a wonderful union, like which there is none other, and which has no parallel anywhere in the material world - they (the mind and the idea) attain a complete oneness and unity, from every side and angle."

And when the idea is a Torah idea, the human mind attains this "complete oneness and unity, from every side and angle" with the Divine essence which G‑d communicated as His "wisdom": on the one hand, the mind immerses itself in G‑d's Torah (a quality which the act of Torah study shares with all other mitzvos); on the other hand, it also digests and internalizes the idea, making it part of its outlook and identity.

In summation:

A. The human soul, simply by being what it is, mirrors and expresses its Divine source.

B. A more potent relationship is achieved through the mitzvos, with which the Jew actively creates a connection with the Almighty.

C. Through the study of Torah the Jew effects not only a connection with his G‑d, but also a union in the most absolute sense of the word.

History, Biography and A Day in the Life of a Jew

The story of Rabbi Akivah's origins and life is also the story of the Jewish nation. The people of Israel are also descendants of "converts" to Judaism: while G‑d impressed His image on the very first man He created, it was more than two thousand years before He began the process of choosing Israel as His nation. And in its younger years, Israel, too, had yet to taste the full extent of the union with G‑d wrought by Torah. While yet in Egypt, they were already referred to by the Almighty as "My firstborn son, Israel" and commanded to do certain mitzvos; but it was only on the 6th of Sivan of the year 2448 from Creation (1313 B.C.E.), as the entire people of Israel stood gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, that the Almighty gave us His Torah and opened an new and unprecedented dimension of opportunity for relationship with Him.

In a certain sense, we each experience these three phases of growth in the course of our lifetimes and, in microcosmic form, every day of our lives. From the moment of birth, we are full-fledged human beings, reflecting and expressing the Divine image in which we were created. But the Jewish dimension to our being is not fully realized until the age of 12 (a girl) or 13 (a boy), when we assume the obligation to observe the mitzvos and fulfill her/his role as a one of G‑d's chosen people. And although the we are taught words of Torah from the time we begin to speak, it is only after many years of devoted study, years in which we attain the knowledge and maturity of mind necessary to even begin to truly comprehend Torah, that we come to enjoy the special union with G‑d that only the in-depth study of Torah can bring.

On the daily level, we regain full possession of our distinctly human faculties immediately upon waking. But our relationship with the Almighty is still a wholly passive one - simply by being what we are, we mirror the Divine attributes and qualities which He invested in us. Then, with our acknowledgment of G‑d in the words of Modeh Ani and our service of G‑d through prayer, we begin the actualization of our Jewish selves and our "filial" relationship with our Heavenly Father. Finally, we move "from the hall of prayer to the hall of study," where the mind of the Jew and the "mind" of G‑d fuse to one.