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 said, '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
said, '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' (Proverbs 4:2)."
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 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 fully be quieted. Even if hardly audible, it will pull him towards G-
d. And he will be plagued with a deep and gnawing sense of lacking until
he heeds its cry.
This week I'd like to expand upon this distinction. If the Children of
Israel are G-d's children, what are the Gentiles? G-d's subjects. To the
rest of man G-d is King. To us He is King as well, to be sure -- in a way
He governs us far more demandingly than the world at large -- but He is
also Father. I'd like to examine this concept a little more closely.
Before I'm misquoted, however, I'd like to offer a brief disclaimer. I do
not intend to imply that the Gentiles are somehow rejected and remote from
their Creator. G-d loves all of humanity. Every human being is granted the
opportunity to build a warm and loving relationship with his G-d -- and to
earn his share of the World to Come. And although as we will see Israel
has the potential for an even more intense relationship, this is not an
issue of black-and-white, love or hatred. As I've pointed out many times,
Judaism is the only religion (to my knowledge) which does not claim that
if you're not "in" -- if you don't do things exactly our way -- you're
damned to hell. Israel, with the Torah and the 613 Commandments is on the
forefront -- and for that matter has the most high-risk a relationship
with its Creator -- but in the grander sense, no human being is left out.
Now, returning to our subject (bad pun there), let us contrast the king-
subject relationship to that of the parent-child. 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 police will carry out no sting operations on his
home. But neither will he ever be distinguished for superior service. He
will likely live out his life unseen and unnoticed.
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 a 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),and which is as transient as the "something" it is dependent
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
(www.aish.com) 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 parent wishes.
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 knife...) 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 don't exist as far as I'm concerned. You are a
nothing, not even worth the insult.
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 second statement regarding Israel. G-d
granted us 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 reject.
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 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.