An excerpt from "Created in God’s Image"
A talk by Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt'l, the "Alter of Slobodka" (1849-1927)
Translated by Rabbi Nosson Scherman
All aspects of our life, whether physical or moral, communal or personal, are conducted and directed, founded and based, on the middah (character trait) of recognizing-our-self-worth.
Someone who lacks understanding generally, and particularly doesn't understand who he is, treats himself cheaply and treats all of life cheaply, even to the extent that he might sometimes carelessly endanger himself even for the sake of insignificant benefits. Someone who is wise acts differently. This person recognizes himself and considers his life precious and dear. With all this strength he attempts to uplift himself and his life.
Recognition of our self-worth is the measure of our life, and it is the fundamental middah responsible for human growth. Therefore, the most essential of all essential principles of life is that we must learn to value a person. Only when we value ourselves appropriately can avodah (our attempt to achieve growth) really begin. Only when we possess a realistic self-evaluation do we possess the yardstick we will need to measure our behavior and actions, our general and particular conduct.
The Mishna (Pirkei Avos 3:18) teaches: "Beloved is man who was created in God's image; God revealed an even greater love for us by informing us that we were created in God's image, as it is said (Bereishis 9:6): 'For in the image of God He made man.'"
It is indicative of a greater love that we were informed that we were created in God's image. That revelation informs us of human greatness and value, of our own personal importance and our preciousness to our Creator. If we thoughtfully consider the qualities and value of our Tzelem Elokim (Divine image), and pause to appreciate the extraordinary potential perfection that actually exists within us, then we will realize that we tower infinitely above the most refined and exalted creatures, from the heights of heaven to the depths of the seas. Then we also will begin to recognize that even the wisest secular scholars in history - who attempted to fathom the uniqueness of the human being and his greatness and value - failed to appreciate even a fraction of the true greatness, the Tzelem Elokim, that the Torah attributes to us. After all, the real value and exaltedness of a person who strives to imitate God is no less than the value and exaltedness that our infinite God is capable of granting. Our real worth is determined by Him, and He tells us that we are infinitely valuable, even by His standards.
If we recognize how incomprehensibly valuable we really are, then we begin to understand the awesome responsibility we have to work on changing and perfecting ourselves. We begin to understand our obligation to fulfill the duties of the heart found in our Holy Torah, in our great and exalted Torah of mussar which is unparalleled by any of the self-improvement systems designed by the wisest of human minds.
From within the perspective we have assembled we must examine the great mitzvah to "walk in His ways," to imitate Him, as our Sages explained (Tractate Shabbos 133a): "'This is my God and I will glorify Him' (Exodus 15:2) - I will become similar to Him: just as He is merciful, so must I be…." This mitzvah encompasses all the halachic obligations to change, grow, and achieve perfection by acting like Hashem. We must reach an accurate enough appreciation of who we really are that we don't respond to this mitzvah with astonishment, "How can a mere human being, with his human weaknesses, be expected to imitate God?"
We must recognize and know that the mitzvah to imitate God is not an impossible decree of the King to become different than we are; rather, this great mitzvah befits us, especially once God has revealed His great love by informing us that we were created in His image. The Divinity within us obligates us to become whom we really are in potential, whom we were created to be - to release the potential within each of us and become people who truly reflect God's image. Once God has revealed his great love by informing us that we were created in His image, that fact must become the seal and emblem emblazoned on the surface of our hearts. We must never be distracted from this seal and emblem. Rather, we must courageously exert ourselves to drive our true identity into all layers of our consciousness, so that we will love ourselves as much as God Himself loves us. We are the most beloved creatures in His universe. We must struggle with all our strength to become perfect, as we all are in potential. Our outsides (our real character) must match our insides (our potential). Our bodies' every move must be guided by the goal of imitating Hashem. Then we will deserve to be described by the Holy One's proud exclamation (Midrash Bereishis Rabbah chapter 12), "Look at the creation I created in My world, and the form that I formed!"