“What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty?” (8:5-6)
There is a teaching of the Hasidic Rabbi Simha of Bunem, that a person should always carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. In the left pocket, the slip of paper reads, “You are dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27) The slip of paper in the right pocket reads, “For my sake, the world was created.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
Being created in God’s image is at the same time a great privilege and a great responsibility. The ability to manipulate tools and extensively use the resources of the planet for our benefit gives us an advantage over all other forms of life. Were we to be tossed into the wild to compete on even terms with animals of prey, most of us would be lost. In our own environment, we are masters.
It is the “little less than Divine” that draws my attention. We are asked to be self-limiting in our behavior. No one can compel us to use fewer resources, be kinder to the environment, treat all life with compassion. The Psalmist therefore reminds us that we are not Divine; in Reb Simha’s words, we are destined to become dust and ashes.
Reb Simha’s teaching is that ego needs to be balanced with humility; and that self-effacement needs to be balanced with self-esteem. In the end, though, he recognizes that a healthy ego is slightly tilted towards self-esteem over humility. The key to understanding Reb Simha’s teaching is to remember that the right hand is stronger than the left hand (for those of us who are left handed, think of it symbolically). Therefore, the self-affirming message (“I am so important that the world was created for me”) is slightly stronger than the ego-cautioning message warning me that I am a mortal being destined to return to the grave.