In A.J. Heschel’s book, “Heavenly Torah”, the author asks if there is one general principle that all the mitzvot (commandments) serve?
For example, Hillel’s famous statement that the enitre Torah is nothing but a commentary on the Leviticus 19:18 – “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Hillel is, in a sense, attempting to state a general principle (Lev. 19:18) that all the mitzvoh serve.
Heschel states "That while such an example can be used as an general principle underlying the mitzvot that deal with relationships between people, what about the commandments between us and God? For example, what about the commandments contained in the Shema, – teaching the words to our children, keeping them on our gates and doorposts. Can we really look to “love your neighbor” as a general underlying principle for such commandments?
So I think there is a better candidate for the “meta reason” behind all the commandments. My vote goes to
Gen. 1:27. And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
First, it is gender inclusive. There can be no question that men and women were equally created in His image. The creation of “man” is in the “male and female” form. The use of “man” here is the same as “human” or “mankind”
Beyond this, the knowledge that humans were created in God’s image results in a kind of double awareness.
First, the awareness that every person you deal with in any way is created in God’s image, and so what you do to them you do to God. Just as you cannot harm a child without harming the parent, you cannot harm your neighbor without harming God. Just as an act of kindness to a child is an act of kindness to his or her parents, an act of kindness to your neighbor is an act of kindness to God.
This is similar to the jewish view, or at least a jewish view, of the hereafter. Particularly, the concept that our world and the hereafter are not two distinct worlds, but are rather directly linked and intertwined, so that what we do on earth has a direct impact on heaven. From this viewpoint, we can say that each commandment exists to remind us that all acts are sacred or at least have the potential to be sacred – to effect both earth and heaven. So the awareness that comes from understanding that everyone is created in God’s image can, I
think, be a general principle for all the commandments that deal with interpersonal relationships.
There’s a second, “corallary awarness” that should flow from the understanding that we are created in God’s image, that should be self evident but I think we often forget. It is not just the the rest of the people in our world that are created in His image. It’s us. Were commanded to acknowledge that we ourselves are created in God’s image and, because of that, that we are holy. Not just our neighbors. This type of awareness covers, I think, all the other mitzvot that do not on their face deal with interpersonal relationships.
Because as creatures made in the image of God, each thing we do, every action, whether it is prayer, eating, work, waking up in the morning, etc., is done by a representative and as a representation of God.
One of the first things I rembmer learning about Judaism was that the mitzvot can be viewed as religious speed bumps. Each commandment provides an opportunity thoughout the day to pause from the mundane and recognize and acknowledge the sacredness of each moment.
Constant reminders that there is something greater than ourselves and that we are part of something greater than ourselves.
As a general principle being created in Hashem’s image demands that kavanah (intent/focus) be brought into all our actions. If the mitzvoh are “religious speedbumps” to remind
us throughout the day of the sacredness of life, of existence, then being created in God’s image is the metaspeedbump to remind us to bring kavanah to all the mitzvoh.
In the 71st Pslam we read “Cast me not off in the time of old age.” A plea to God not to let our world grow old. Creation is an ongoing process. God renews all creation every day. We are not just distantly created in God’s image. It is much more immediate. We are all Adams and Eves.