He used to say:
Beloved is man for he was created in the image [of God]. Especially beloved is he for it was made known to him that he had been created in the image [of God], as it is said: “for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).
Beloved are Israel in that they were called children to the All-Present. Especially beloved are they for it was made known to them that they are called children of the All-Present, as it is said: “your are children to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1).
Beloved are Israel in that a precious vessel was given to them. Especially beloved are they for it was made known to them that the desirable instrument, with which the world had been created, was given to them, as it is said: “for I give you good instruction; forsake not my teaching” (Proverbs 4:2).
Mishnah fourteen contains another teaching of Rabbi Akiva.
This mishnah contains one of the clearest statements in rabbinic literature about the special status that the Jewish people enjoy as the chosen people. The mishnah begins with a general statement about humanity, that all of humanity was created in the image of God and that God actually tells human beings that they are created in His image. In essence, this may be one of the Bible’s clearest statements as to the nature of God; man was created in His image, and perhaps we could say that by seeing and understanding other human beings we actually see a reflection of God. [Although this may be obvious I use the word man in these situations to mean humankind and not to in any way exclude women]. God especially manifests His love by telling humanity that they were created in His image.
Rabbi Akiva now jumps from discussing all of humanity to discussing the particular relationship that God has with the Jewish people. This relationship, according to Rabbi Akiva, is not covenantal, that is based upon the Jews performance of the commandments. Rather it is genealogical. Jews are children of God, and just as a parent’s love for his/her child is (at least supposed to be) unconditional, so too is God’s love for Israel. Furthermore, this relationship cannot be severed. Imagine what a comforting image this must have been to those living through the tumultuous times in which Rabbi Akiva lived.
We could perhaps interpret the next phrase in the same way. The vessel under discussion is the Torah, which according to the rabbinic interpretation of Proverbs, was the blueprints through which the world was created. Just as the previous two signs of love in this mishnah were unconditional and irrevocable, so too is the gift of the Torah. Furthermore, according to Rabbi Akiva, the Torah was given to Israel and not as a gift to the entire world.
We should note that this ideology expressed by Rabbi Akiva was not the only ideology that existed in the time of the Mishnah. There were other sages who believed that God’s relationship to Israel was based conditionally upon Israel’s performance of the commandments and that the Torah belongs to all of humanity and not just Israel. However, the dominant trend amongst the rabbis was certainly that represented by R. Akiva.