Dear is Man...
In Pirkei Avos the Mishna tells us that Rabbi Akiva used to say "dear is man for he was created in the image (on a metaphysical level) of Hashem… dear is an Israelite for he is called a son of Hashem…" Like many of Chazal’s sayings, this statement of Rabbi Akiva can be understood on many levels. We should keep in mind that the sages cited throughout Pirkei Avos were the greatest Torah giants of their times. It stands to reason, therefore, that they would set forth many important and wise teachings throughout their lives. Nonetheless the Mishna chooses only one or at most a few thoughts from each Rabbi. This being the case, it must be that whatever was selected was chosen for the purpose of conveying an extremely important lesson.
The mishna is obviously telling us that mankind is special and that Jews have yet another uniqueness – but what is the lesson that is supposed to be learned from this?
The mishna says that Man is Chaviv (“dear”) and that Jews are Chaviv (“dear”). Why doesn't it say that Man is great? It certainly seems quite amazing that Man is created in some form in resemblance to Hashem! Rabbi Akiva, however, chooses to say that mankind is “dear” and Jews have yet another dearness.
Greatness relates to the subject at hand alone, whereas ‘dearness’ depends on a relationship between two or more subjects. One's being ‘great’ is a function of the individual in question, whereas dearness is a feeling that someone can have for someone else without any active involvement on the dear one’s part.
One could argue as to whether someone is or is not ‘great’. Not all people are that great. Some people do horrible things and might therefore be bad, while others do great things and might be great, although being either is more a reflection of the totality of the person than just some of his individual actions. When Rabbi Akiva tells us they are dear because they were created in the image of Hashem that means that they are in some way images of Hashem and therefore all mankind must be treated with "dear" respect. When Rabbi Akiva tells us that we are dear because we are called children of Hashem we must treat each other with due respect because we are referred to us such and not because some Jews might seem so while others not so much so.
This Mishna is conveying an extremely important lesson. It is teaching us that a person must be treated in a dignified manner not just because that individual behaves in a dignified way, but rather because Man is dignified and therefore must be treated in such a manner. The Mishna is telling us that we much treat every Jew as “dear” because each and every Jew is truly dear.