WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF GOD?
By Rabbi Ferenc Raj, PhD, Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation Beth El, Berkeley, CA, USA & Founding Rabbi, Congregation Bet Orim, Budapest, Hungary
Still fresh in our minds is our celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the holiday that commemorates the beginning of the beginnings, the creation of the world. This coming Shabbat, once again, we will concentrate on the same theme as we read and study the very first Torah portion, B’reshit. For us human beings perhaps the most noteworthy verses in this part of the Holy Scriptures are the ones that deal with the birth of Adam, our common ancestor.
“And God said: ‘Naaseh Adam’ Let us make Adam, in our image, after our likeness. They shall have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth and all the creeping things that creep on earth. And God created Adam in the Divine image b’tzelem Elohim in the image of God, created Adam, male and female God created them.”
There are countless commentaries in our sacred literature on these two sentences, as sages and rabbis, philosophers and Torah scholars have tried to answer some of the puzzling questions of this ancient text. Why does the Torah use the plural language, Naaseh, let us make? What does it mean to be created in the Divine image? How can we humans, creatures of flesh and blood, mortals, be created in the image of a Supreme Being that is not a physical entity?
As for the plural language, “Naaseh Adam – Let us make Adam”, there is a beautiful Midrash that envisions God consulting with Heavenly Beings before creating Adam. Though some interpreters refer to them as angels, we can understand them as representatives of four eternal values, namely Truth, Peace, Love and Righteousness. Truth and Peace tried to veto the creation of Adam. Truth said: “Let human beings not be created because they are compounded of falsehood.” Peace said: “Let human beings not be created, because they are full of strife.” But Love and Righteousness stood up for Adam. Love said: “Let human beings be created, because they will dispense acts of love.” Righteousness said: “Let human beings be created because they will perform righteous deeds.” Then, according to the Midrash, a heavenly conversation ensued and even the ministering angels got involved. While they were arguing with each other and disputing with each other, the Blessed Holy One created Adam.
A parallel Midrash fills in the lacunae and refers to a conversation between God and the ministering angels who inquired: “What is Adam that you are mindful of him? What do you seek to get from him?” God answered: “Human beings will fulfill the Torah and all of my commandments.”
This Midrash demonstrates God’s abundant love towards us. Rabbi Akiva said: “How greatly God must have loved us to create us b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God; yet even greater love did God show us in making us conscious that we were created in the Divine Image.” This brings us to the question: What then does it mean to be created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image? Simply put, we humans have been imbued with the potential to emulate God’s Divine attributes.
The Torah commands us: “You shall walk after Adonai, Your God.” The Talmudic sages raised the question: “How is it possible for a human being to walk after the Sh’khinah? For has it not been said in our Holy Scriptures, “The Eternal One is a devouring fire.” The sages explained: The Blessed Holy One wants us, who were created b’tselem Elohim, to follow and to emulate the qualities of Adonai, our God. [Sotah 14a]
Thus, we are reminded:
As God is gracious and merciful, you be gracious and merciful.
As God clothes the naked, you clothe the naked.
As God visits the sick, you visit the sick.
As God comforts the mourners, you comfort the mourners.
As God tends to the dead, you tend to the dead.
As God is gracious and merciful, you be gracious and merciful walking in God’s ways, serving the Eternal One with all your heart and with all your soul.
Clearly, our task is to become God’s “shutafim”, God’s allies or co-workers in the unfinished work of creation. And I dare to say that the awareness of being created b’tzelem Elohim in the image of God is the foundation of our faith. This is why we Jews implant into the souls of our children this supreme teaching that requires and demands that we show reverence and respect, kindness and compassion, love and caring, goodness and fairness towards others.
In our busy lives we can so easily forget to see the Divine in others. Mark Hetfield, the President of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) reminds us that currently “we are witnessing one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our generation. There are over 60 million refugees and displaced persons throughout the world who have experienced war, violence, and persecution in their home countries. Over 11 million of these individuals are from Syria and have had to flee for their lives, many seeking refuge in surrounding countries. Carrying tales of war and conflict, many hundreds of thousands continue their journey across Europe searching for safety and freedom.” Our religion commands us to help them.
As we sit in our comfortable homes, it is so easy to forget that the world is not perfect and that so many human beings are suffering from pain and disease, oppression and bigotry, war and violence, poverty, hunger and desperation. We must realize that even small mitzvot are needed to hasten the time that will usher in the long awaited coming of the Messianic era when, as described by Isaiah:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard lie down with the kid;
The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together,
With a little boy to herd them…
In all of My sacred mount
Nothing evil or vile shall be done;
For the land shall be filled with devotion to Adonai
As water covers the sea.
In modern terms: when recognizing the image of God in each other, there will be no poverty and hunger, for truly we have enough food, if only we would share it; when recognizing the image of God in each other, violence and hatred will be replaced by tranquility and respect; only then will we see an end to war and oppression. We need to constantly be aware, every moment, of being created b’tzelem Elohim and that even in our unconscious every day actions we can make a difference.
The principal of Jewish law, Pikuach Nefesh, underscores the idea of the sanctity of human life. Pikuach Nefesh, the effort to save a human life supersedes and takes precedence over all the commandments of the Torah with the exception of idolatry, murder and immoral relations. You may violate any of the other commandments; in fact you must, in order to save another human being. The Mishnaic teaching reminds us that “Only one single human being was created in the world to teach that if any single person has caused a single soul to perish, scripture imputes him as though he had caused a whole world to perish; and if any person saves alive a single soul, scripture imputes it to him as though he had saved a whole world.” A single person was created for the sake of peace among humankind, that none should say to the other: “My ancestor was greater than your ancestor.”
In our tumultuous world, a world torn by violence and pain, bigotry, hatred and poverty, Judaism conveys an optimistic message. Since we have all been created b’tzelem Elohim, God’s mitzvot can guide us as we combat evil and chaos at home, in our communities, and in the world. We must see the Divine in ourselves and in others, even in our enemy. We should not sink as low as to accept slander, bigotry, hatred, xenophobia, torture or the doctrine that the means justify the end.
Yes, we must follow the Divine command uttered through the prophet Amos:
Seek good and not evil
that you may live
And that Adonai, the God of all beings
May truly be with you,
Hate evil and love good
And establish justice in the gate;
Perhaps Adonai, the God of all beings
Will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God, Adonai created Adam, male and female God created them. We are all descendants of Adam, both the good and the evildoer. We must pray for strength and understanding not to resort to hatred and violence in the face of those who would harm us. We must also pray for the time when all wickedness will evaporate like smoke and God will remove evil’s domination from the earth.