David Walk

In the Image of God

I write these articles every week, sometimes two. I have come to find the process relatively easy, as I just keep cranking them out. But not this week! I’m having difficulty thinking straight and even more trouble setting these jumbled thoughts onto my computer screen. I’m sure that there are many others here in Israel experiencing the same predicament. We just can’t escape the images of Shmini Atzeret, the year’s happiest day transformed into a horrible nightmare, but I’ll try to organize and share some cogent thoughts.

My methodology for these pieces is quite simple: Find a conundrum in the text of the Torah reading and then find a relevant way of resolving the textual difficulty which simultaneously, I hope, presents a lesson for life. Here’s this week’s text: And God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God—creating them male and female (Breishit 1:26). 

The textual problem: What is this ‘image of God?’ Does God have a TZELEM or image? We normally think of the term TZELEM in a physical sense of three dimensional objects, but that doesn’t work so well when discussing God. Remember singing the YIGDAL poem: He has no semblance of a body nor is He corporeal!

We need another approach to TZELEM, and, not surprisingly, there is no shortage of attempts. The Ibn Ezra explains that this term TZELEM refers to creatures who are spiritual in their essence, and the TZELEM ELOKIM is something which mirrors something Divine. How do humans do this? Through humanity’s intellect, which must acquire enough wisdom to work on this assignment, and the Ibn Ezra concludes: Man’s task is to perfect his God given intelligence by acquiring the knowledge which can be provided only by the study and practice of Torah. 

The Chizkuni (and others, notably the Rashbam) suggests that this TZELEM means being similar to angels. That explains why the angel who wrestles with Ya’akov is also referred to as an ISH (‘man’). The Torah doesn’t reference the creation of angels or heaven either for that matter, so maybe the creation of humankind is similar to that of celestial beings. In the parsha, every other creation is just created by a statement, but humans have an introductory statement of purpose or consideration: NA’ASEH ADAM (Let us create humanity). Something different was happening.

What was this difference? The Meshech Chochma claims that it is humanity’s BECHIRA CHOFSHIT (free will). The Maharal M’Prague avers that it is a ‘divine spark’, and the light which emanates from that spark is not a physical light but a ‘Divine light’. 

Rav Soloveitchik famously claimed:

There is no doubt that the term “image of God” in the first account refers to man’s inner charismatic endowment as a creative being. Man’s likeness to God expresses itself in man’s striving and ability to become a creator. Adam the first who was fashioned in the image of God was blessed with great drive for creative activity and immeasurable resources for the realization of this goal (The Lonely Man of Faith, p. 11).

 But it is the position of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch upon which I want to focus. The great German rabbi of the nineteenth century concentrated on the dignity of humanity. When we’re told that humanity was created in the TZELEM of God it means that we are ‘worthy of God and commensurate with the Godly calling of humanity’. It means that we are fit to hobnob with our Creator. Cool!

Rav Hirsch expands upon this idea and states: And actually the whole Torah rests primarily on making the body holy. The whole mortality of human beings rests on the fact that the human body, with all its urges, forces and organs, was formed commensurately with the Godly calling of man, and is to be kept holy and dedicated exclusively to that Godly calling.

The Torah creates an obligation to develop and cultivate this TZELEM ELOKIM. This development means that we are, therefore, duty bound to honor members of the human race. This is what Rabbi Akiva meant when he declared: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God; it is by special divine love that he is informed that he was created in the image of God. As it is stated: “For God made man in His own image.” (Avot 3:14)

Rav Hirsch following in the footsteps of Rabbi Akiva demands that we recognize the dignity of humanity. And we should, but…

This past weekend we saw images out of a horrific nightmare. We saw examples of man’s inhumanity to man, which would make Hitler proud. How could this depravity happen? And Hamas formed as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, claims to be a religious group. I don’t know how a group claiming religious allegiance could descend into such debased wickedness.

But ultimately none of that perversion concerns me. It’s like trying to understand how Adam and Eve could sin so quickly and forfeit GAN EDEN. It’s a conundrum reserved for my intellectual capacity. It’s not my ethical concern.

Here’s my problem: How can we defeat this metastasizing cancer on humanity without becoming tainted by its poison? We must and we will defeat this abomination, but we must maintain our TZELEM ELOKIM. When this is over, with Divine assistance, we will still be M’LECHET COHANIM and GOY KADOSH, a Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation, proud of our humanity, but with another episode to add to our people’s catalog of catastrophes. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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