NOTE: This address was delivered by Rabbi Stern at the Topeka, Kansas Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, 11/20/22
Good evening, I am Rabbi Samuel Stern of Temple Beth Sholom here in Topeka, and I have been asked to talk about creation stories in Jewish tradition. It is an honor to be here representing the Jewish community of Topeka, which has existed since the 1850s and happily contributes to a city and state that we love.
The first book of our Torah (Torah means teaching or instruction) is called Bereshit or the Book of Genesis. Ours is a creation story many will be familiar with as God creates light, separates it from darkness, separates the waters from the dry land, and creates vegetation, the celestial bodies, living creatures from fish to insects to birds to land animals, and finally, human beings created B’tzelem Elohim. Translated from the original Hebrew, B’tzelem Elohim means, in the image of God, was all of humanity made. That, in essence, is our creation story.
Many rabbis didn’t think our Torah, our holy text, should open with the story of creation at all. After all, it is a universal text about all humanity, not a statement or story, or particularly about the Jewish people!
Judaism, if you didn’t know, is a religion of rules. We have rules for how to treat people, what clothes to wear, what to eat, and even how to properly apologize!
While many faiths have important rules and guidelines for behavior, ethics, or family structure, or what to eat, we have been developing a system of religious jurisprudence for almost three thousand years. Embracing the high importance of our religious laws, some prominent and righteous rabbis asked, sometime during the period of the year 200-400 of the common era, why does the Torah begin with the story of creation? It is not particular to us, and it doesn’t feature any laws.
Our sages asked, if the laws are so important, do we start the Torah, our most sacred text with the laws? No, with the creation story! It is so important for us to understand that it comes first. Some suggested maybe we should begin with the book of Vayikra, which you may know as Leviticus, which contains the most laws? And yet the majority was convinced that no, it should still be creation first. Another suggestion was to begin with the story of Abraham since the first of God’s commandments was issued to Abraham, and he is our forebearer. Still no, we will begin with the story of the creation of the world.
Now, one might be tempted to say that the reason is obvious, what story, barring some television drama, does not begin at the beginning? It is logical, for sure. But even that is not the reason the Torah begins with the story of creation. The answer is found in something I mentioned before…
“Vayivra Elohim Et HaAdam B’tzalmo, B’tzelem Elohim Bara Oto…”
God created humans in the divine image, creating them B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
The rabbis maintained that the reason our most holy text began with the story of creation was so that we and all humanity would remember that each of us is created in the image of God. Not physically, of course. We each look different; that’s a matter of genetics and other scientific fields, not for me. So, what does it mean that each and every human is made in the image of God? It means that each of our souls contains, to borrow from Jewish mysticism, a divine spark. In Jewish tradition, this is a recognition of the inherent equality of all humanity. The creation story is important, not because we believe everyone should know that on the third day of creation, plants were created. The creation story is important because it affirms one of the most important moral truths in the entire Jewish ethics system: Every human being has inherent moral value, and no human being is inherently worth more than any other.
Today’s world needs this reminder. If we were each able to see the divine spark we each hold inside our souls, perhaps pain, suffering, and hatred could finally be abolished. In recent months, an increase in antisemitic rhetoric and violence against Jewish people has become an uncomfortable reality for many American Jews and our friends and interfaith partners. We will always live up to the values taught in our creation story of equality, and fairness, and to recognize the divine spark in every person. This week of Thanksgiving, we are especially grateful for our friends and partners here in Topeka and around the region, who have been supportive of our small community. May we long live together in blessing and peace, and may in all things creation only lead to equality and love and never hate.
As we say in Judaism, Ken Y’hi Ratzon, may this be the will of God.