What Is Humanity That YOU Are Mindful Of Them?

This week we begin again our annual cycle of the Torah readings. We look forward to following these stories, as we venerate these beloved characters. But this week’s Torah reading is a bit different. We don’t really know Adam. There’s not enough narrative material for us to form a clear opinion, unlike Avraham, Ya’akov or Moshe. So, what do we take away from this enigmatic character? He’s Everyman; he’s us. We must read his story that way. And that starts with his birth, or whatever we should call that event.

Adam emerges with great hoopla and hubbub. God makes it momentous by including mysterious ‘others’ by announcing: Let us make man in our image and likeness (Breishit 1:26). Clearly, we’re informed that we share two aspects with our Creator, TZELEM (‘image’) and DEMUT (‘likeness’).  What’s unclear are what those aspects actually are. Some say that TZELEM is connected to our physical existence in this world, and DEMUT is more spiritual and concerns our future place in the heavenly realm. Perhaps, they denote physical powers to make and build, alongside intellectual powers to think, imagine and decide.

Reb Chaim Volozhin in his Nefesh HaChaim suggests that the ‘image’ of God can’t be taken literally, because the prophet Yeshayahu says, ‘Is there an image to compare God to (40:18).’ The expression ‘God’s image’ means that we share some aspect in common our Creator. That’s how all metaphors work. We just share a very limited area of comparison. Reb Chaim goes on to explain that he believes that the trait we share in common with God is our control of forces in this world, for good or ill. Just as God is top of the hierarchy in heaven, we are peak of the pyramid of creations in this world.

That’s a fine approach, based on the premise that God was creating all of humanity, rather just one human being. However, we can also examine this issue from a microcosmic point of view. God wasn’t creating humanity, just a human. So, we must endeavor to understand what God was informing us about each specific human rather than the entire species.

Reb Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov opted for this method of understanding God’s declaration. God was telling Adam, and us, that we each have something unique amongst all the myriad creations: We can control our selves. Everything else created during those six ‘days’ follows their ingrained, or programmed, instincts or instructions on how to function or behave. We have some programming, but we can impose our will on our behavior. We can fast in the presence of food or voluntarily choose to live in harsh climates. We have DNA, but are not enslaved to it. This freedom is the result of our DEMUT, which provides imagination.

The Rebbe goes on to explain that we can even control our image or TZELEM. This is not a reference to plastic surgery. He meant that we can maintain control over certain aspects of our lives. There’s a verse used by the Midrash to describe the creation of humanity, ‘You have formed me behind and before (Tehillim 139:5).’ This verse is used to endorse many concepts. Perhaps the most famous is that Adam was created as conjoined twins. However, it also could mean that humans were created last, but planned first.

The Ba’al Shem Tov understood it to mean that greatness in humans is found in our recognition of our KATNUT (‘smallness’, also ‘youth’). We find greatness (GEVURA) in modesty and humility. So, too, humans can find KATNUT even after they’ve grown great in either age or prestige. In that way we are created ‘after and before’. In KATNUT there is struggle to find the right path, and God is found in that sincere struggle.

The Rebbe believes that the vitality (CHIYUT) of humanity is found in both our KATNUT and GADLUT. Humans can find greatness in their ability to reinvent themselves. Heroes are often those who can apply youthful zeal even in old age. It’s true that you ‘can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, but it’s tragic when old humans can’t find exciting new paths to blaze. And in spiritual matters, please, always look for new ways to approach our Maker. I believe strongly that the Ba’al Shem Tov is teaching us that very point.

When God addressed the heavenly host, the cosmos and our first parent, in this announcement, the message was for each one of us, as well. It’s not just an announcement; it’s also a challenge. We are created in God’s image and likeness, and now we must live up to that gift and do Divine things.

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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