God now said, "Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness; and let them hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the beasts, over all the earth, over all that creeps upon the earth." So God created the human beings in [the divine] image, creating [them] in the image of God, creating them male and female. God then blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and tame it; hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, and over every animal that creeps on the earth." (Genesis 1:26-28)
I pose this question to my students: If I truly believe that each one of you is made in the image of God, then how will I treat you? How should we treat one another if we believe this is true? They understand what I'm saying; they know that I am talking about treating others with loving-kindness, respect, and dignity. They know this because we are speaking the same language; they have been raised in a Reform congregation where values of tikkun olam and behaving as God's partners in the world are at the core of their education. It's a beautiful message we Reform Jews bring to others.
The first chapter of Genesis presents a version of the Creation story, in which everything is created by the force of God's word: "Let there be such-and-such" and the sky, the earth, the vegetation, and animals all come to be. The creation of human beings requires something else; as Plaut tells us, the text describes God as appearing more thoughtful before this last act of creation (W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 35). God wishes to make man and woman b'tzelem Elohim, "in God's image." What does this mean when we have no visual representation of God?
In Nine Gates to the Chassidic Mysteries we read this comment, attributed to Ohev Yisroel of Apta: "Our body forms its likeness on the earth by the shadow it casts, so do we, by our activity, form the eternal God to our likeness: If we act well, we form thereby the right hand of the God-Man. If we resist evil, we form the left hand of the God-Man. If we do not look at ugly things, we form His eyes. If we do not allow our ears to hear lies, we form His ears and so on. God asks this of us and we have always to be conscious of it, so that we can always do right and not sin, AMEN" (Jiri Langer, Nine Gates to the Chassidic Mysteries [New York: David McKay Company, 1961], p. 170).
What kind of shadow of God's image is cast by modern-day extremists? As Robert Gordis has said, to "fill the earth and master it" has been horribly misinterpreted by all too many to justify the poisoning of our water supply and exploitation of natural resources (Robert Gordis, Congress Bi-Weekly 38 [April 5, 1971]: 12). But think of the possibilities that we have when we abandon the extremes and we cooperate to purposefully shape humanity in the image of God.
Plaut brings together three meanings that explore our likeness to God. First, this b'tzelem Elohim demonstrates our amazement at our special place in Creation, particularly our unique intellectual capacity. Second, this likeness describes our moral potential. We become truly godlike when we demonstrate through actions of mercy, love, and justice. Third, if each of us is like God, then all of us together are always in the act of forming an image of God (Plaut, The Torah, p. 35).
My students understand b'tzelem Elohim like a language-they can "speak" b'tzelem Elohim. They understand that their actions have an impact on others. The special nature of a religious school environment makes "I-Thou" relationships possible. Inside the classroom, something wonderful can take place. The students open to the holy atmosphere being provided, and when the teachers are able to maintain the same openness to being made in the image of God, then they truly encounter one another. Maybe tikkun olam, raising the sparks to holiness, seems more natural within a religious school.
I met one of those sparks two years ago when I arrived at Beth Israel. One of my staff members, Marsha Schneider, after years of teaching, had just achieved her dream goal of becoming head of the upper school. Marsha was also suffering from cancer. She had already struggled and suffered for too long when I met her, and I did not know her long enough. During the last months of her life, I watched our people respond to the spark of Marsha with their own sparks-visiting her, bringing her small gifts, cooking food to meet her dietary needs, calling her. In the course of her struggle, the whole congregation reached out twice to find a bone marrow match. When I visited her in the hospital, all she wanted to know was about "her kids"-the children in the school. Marsha's life force could fill up an entire room-even when she was sick and feeling puny-and everyone who cared for and loved her cast a shadow of God's right hand and at the same time stood in the shadow of God's feet.
My former mentor, Rabbi Jack Bloom, always taught me that being made b'tzelem Elohim means that we are good enough just as we are. Let us say, Amen.
BY THE WAY
- Beloved is man for he was created in the image of God. Still greater was God's love in that God gave to man the knowledge of his having been so created. (Pirkei Avot 3:14)
- What is humankind, that You are mindful, / human beings, that you pay attention to them? / You have made them little lower than divine. (Psalm 8:5-6)
- Above all demarcations of races and nations, castes and classes, oppressors ad servants, givers and recipients, above all delineations even of gifts and talents stands one certainty: Man. Whoever bears this image is created and called to be a revelation of human dignity. (Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism, rev. ed. [New York: Schocken Books, 1948], p. 152)
- How would you begin a conversation with someone whose view of the concept b'tzelem Elohim completely differed from you own? Where would you begin?
- How can b'tzelem Elohim assist us in our dealings with people we find difficult or simply do not like?
- Do you treat different people you encounter every day in different ways? In what way, and why?
Sharon L. Wechter, RJE, MSW, is director of education at Congregation Beth Israel, Houston, Texas.