In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, we read an account of how God created the world. After separating light from darkness, day from night and land from water, God made the earth sprout trees and plants, and set the sun and the moon in the sky. God created fish and birds, creeping creatures, cattle and wild beasts. Then, on the sixth and final day of creation, God made man and woman in God's image (B'tzelem Elohim).
The Torah teaches that human life is a result of God's will, and that human beings are created in God's image. Since God does not have a physical image, it is difficult to know what this verse means. One way of understanding it is that being created in the image of God, we have choices and can exercise freedom. We are partners with God in shaping life and preserving the world. (Fields, A Torah Commentary For Our Times, p. 22)
Jewish tradition teaches that recognizing that we are created "B'tzelem Elohim," in the image of God, can shape the way we see ourselves. It instructs us that all of our actions have the potential to connect us with God if we act in God-like ways. For example, 'just as God is kind and merciful, you should be kind and merciful also.'
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great teacher of the last century, believed that if each person is created b'tzelem Elohim--in the image of God--then each person must be considered as an individual deserving care, compassion, and understanding. He also believed that each of us has the opportunity to fashion an image of God in our lives through our own individual actions.
Torah Comes to Life
There is a midrash that relates that Hillel the Elder once left his students, telling them that he had to tend to a mitzvah (a sacred obligation). His students asked where he was going. He replied, "To use the bathhouse." "What type of mitzvah is that?" his students asked. Hillel replied, "If the caretakers in theaters and stadiums wash and shine the statues there and are paid to do so, certainly I, who was created in the image of God, have a responsibility to wash and groom myself." (Vayikra Rabbah 23)
To Talk About
- With older children (10+)
- What do you think it means to be "created in God's image"?
- How is it possible that every person on earth is different and unique, yet all are "created in God's image"?
- What are some of the things you can do in your family, in your school, and in your community that illustrate your role as God's partner? Make a list and keep track of each of your God-like actions during the coming week.
- With younger children (6-9)
- The rabbis tell a story about how God talked with the angels before creating human beings. God trusted the angels and wanted their advice. Imagine that you are one of those angels. What advice would you give God about creating humankind?
- Look around the table at your family. What are some of the things they do for you or for others that show that they can be like God? Ask everyone to complete the sentence: "You are like God when you _________."
- Sometimes it is hard to describe God. Rabbi Heschel said that each of us creates an image of God by the way we live. Make a list of all the good things you do and the good feelings that you have for the people you care about. Using those words, how would you describe God?
B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 18-55; Revised Edition, pp. 17-50;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 3-34