Rabbi David Walk
Well, here's another year that I didn't write an article for parshat Breishit. When there's not time between Shmini Atzeret and the next Shabbat it's very hard to get out an article. However, there's a major point in Breishit that's repeated in Noach, which I'd like to write about. In Breishit we are told at the moment of the creation of humankind: And God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth (Genesis 1:26)." While in this week's Torah reading we are informed right after the flood: Whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made mankind (9:6). In the first case God announces before the creation of our species that we are fashioned in the image of God, but in this week's parsha we are warned of the severity of murder, because it's tantamount to deicide as a result of the Divine image residing within us all. This is interesting, but begs the essential question, namely what does it mean to be imprinted with the image of God?
Rabbi Chayim Volozhin (1749-1821) in his master work, Nefesh Hachayim (The Soul of Life), begins the book by describing this idea. After explaining that the idea of humans possessing the image of God is one of the concepts which stand at the highest place in Kabbalah and contains most of the esoteric ideas in the Zohar, he makes a relative modest proposition. He suggests that the expression can't be taken literally. It is a metaphor, like others which exist in our Bible. For example King David compares himself to an owl (Psalms 102:7). That doesn't mean that he had wings and a beak. Reb Chayim stresses that a metaphor implies that there is one major point of similarity between the two objects being compared. So, we have one critical characteristic in common with God. So, now we have a new dilemma, what is this feature which we share with God?
I believe that this is a crucially important question, which lies at the heart of what we consider the essence of our humanity, and helps define our relationship with God. Unfortunately, even though I love Reb Chayim's formulation of the issue, I'm not enamored with his particular solution. He offers that our similarity to God is in the reality of our position vis a vis all the creatures of our realm. Just as God is sovereign in heaven, we are top dog down here. This is a fascinating concept with many merits. It emphasizes our responsibility to be conscientious caretakers of this world, and our responsibility for the direction our world takes. This duty extends to both the physical and spiritual aspects of our planet. Nevertheless with all due respect to Reb Chayim, I'd like to offer another approach.
I think that we can find a fascinating way of understanding the way in which we are God-like can be discerned from our foremost commentary, Rashi (1040-1105) on the pertinent verse in Breishit (1:27). Rashi says: And God created man in His image: In the form that was made for him specifically, for everything else was created with a general command, whereas mankind was created individually with the hands of God, as it is written (Ps. 139:5): "and You placed Your hand upon me." The unique status of humans derives from this personalized attention, but again, we have to ask what the significance of this distinct interest is.
Let's look at the other creations for a moment. If we say that apple trees, for example, were created with one general statement for all apple trees, then the only goal of apple trees is the continued existence of the species. There is no particular interest in saving any specific tree. Indeed, when the Jewish National Fund plants trees, the system is to plant four saplings close together. Only one of those four trees is allowed to mature to an adult tree. The ultimate value is the gene pool, not the individual. However, that isn't the system regarding human beings. That kind of planned-parenthood, birthing four babies to produce one viable adult, is unthinkably immoral. And this ethic is taught to us by the Creation story. God created one human initially to teach us the infinite value of every human life. We say that when you've saved one human life, you've saved an entire universe.
This idea is incorporated into our wedding customs. The text of the seven benedictions for the bride and groom compare this newly minted couple to the original couple in the Garden of Eden. Why? Because these two individuals joined together as one flesh (2:24) must assume that they are as unique and distinct as the original couple was. The fact that there are billions such of such unique couples is irrelevant to the couple and to their celebrants.
Now I understand the reference in this week's Torah reading to the horrendous nature of homicide. Killing one human being can be compared to the destruction of an entire species, because that person is just that unique.
We can carry this idea one step forward into a mystical idea, which I take very seriously. The absolute singular nature of every human, down to their finger prints, voice prints and DNA is for a purpose. And that tachlis (goal driven purpose) is to fulfill an individual destiny designed specifically and uniquely for that human. No one else can carry out that mission. We are all here to accomplish this task, and that involves two steps: accepting and defining the task and only then achieving it.
Finally, we have arrived at the idea which I find so very important. What do we have in common with God? We are as individual as the Deity is. Just as we recite: Here, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. God announces: Hear, O Heavens, (fill in the blank, with your name), is a human being, and is absolutely unique.
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