Some Implications of B'tzelem Elohim:
- The Elephant in the Room: Talking About God
- Live Like a Boss
- Service: It’s Divine!
- Bring Everyone to the Table
- Who Do You See in the Mirror: Self Worth and Body Image
- Have you ever heard it said that we are all created in God’s image?
- What does that phrase mean to you?
(כו) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (כז) וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
(26) And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” (27) And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
Talk it Out:
- What do you think it means to be created in someone’s image? Does being created in someone’s image mean that you are the same as they are? Think about other “images” that you experience in your daily life. How does an “image” relate to the original?
- If you could choose someone whose image you would want to be in, who would it be?
- Why do you think the Torah tells us that Adam (and by extension his descendants — all people) were created in the image of God?
- Does the phrase B’Tzelem Elohim/ “in the image of God” speak to you? Why or why not? If not, are there ways that you might reformulate the phrase that would speak to you?
(יד) הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, חָבִיב אָדָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם. חִבָּה יְתֵרָה נוֹדַעַת לוֹ שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית ט) כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם.
(14) He would say: Beloved is man, since he is created in the image [of God]. A deeper love - it is revealed to him that he is created in the image, as it says (Genesis 9:6): "for in God's image He made man."
Talk It Out:
- Why do you think Rabbi Akiva thinks it is so remarkable that the Torah tells us we are created in the image of God?
- Do you think it is possible to be created in the image of God and yet not know it?
- Do you agree with Rabbi Akiva that being told that we were created in God’s image is a reflection of love?
- Have you ever had someone believe in you and highlight your potential? How did it make you feel? How did you “ respond?
Natan Sharansky with Shira Wolosky Weiss, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, pp.24-25.
A few days before my arrest, an American tourist gave me a small book of Psalms from my wife, along with a letter she had written. In it Avital explained that she had carried the Psalms with her all year, during her travels around the world to fight for my freedom and for the freedom of Soviet Jewry. Now, she wrote, I feel that you should have it so I am sending it to you. Back then, my Hebrew was in no way adequate to read that book. After I was arrested, the book, along with all my other belongings, was confiscated. Then I began to think about the Psalms and about the note from Avital. The book soon took on an almost mythical meaning for me. I started to fight to have it returned, a battle that continued for three years. I finally received the book along with the news that my father had passed away. I tried to read it, but I still understood little. I had to work my way through it slowly, page by page, comparing different lines, trying to recognize patterns and connect words to each other. The first lines I understood were those of Psalm 23: “Although I walk through the valley of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.”
I noticed that in the Psalms, the word fear kept appearing. On the one hand, fear was something to be overcome, such as not fearing evil. But as yirat hashem, or the fear of God, it had a positive connotation. It took me time to understand what this fear of God meant. My understanding was at first very vague and uncertain. But at some moment it occurred to me, seeing it many times, that this fear was connected not simply to God the Creator but to the image of God in which man was created. Mankind was created to be worthy of that image and to be true to it. This required me to go forward in an honest and direct way, without compromising principles. This fear, the fear of not being worthy of the divine image, not the fear of death, was what I was most afraid of in my interrogations with the KGB. I was afraid to lose the world of inner freedom I had found, to fail to stay true to my inner self, to no longer conduct myself in a way that was worthy of the divine image.
Talk It Out:
- What fear did Sharansky have while he was imprisoned by the KGB?
- What was the connection for Sharansky between being created in the image of God and inner freedom?
- What opportunities do you have coming up that will test your principles — whether in social, family or communal situations?
- How can the freedom and responsibility of being created B’Tzelem Elohim (in the image of God) help inform “ your choices in those situations?
Talk It Out:
- According to this text, when are we considered to be acting in the image of God?
- Is this the image of God that you are accustomed to seeing?
- What do you think is the connection between kindness and Godliness?
- Consider this quote attributed to Australian Aboriginal activist Lila Watson. “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.”
- Do you approach service as an act of pity toward others? An act of personal fulfillment? How do you relate to Watson’s statement?
Rabbi Arthur Green, Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas: A Guide for Seekers, pp.14-15
There is an old Hasidic story about Reb Nahman Kossover, a friend of the Ba’al Shem Tov. Reb Nahman believed that the proper way to remain close to God was to constantly contemplate the four-letter name Y-H-W-H, to see the letters of God’s name ever before him. He was a preacher, and when he looked out at his audience, he was able to see God’s name in every face. But then times changed; the preacher was forced to become a merchant in order to survive. In the marketplace, with the rapid pace of all the buying and selling, he found it harder to always concentrate on the name of God. So we are told that he hired a special assistant to follow him wherever he went. The person’s only job was to be a reminder. Whenever he looked at his assistant’s face, he would remember the name of God. What do you think the person (almost surely a man) looked like? Given the values of traditional Jewish society, he was probably not especially beautiful. Might he have been exceptionally tortured? Was a it a tormented face that reminded the rabbi of God? Or was it something less dramatic, what in Yiddish might be called eydelkeyt, a combination of gentleness, warmth, and nobility? We’ll never know, of course. Maybe it was just an ordinary human face, another person made in God’s image. But he was there to serve as a reminder, and that was quite enough.
Talk It Out:
- When are you able to see the image of God in others’ faces?
- When is it more difficult for you to see the image of God in other people?
- Who in your life would you, like the Hasid, choose to look at to remember “ that everyone is created in God’s image?
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
My father Shlomo Telushkin a”h (of blessed memory) worked in the 1930s for Rabbi Meir Berlin who headed the Religious Zionists, Mizrachi. Berlin learned English as an adult, and many times when someone learns a language as a second language they have a hard time learning the idioms. . . . So Rabbi Berlin was puzzled by an idiom that he heard Americans use, and it eventually came to infuriate him. And that was the expression “so and so is worth”. When he heard it said of a certain man, and this was during the Depression when people were far poorer, “So and so is worth $300,000” he didn’t think much of the man, so he said “Yes, that’s what he is worth and not one penny more.” The real question of worth though is: what are we worth to the people around us? What is our value as a human being? if we continue to associate worth only with money, we are setting ourselves up for misery. If you hear somebody say I am worth $10 million, what happens to that person when his investments collapse, and he’s then worth 2 million dollars, and then if he loses everything, what is he worth — nothing?
Talk It Out:
- How can you remember this "real you" created in the image of God, when you are confronted by images and expectations that measure your worth in false and destructive ways?
The Talmud derives three teachings from the verse in Genesis. All life is sacred and must be protected, no human is inherently more important than another, and though we may look different from one another, the infinite nature of the Divine means that we are all equally created in the image of God.
How might we work to protect life? What does that look like in our lives?
Given that each person looks physically different from others, what do you think it means that we are all created in the image of God? Is this meant to reflect a physical reality, or a more abstract idea?
לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא ומפני שלום הבריות שלא יאמר אדם לחבירו אבא גדול מאביך ... ולהגיד גדולתו של הקב"ה שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד כולן דומין זה לזה ומלך מלכי המלכים הקב"ה טבע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו לפיכך כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר בשבילי נברא העולם...
"Therefore the first human being, Adam, was created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Torah considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Torah considers it as if he saved an entire world.
Furthermore, only one person, Adam, was created for the sake of peace among men, so that no one should say to his fellow, 'My father was greater than yours....
Also, man [was created singly] to show the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, for if a man strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, made each man in the image of Adam, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow.
אבות דרבי נתן נוסחא ב פרק ל
וכל מעשיך יהיו לשם שמים כהלל. כשהיה הלל יוצא למקום היו אומרים לו להיכן אתה הולך. לעשות מצוה אני הולך. מה מצוה הלל. לבית הכסא אני הולך. וכי מצוה היא זו. אמר להן הן. בשביל שלא יתקלקל הגוף. איכן אתה הולך הלל. לעשות מצוה אני הולך מה מצוה הלל. לבית המרחץ אני הולך. וכי מצוה היא זו. אמר להן הן. בשביל לנקות את הגוף. תדע לך שהוא כן מה אם אוקיינות העומדות בפלטיות של מלכים הממונה עליהם להיות שפן וממרקן המלכות מעלה לו סלירא בכל שנה ושנה ולא עוד אלא שהוא מתגדל עם גדולי המלכות. אנו שנבראנו בצלם ודמות שנאמר כי בצלם אלהים עשה את האדם (בראשית ט' ו') על אחת כמה וכמה
Avot D'Rabbi Natan, 2:30
And all your actions should be for the sake of Heaven, like Hillel. When Hillel left for a place, they would ask him, “where are you going?”
- “I am going to do a mitzvah.”
- “What is the mitzvah?”
- “I am going to the bathroom.”
- “And is this a mitzvah?”
- “Yes, so that the body is not damaged.”
- “I am going to the bathhouse.”
- “And is this a mitzvah?”
- “Yes, in order to clean the body. Know that if someone is appointed to polish and clean the statues of kings they are paid every year, and also respected among the great kings. So we, who are created in the image of God, how much more so?״
In this Rabbinic text, the great rabbinic figure Hillel demonstrates that caring for one's body is a mitzvah, because human being are created in the image of God.
How might we treat our bodies if we were aware of them as God's creations? What choices in our lives might be different?
ברוך אתה ה' אלקינו מלך העולם אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו בצלם דמות תבניתו והתקין לו ממנו בנין עדי עד. ברוך אתה ה' יוצר האדם.
From the blessings recited at a wedding
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who made humanity in God's image, the image of God's likeness, and out of God's very self formed a building for eternity. Blessed are you Lord, creator of humankind.
At at traditional Jewish wedding, seven blessing are recited, including this one which celebrates God as having created humans in God's own eternal image.
Why do you think that this blessing is recited at weddings? Can you think of other times in life when you might want to foreground and celebrate the idea of being created in the image of God?
From "Tourists" by Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head." "But he's moving, he's moving!"
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
"You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."
Writing Hebrew poetry in 20th century Israel, Yehuda Amichai reflects on the importance of recognizing the humanity of every individual, and how the "tourists" might miss the opportunity to do that.
Can you think of a time in your life when you seized - or missed - an opportunity to recognize the narrative of another person?
מעשה שבא רבי אלעזר (בן ר') שמעון ממגדל גדור מבית רבו והיה רכוב על החמור ומטייל על שפת נהר ושמח שמחה גדולה והיתה דעתו גסה עליו מפני שלמד תורה הרבה נזדמן לו אדם אחד שהיה מכוער ביותר אמר לו שלום עליך רבי ולא החזיר לו אמר לו ריקה כמה מכוער אותו האיש שמא כל בני עירך מכוערין כמותך אמר לו איני יודע אלא לך ואמור לאומן שעשאני כמה מכוער כלי זה שעשית כיון שידע בעצמו שחטא ירד מן החמור ונשתטח לפניו ואמר לו נעניתי לך מחול לי אמר לו איני מוחל לך עד שתלך לאומן שעשאני ואמור לו כמה מכוער כלי זה שעשית היה מטייל אחריו עד שהגיע לעירו יצאו בני עירו לקראתו והיו אומרים לו שלום עליך רבי רבי מורי מורי אמר להם למי אתם קורין רבי רבי אמרו לו לזה שמטייל אחריך אמר להם אם זה רבי אל ירבו כמותו בישראל אמרו לו מפני מה אמר להם כך וכך עשה לי אמרו לו אעפ"כ מחול לו שאדם גדול בתורה הוא אמר להם בשבילכם הריני מוחל לו ובלבד שלא יהא רגיל לעשות כן מיד נכנס רבי אלעזר בן רבי שמעון ודרש לעולם יהא אדם רך כקנה ואל יהא קשה כארז...
It once happened that R. Eleazar the son of R. Simeon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher, and he was riding his donkey by the river and he felt a great happiness and arrogance because he had studied a lot of Torah. A particularly ugly man happened upon him and said to him, Peace be upon you, Rebbi, and he [R. Eleazar) did not respond. He said to him: "Good for nothing! How ugly this man is! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you are?" The man said: "I do not know, but go and tell the Artisan who made me, how ugly is the vessel which you have made." When he [R. Eleazar] acknowledged, in his gut, that he had done wrong he got down from his donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him: "I submit myself to you; forgive me." He said to him: I will not forgive you until you go to the Artisan that created me and tell him: "How ugly is the vessel that you created." He [R. Eleazar] walked behind him until he reached his city. When his fellow citizens came out to meet him greeting him with the words, ‘Peace be upon you Rabbi and teacher,’ the man asked them, ‘Who are you calling Rebbi, Rebbi’? They replied, ... ‘The man who is walking behind you.’ He said to them: ‘If this man is a Rabbi, may there not be any more like him in Israel’! They asked him: ‘Why’? He replied: ‘He did such and such to me.' They said to him: ‘Nevertheless, forgive him, for he is a man of great Torah learning.’ The man replied: ‘For your sakes I will forgive him, but only if he does not make a habit of acting this way.’ Immediately, R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon entered [the Beit Midrash] and expounded, A man should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar...
There is a lot that can be said about this story, in which a chance encounter leads to theological reflections. Notice that Rabbi Eleazar's initial response to the stranger is one of revulsion: "How ugly!" The "ugly" man forces him to contend with their shared belief in God as the Artisan who created all human beings, no matter how they look. Rabbi Eleazar is humbled, realizing that in his arrogance he forgot to recognize the Divine spark in others.
We all sometimes neglect to treat others as sensitively as we should. How do you apologize and make up for these moments? How do you make the other feel valued, and how do you work on yourself to internalize the need to be more careful in the future?
Kio Stark's TED Talk, How to Talk to Strangers, speaks to the unexpectedly profound experience of speaking to strangers and the ways in which this affirms the humanity of each individual.
Kio has wonderful stories about speaking with strangers. Have you ever spoken to a stranger - or been spoken to as a stranger - and had a rewarding experience?