The Creation of Earthlings: Genesis 1:27
By Rabbi Rain Zohav
This commentary on Torah portion Bereshit 1: 1- 2:3 was originally published in the Washington Jewish Week.
Bereshit (Genesis) 1:1 – 2:3 contains such a wealth of imagery and such a history of interpretation that it can be quite challenging to look at anew. This time around, I was most struck by the creation of human beings, more appropriately translated as “Earthlings,” since the word “adamah” means earth and “ha’adam” is the first human. This in itself could yield very interesting teachings about our connection and dependence on the earth, but that is not what most pulled me in my recent studying of this text.
My first investigation was prompted by the end of the sixth day of creation, when G-d says that “It is very good” (Genesis 1:31). On other days of creation, G-d only proclaims that “it is good.” Could it be that the addition of humans tipped the scale to “very good” in G-d’s eyes? It may well be. However, the Rabbis thought that not everyone was so happy with humans. In Midrash Bereshit Rabba (8:5), we read about the angels of various qualities arguing about whether G-d should create or not create humans. “Mercy” (Chesed) said, “create, because he will do acts of mercy and kindness, “Truth” (Emet) said “don’t create – he is full of lies, “Justice (Tzedek) said “create – he will do justice” but peace said, “don’t create – he is full of discord.” But G-d does not listen. Humans were created.
Even though I love truth and peace, I find that I side with G-d, Mercy and Justice when it comes to the creation of human beings. I think that the Torah is pointing us to an important idea. This is the idea that earthlings are or can be very good, especially when they pursue a balance of justice and mercy. Although, it does seem to be in our nature to be full of discord and to at least occasionally lie, our equally strong inclinations toward justice and mercy have the potential to overcome discord and lies. Justice calls for truth-telling and mercy calls us to put aside our discord.
The next thing that struck me in this parsha is line 1:23:
. אֹתָם בָּרָא וּנְקֵבָה זָכָר אֹתוֹ בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים בְּצֶלֶם בְּצַלְמוֹ הָאָדָם– אֶת אֱלֹהִים וַיִּבְרָא כז
“And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them.”
If we take this line and examine it closely we can begin to think about what it might mean to see in every human being an image of G-d. The Hebrew phrase is: B’Tzelem Elohim. We learn from the Rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) that “A human king strikes coins in his image and every one is identical. God creates every human person… in the Divine image and each one is unique” (translation, Etz Hayim, p.10). This would seem to imply that being created in the image of G-d has nothing to do with our physical attributes as they are all different. And it would seem to imply that being created in the image of G-d has nothing to do with our mental attributes either as they vary widely. Indeed, Author Tvi Marx in his book “Halacha and Handicap” asks the question of whether this includes all people, even those with severe mental or physical challenges. German born Jewish Scholar and leader of Progressive Judaism, Leo Baeck definitively answers this question in the affirmative. He writes, “ above all demarcations of races and nations, castes and classes, oppressors and servants, givers and receivers, above all delineations even of gifts and talents stands this one certainty: [Hu]man. Whoever bears this image is created and called upon to be a revelation of human dignity” (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, ed. Plaut.p.22). This understanding of humans as created both uniquely as individuals and collectively as a reflection of the Divine image can lead us to think about how to treat each human being – with no exceptions – completely respectfully. It is a huge challenge to be our highest selves.
Looking at the last part of this potent sentence describing earthlings being created in the image of G-d, we come across an almost startling phrase, “…male and female He created them.” In this part of Bereshit there is no implication of superiority or inferiority based on gender. There is just gender difference. What would it be like to confront this sentence as it stands, without the later story of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:18- 24) that has been so abused as a justification for male domination? I believe that a close re-reading of both descriptions can lead to the conclusion that the earthlings were created to be equal. But certainly, in this verse, we can easily conclude that the earthlings were created equally in the image of G-d, B’Tzelem Elohim, and therefore have equal value. The founder of Chasidism, known as The Ba’al Shem Tov, is quoted as saying, “Every [hu]man should know that since creation no other [hu]man ever was like him [or her]. Had there been such another, there would be no need for [them] to be. Each is called on to perfect [their] unique qualities. And it is the failure to heed this call which delays the Messiah” (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, ed. Plaut, .24). Yet so many of us have limited our true selves based upon societal expectations for our gender. We have not been allowed to develop our unique qualities. However, it is never too late to do so. As we develop our true selves, we hasten the time of a Messianic age.
By listening deeply to our own and others experiences, both positive and negative of how we have been included or excluded, of how we have been limited or how we have been encouraged, we can expand and deepen our understanding of B’Tzelem Elohim – that all humans are created in the Divine image. And as we do this ongoing work of t’shuva (returning) and growth, may we come to see that the creation of earthlings is indeed “Tov Me’od” – very good.
Questions for Adults:
- Where do you stand on the creation of humans? Are we a “parasite on the face of the earth”?
- Are we indeed full of lies and discord? Does our justice and mercy outweigh this?
- Is there a time in your life when you have been disgusted with humans and wished we had not been created?
- Has there been a time on your life when you could say that we are “very good”?
- If each of us is unique and ALSO created in the Divine image, what might this tell us about full inclusion? About the inherent dignity of each human?
- Do you have any person or group of people that you find it hard to see as “B’ztelem Elohim”, the Divine image?
- How have issues of gender impacted your life?
Questions for Families:
- Has there been a time in your life when you were treated with less than full complete? What was the pretext for this disrespect?
- Have you seen other people treated with less than complete respect? How does that make you feel? Were you able to do anything to change the situation? If not, what would you differently today?
- Are there things you might like to do to be your unique self, if it was not considered for boys or girls, men or women?
- If you truly believed that you and everyone else were completely equal, created in the Divine image and beloved of G-d, what might you do differently?
Lieber, D. L., & Harlow, J. (2001). Etz Hayim: Torah and commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
Marx, T. (1992). Halakha and handicap: Jewish law and ethics on disability. Jerusalem: T.Marx.
Midrash Rabba 8:5 in the Hebrew can be found at: www.tsel.org/torah/midrashraba/index.html
Plaut, W. G., Bamberger, B. J., & Hallo, W. W. (1981). [Torah] = The Torah : a modern commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations.