In the Image of the Divine – Rosh HaShanah 5778: Rabbi Marc Soloway
What a world! What a beautiful, broken, tragic, painful, confusing world. What are we doing here? What words can I possibly offer to make sense of anything? I want to talk about all of it; hurricanes, floods, earth quakes, fires, our changing climate, 65 million refugees and displaced people around the world, anti-Semitism, Israel, racism, privilege, dreamers, the Rohingya in Myanmar, gun violence, North Korea and the threat of nuclear war. I want to talk about how amazing this community is, about my new electric car, about chickens and goats and Bonai’s abundant garden, local farmers, prayer, faith, hope, moral courage, about living our truth. I want to talk about how hard it is to talk about the things that matter most with people who see the world differently to me. Ahhh, where to start? Then I realized that it is all connected. We are all connected and the world is connected through all of us.
Last Sunday, I went to church, to the First Congregational Church here in Boulder to witness a Christian colleague and friend being installed there. I got to hear a charge to him from Bishop Carlton Pearson from Oklahoma who quoted a doctor friend of his saying that basically “life is a sexually transmitted disease.” Disease, dis-ease, suffering, according to many traditions, is the basic human condition. Nietzsche said, “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” Later the Holocaust survivor Victor Frankel said “in some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” What is this precious human life we have been given? According to the Talmud, creation began on 25th of the Hebrew month of Elul, meaning that day six is the 1st of Tishrei, when Adam HaRishon, the first human was created.
If we know anything about the great sages Hillel and Shammai, we know that they rarely agreed on anything, each strongly and passionately arguing the opposite position of the other, albeit with respect for the other’s opinion. The nature of their arguments were usually on minutiae of Jewish law, whether a particular object was pure or impure, kosher or unkosher. We are taught that Hillel and Shammai were engaged in a fierce dispute for two and half years, grueling arguments over whether it was better that the human being had been created or if it would have been better if they had never been created. After two and a half years of one saying it was a good thing and one saying it was a bad thing, they calculated all of the arguments and they concluded that actually, after weighing all of the evidence, it would have been better that the human being had not been created! But now that they already exist, humanity should thoroughly examine all of their actions. (Eruvim 13b).
This story in the Talmud is an echo of the famous midrash of the angels in heaven, before the fact, disputing whether Adam, that first human, or earthling, should be created, the angel Emet (truth) arguing that they will bring lies and the angel Shalom protesting that they will bring war and strife, with the angels of Hesed and Tzedek, compassion and righteousness advocating for the plan, as humanity would have the capacity to bring those qualities of justice and kindness to the world. The angelic host speaking up is a poetic, Midrashic response to the way God expresses the intention to create the first human being in the Torah. “Na’aseh Adam b’tzalmenu, kid’mutaynu – let us make Adam in OUR image, according to OUR likeness.” One of the creative rabbinic responses to this plurality is to include the characters of the angels in this process of bringing human life on the 6th day of creation, as the Torah presents it. There is an Adam committee. In England, we are used to the “Royal We” as in, “We are not amused,” but this midrash needs to explain it, even though God is neither singular nor plural, beyond form, neither female nor male. So, how might we understand how we show up in that story and justify our own existence here?
We do not have to look very hard or very far to see the depths to which the human animal can fall, and the intense cruelty we can inflict. Yet the signature of our creator is embedded in our spiritual DNA as we are, according to our tradition, formed b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine, whatever that might mean. Whatever we believe to be true about creation or evolution, there is tremendous insight to be gained from a close reading of the biblical and rabbinic notions of the creation of humanity. What can it mean to be created in the image of the Divine?
As has been the pattern throughout this Genesis narrative, there is first an expression of intent, “let us…” and then the action. The actual formation is described in verse 27 of the first chapter of Genesis: “vayivra Elohim et haAdam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem Elohim bara oto; zachar u’n’kayva bara otam.” Elohim created the Adam (earthling) in His image, in Elohim’s image He created him; male and female He created them.” What’s going on? There are so many ways to read this. In the famous Midrash of Bereshit Rabbah, Rabbi Yirmiyah ben Elazar says that in that first instance of creating the First Adam, God created an androgynous being with both male and female forms back to back in one being and that later they were separated into two. Androginnos bera’o. The first human being was neither a man nor a woman, but both, a “they” rather than a “he” or “she.” Yes, in the next chapter the woman Chava, is formed from Adam’s side, but that could be describing this act of separation. Societies that use the Genesis story to subjugate women and make men superior, abuse the text, even though male dominance has been the norm throughout history. As Yuval Noah Harari says in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind “at least since the Agricultural Revolution, most human societies have been patriarchal societies that valued men more highly than women. No matter how a society defined ‘man’ and ‘woman’, to be a man was always better.” Perhaps this is part of the reason why so many of us flocked to the movies to see Gal Gadot’s amazing portrayal of Wonder Woman! I do not think it is too much of a stretch to read into these few verses of Torah, an intention for an absolute multiplicity of expressions of humanity that defy our attempts to categorize and create hierarchies that relate to gender, sex, sexuality, race, religion, culture, politics There is an implied equality in the very notion of a human form that reflects a Divine image. Just as we cannot define God into any one form, structure or norm, we cannot reduce the mirror image of that Divinity – us. If our view of God is anything, it is illusive and ineffable. A force that is described variously as HaMakom, the place, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh – I will be that which I will be; just as God is infinite in potential, so are humans. There is endless potential in the human form for specific and non-specific genders, including a fluidity in that gender; there is no notion of a humanity that is superior, even though history, including our own, has constructed them. Yuval Harari describes all of these as “imagined hierarchies” that insert privilege of power over others, whether through social status, wealth, gender, race or religion. Like the ancient Babylonian King Hammurabi, whose important and defining code decreed that “people are divided into superiors, commoners or slaves.” (P.135.) Human history has created absolute caste systems in India and beyond, or bogus racial theory that gives rise to Apartheid in South Africa, Nazis, or White Supremacists, alive and well today in America, who construct repulsive ideologies around pseudoscience to claim that the African race and their descendants are inferior and the white race is dominant, and that Jews are trying to control the world through finance, media and entertainment. I am still haunted by the image of those torch-brandishing white men marching in Charlottesville on a Friday night chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Judaism has had its own version of hierarchies too, but they are predominantly about differentiation of roles, rather than intrinsic valuing of some human life over others, although of course there has been and still remains some shameful misogyny, racism and elitism in the name of our religion.
The real challenge is whether we can see the humanity in the face of the one who does not see ours. I was so moved by the story of Al Letson, an African American investigative journalist and podcaster, who was covering the mostly peaceful anti-fascist rally in Berkley, California, in response to planned marches by White Supremacists. A man, assumed to be a supremacist, was thrown to the ground and was being beaten by a group of masked Antifa anarchists, and Al Letson, a black man, covered the victim with his body to protect him and, potentially, save his life. In an NPR interview, Letson said “And you know, in retrospect, it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t see my humanity, what matters to me is that I see his. What he thinks about me and all of that, like — my humanity is not dependent upon that.”
Cavod habriyot, basic human dignity, or more literally honor for all that is created, is such a strong value in our tradition, that the Talmud asserts that it overrides a negative prohibition in the Torah. It was this compelling concept that led to significant changes around greater inclusion of the LGBT community in the Conservative Movement over a decade ago. We cannot allow our own privilege, our own racism, to discriminate against people for their gender and sexual identities, race, religion, physical ability or disability, political affiliation or anything else. We can also not deny what our privilege allows us to see and not see. In the same week as Hurricane Harvey, there were floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal that left well over 1000 dead and destroyed 18,000 schools and it was barely in the news. Hurricane Maria, which is destroying islands in the Caribbean is hardly headline news. Our societies explicitly put greater value on some human life over others, and, of course, it is natural to have concern for those closer and more like us. The challenge is to be able to see God’s face in the face of that other.
Among the canon of special blessings that we say when we experience the world of our senses, there is one that is recited on seeing exceptional ugly or unusual people or creatures, which reads “baruch atah HaShem Elohaynu melech haOlam m’shaneh habriyot – blessed are you God who makes different kinds of creatures.” This blessing seems to be a really important celebration of diversity, including the multiple expressions of humanity, with perhaps a special warning to be aware of and sensitive to those in our society who are marginalized by their mental or physical disabilities. Also created in the Divine image.
In the middle of what we assume to be a judge’s speech about to cross examine witnesses in a capital case, the Mishna in Sanhedrin (4:5), makes a strong statement: “l’fichach nivra Adam yechidi, therefore the first human being was created as an individual to teach you that one who destroys a single life, is considered by scripture to have destroyed an entire world and one who saves a life is considered to have saved an entire world.” The text continues to express the greatness of The Holy One: “for a human strikes many coins from the same die, and all the coins are alike. But the King, the King of Kings, The Holy One strikes every person from the die of the First Adam, and yet no one is like another. Therefore, every person must say, “Bishvili nivra haolam – For my sake the world was created.” The concept of ‘destroying or saving one life equal to saving or destroying a whole world’ is in the Koran too. However horrified we may by the brutal acts of violence carried out in the name of fundamentalist Islam, I believe that this is an aberration of the religion and that most Muslims share most of our values. I feel proud to be part of the leadership of MJAB – the Muslim Jewish Alliance of Boulder. Human life is sacred. All life. The painful story from this morning’s Torah reading of Hagar and Ishmael, demands us to have compassion for these banished souls and Hagar’s name is from the root, ger, stranger or other; the Torah reminds us no less than 36 times of our obligation to love the ger.
Article One of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” The United States Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights protect human rights and freedom of religion, even though at the time they were written, there was nothing even close to equality of gender and race! Yuval Harari claims that there is nothing in human history that has ever ensured dignity and rights and that these are all imagined realities as arbitrary as any other, including those that have given authority to cruelty and brutality. Whatever their origin might actually be, I believe that the Torah’s stories of our creation and their interpretations, including yours and mine, have great value and guidance.
“Rabbi Akiva used to teach Haviv Adam she’nivrah b’tzelem. Chiba yetera noda’at lo sh’nivrah v’tzelem – beloved is the human because they were created in the Image, but how much more beloved that this fact was made known.”(Avot 3:14)
Some would argue that the whole created world is actually somehow in God’s image, but that humans have a special consciousness to know that – noda’at – it was made known to us, planted in our psyche that we and every other human being has this unbelievable privilege and responsibility to embody and to model Godliness. In our daily prayer liturgy, among the very first words we say are the birkot hashachar, the blessings of the dawn, that acknowledge the great gifts of our bodies. Since 1946, the Conservative prayer books and others, replaced the negative, gendered blessings and include the affirmative bracha “baruch atah hashem Elohaynu melech HaOlam sh’assani b’tzalmo – Blessed are You Eternal our God that you made me in Your image.” Mystically, there are powerful ways to see how we are breathing, walking embodiments of the Divine. If you can, imagine the ultimate name of God, the one that was only uttered in its fullness once a year on Yom Kippur by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies and if he was not a pure channel, he would die. That name is Y-H-V-H. Picture the yud as our head, the first heh as our arms, the vav, which means a hook, as our spines and the final heh as our legs. We have the Divine imprint in our bodies, God’s breath as it were.
Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, the 18th century rabbi known as the Ohev Yisrael teaches:
“Our body forms its likeness on the earth by the shadow it casts, so do we, by our activity, from the eternal God to our likeness: If we act well, we form thereby the right hand of God. If we resist evil, we form the left hand of the God. If we do not look at ugly things, we form God’s eyes. If we do not allow our ears to hear lies, we form God’s ears and so on….”
His great great grandson of the 20th century, the more familiar Abraham Joshua Heschel, in exploring the question why it is forbidden to depict Divine images in art, is quoted by his student and my teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green as saying:
“God has an image, and that is you. You may not make the image of God because you are the image of God. The only medium in which you can make God’s image is the medium of your entire life, and that is precisely what we are commanded to do. Everything you do, everything you say, each moment and the way you use it are all part of the way you build God’s image. To take anything less than a full, living human being – like canvas or a piece of marble – and call it the image of God would be to diminish God, to lessen God’s image.”
What a task! It is upon each one of us to build God’s image in the way we live our lives. Rabbi Hama ben Rabbi Ḥanina in the Talmud (Sotah 14a) asks how it is possible to “walk in God’s ways” and he proposes that the meaning is that one should follow God’s attributes, l’halech acharei midotav shel haKadosh Baruch hu…Just as God clothes the naked so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick…so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be God, consoles mourners, as it is written, so too should you console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead, so too should you bury the dead, each of these connected to the stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac and Moses.
It brings to mind some of the extraordinary stories of resilience, courage and kindness after Hurricane Harvey. There were many that moved me. Having just seen the movie Dunkirk and the evacuation of the beach by the small vessels assisting the effort; so similar to “The Cajun Navy,” a group of recreational boat owners and volunteers who helped quickly mobilized to rescue people from their flooded homes, along with countless other boat owners and jet-skiers in Texas. Many of us heard the story of Houston’s “Mattress Mack;” Jim McIngvake, owner of a chain of mattress and furniture stores, who opened up its locations to serve as makeshift shelters, supporting 100s of people. When asked about it, he simply said “how could I not help if I had the opportunity to.”
Annie Smith, a 32 year old woman in Houston who went into labor right as the hurricane hit, received the support of all of her neighbors, who formed a large human chain getting her safely to an emergency vehicle from the flood waters. CU Chabad right here in Boulder drove from here to Houston with 16 students, including Sam Garelick (and I was later reminded – Jonathan Ansell!) who grew up in Bonai, and spent two days getting wet and dirty and helping in any way they could.
In times of crisis and disaster, we so often see the best of humanity and there are so many more stories of people showing up because it was the right thing to do. We all hope we would do the same in those circumstances. Our tradition demands this of us, but asks us not to wait until these moments, but to recognize that every single day our lives are a testimony to the fact that we embody the Divine and that whether right here in this wonderful community, locally, nationally or globally, we do all that we can to bring more kindness and compassion.
Humanity is both the cause of so much destruction and pain and the source of all the healing; the disease and the remedy. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the collapse of the brutal Apartheid regime, drew deeply on the African notion of Ubuntu, which is about this kind of human experience. He says,
“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”
Everywhere where human dignity is threatened, the face of the Divine is diminished; whether immigrants and refugees, transgender folk, targets of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia, victims of violence, the working poor without health care, the chronically ill and disabled; all who are marginalized and afraid in this world are, like us, formed in God’s image and we have a responsibility to help in any way we can, so that we can prove Hillel and Shammai and the Angels of Truth and Peace, wrong by showing how wonderful it is that humanity was created. Our kindness, our simple acts of compassion can swing the balance on this day from judgement to loving kindness. And of course it starts right here, in our own community. Look around. Everyone here is formed in God’s image. Yes, even you.