As we begin our Torah cycle anew, I am picking up a practice which I had for over ten years – of sharing a bit of Food for Thought, relevant to our weekly Torah portion, each week. I hope you enjoy – and I would love to hear comments and see “conversation” evolve as the weeks, months and books go by!
As we return to Genesis, we return once again to a plethora of word-plays, twice-told tales and puzzling stories and texts. One of the puzzling phrases I am often asked about comes from Genesis 1:26-27 wherein we read of the creation of human beings: “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.” And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
The meaning of the words na’aseh adam b’tzalmeynu kid’muteynu – “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” have long been a source of puzzlement. If there is one God, to whom is God speaking. Here are two voices from among the many commentators on this “puzzle”:
The first comes from the teachings of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (1765-1827). Rabbi Simcha Bunim sees a play on words and teaches: “The word ‘human’ (adam) is related to the word ‘humus’ (adamah). After all was created in magnificence and splendor, God wanted to show off His creations; that all things should perceive everything. But, except for human beings, created existence is not able to perceive anything but itself. Therefore God created the human containing in potential the force of both supernal and mundane elements, so that the human might imagine (l’damot) everything in his/her soul. That is what it means to be human (adam): to see and understand and thereby imagine (v’yidmeh) that which is not like itself. That is the sense of our phrase: na-aseh adam betzalmeinu kidemuteinu, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” – where the last word is formed with the comparative koph. Only that which is somewhat similar (domeh) can perceive and discern the other like it (b’domeh).
A different take is offered by the author of the early modern commentary Or Hachayyim, authored by Rabbi Chaim ben Attar (1696-1742), on Gen. 1:26: “That God said ‘Let us’ in the plural is because the qualities of the Holy Blessed One are multiple. The thirteen qualities of compassion (of which we read in last week’s special Sukkot Torah portion from Exodus chapter 33) and the divine name elohim (God) which is the quality of judgment were in accord in the creation of humankind. That Scripture continues ‘in our image, after our likeness’ may signify that human beings will have both the quality of compassion and of justice to enact both the ways of justice and the ways of mercy as appropriate. – This is confirmed by the verb ‘they shall rule (va-yirdu)’, signifying that the creation (of humans) was in the likeness of the Creator regarding compassion and justice. It is only appropriate (b’din hu) that humans should rule over other creatures, for the human has the quality of compassion for those who deserve and merit it, and to execute justice for those deserving of it.
Two different takes on the verses from our portion – one based on a play on words but ultimately focused on human imagination as a link with the spark of God’s likeness in which we have been created – and the other calling us to recognize that, like God, we must balance justice and mercy. To me, both are interesting questions for us to ponder as we enter Shabbat Bereishit – and begin our study anew.