By Rabbi Fred V. Davidow
Bereshit contains the well-known verse: “So God created the human beings in (the divine) image, creating (them) in the image of God (b’tselem Elohim), creating them male and female” (Genesis 1:27).
Because the creation of human beings is described in terms of divinity, one might say that it is an act of chutzpah to speak of humankind as made in the image of God. I prefer to understand tselem (image) as “in the likeness of God’s spirit.” The word “likeness” does not carry the connotation of temunah, a two-dimensional object like a picture or drawing (Exodus 20:4). Nor does likeness imply pesel, a three-dimensional figure like a statue (Exodus 20:4). Likeness expresses similarity without implying an object.
The Torah exalts the nature of human beings by describing our creation in terms of divinity. Though made from the dust of the ground, we are more than a clod of earth. Our likeness to God’s spirit upgrades us; it does not downgrade God.
In his essay “Man: Dust and Divinity,” Rabbi Alexander Feinsilver (1910-1987) wrote, “There are … expectations of man on a collective level. If man is but a clod, we can expect only cloddish actions from him. But if man is created ‘in the image of God,’ then we are led to expect more from him. What we expect of man really depends on how we think of him. We expect very little from a child. If we see man as a mature, responsible being, we expect mature and responsible action from him. Judaism has not taught that man was child-like; it has taught that man is God-like and it has asked that man act accordingly. Judaism with its high regard for man expects him to create a decent world for men to live in.”
Feinsilver further wrote that “(C)reation ‘in the image of God’ … is a constant reminder of human worth and serves to keep man from yielding to despair. The belief in the creation of man ‘in the image of God’ is a belief that is scientifically valid, psychologically supportive, and morally demanding.” It is scientifically valid because we have demonstrated our power through technological achievements. It is psychologically supportive because it strengthens our self-esteem and self-assurance. It is morally demanding because it challenges us to be conscious of social ills (hunger, disease, injustice, war), to be compassionate toward those who need help and to do the work of tikkun olam, repairing what is broken in our world.
When a person reflects the divine image, God is gratified, so to speak, with the work of creation, as this story illustrates.
A group of women in a Bible study class came to chapter 3, verse 3 in the Book of Malachi, “(God) shall sit like a smelter and purifier of silver; and he shall purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like silver, so that they shall present offerings in righteousness.”
This verse puzzled the women. They wondered what this statement meant about the character of God.
One woman offered to find out about the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible study. That week the woman called up a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention anything about the reason for her interest in silver beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver.
As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest in order to burn away all the impurities. The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot; then she thought again about the verse that God sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. She asked the silversmith, “Is it true that you have to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver is being refined?”
The man answered, “Yes, I not only have to sit here holding the silver, but I also have keep my eye on the silver the entire time it is in the fire. If the silver were left even a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.”
The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?”
He smiled at her and answered, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s finished when I can see my image in it.”
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow teaches in several venues in metro Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.