Bereshit: Divine Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bereshit

It’s yet another wet, soggy, dreary, rainy, misty, foggy, damp day in
Poughkeepsie (not that I’m complaining or anything), so while reading
this week’s Torah portion, Bereshit/Genesis, when I came across the
verse about God gathering the seas to make “dry land,” I immediately
thought, “Good idea! Can we have some around HERE for a change?”

OK, enough kvetching, let’s study Torah. This week’s Torah portion
starts the yearly reading cycle all over again, from the verse “in the
beginning.” However, the creation narrative is only the first two
chapters of Bereshit; after that, the story of humankind begins: Adam
and Chava in the Garden, then Kayin and Hevel [Abel] out in the
fields.

Yet the story of the emergence of humankind, and our unique capacity
to make moral (or immoral) choices, is an integral part of the earlier
creation narrative. In Bereshit 1, God decides to form humankind in
the “divine image:”

“And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our
likeness. . . . ” (Bereshit/ Genesis 1:26)

Now, clearly, this cannot refer to a physical image- not only because
a basic idea of Biblical theology is that God has no image or body,
but also because each human being is distinct and unique in
appearance, a fact obvious to our ancestors. So “the Divine Image”
must refer to some moral or spiritual quality- for today, let’s assume
that it refers broadly to the capacity for free will and moral choice,
without which questions of “good and evil” become irrelevant.

However, any consideration of what it means to be in the “Image of
God” has to grapple with another aspect of this verse, which is the
plural form of “let us make. . after our likeness.” The Hebrew is very
clear: “na’aseh adam betsalmenu kidemutenu.” OK, so who was God
talking to?

This is a classic problem of Biblical commentary, which cannot be
explained away through simple grammar. You might say “Elohim,” the
word for God in this verse, is a proper noun in a grammatically plural
form, and thus requires plural forms for the verbs and nouns following
it, but the first word of the verse, “vayomer,” or “said,” is
singular, referring to God alone. So some commentators have theorized
that God was talking to angels, who share in the Divine Image, or even
the animals, who partake of the “breath of life” which animates
creation. (See the Etz Hayim commentary for more on this.)

Our friend Rashi goes with the explanation that God was speaking with
the angels, but even so, what I love about his commentary is the idea
of God’s humility in seeking consultation and permission from others:

“Let us make humankind. . . . Even though they [the angels] did not
assist God in creation, and there is an opportunity for the heretics
to rebel (to misconstrue the plural as a basis for their heresies),
Scripture did not hesitate to teach proper conduct and the trait of
humility, that a great person should consult with and receive
permission from a smaller one. Had it been written: ‘I shall make
man,’ we would not have learned that He was speaking with His
tribunal, but to Himself.”

What an amazing idea! To me, the spiritual idea at the heart of
Rashi’s comment is that both humility and deep awareness of the
dignity of others are deeply connected with what it means to be a
human being created in “the Divine Image.” To put it another way, if
what it means to be “in the Divine Image” is the capacity for wise,
compassionate choice, then the very way the Divine Image is created-
in humility, consultation, and concern for others- indicates what
Godly choices and actions would look like.

To put it yet a third way: if Judaism teaches a story about God
consulting before acting, and that story tells us who we are,
shouldn’t we, who don’t have the Big Picture of creation, consult,
communicate, reach out, and be humble enough to receive counsel in
much less dramatic circumstances? To do so brings forth the Divine
within, which is the very reason we came to be.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- here are our usual links:

Summary of the parsha with study questions:
http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/bereishit_summary.\
htm

Further commentaries:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/bereishit_index.ht\
m

Text of the Torah portion and haftarah, plus a nice commentary from
Dr. Eisen, the Chancellor Elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

Family Shabbat Table Talk:

http://urj.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=2085&pge_prg_id=29219&pge_id=3720

Kid’s Parsha Page:

http://www.beth-tzedec.org/home.do?ch=Canaan_Hora&cid=4694&state=detail

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