When God creates humanity in the Divine Image, God’s words are, “Let us make the human in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26) Who is God addressing? If there’s only One God, why does humanity’s creation suggest God is not alone?
These are questions without easy answers. Questions debated by many students of Torah through the centuries. They’re also great questions with which to begin our reading and study of Torah anew this year. Who are we and what do we bring to and learn from the first words of our heritage?
My own view, substantiated by many scholars, is that we’re reading an ancient, mythical form of the “royal we,” the language of a noble sovereign who speaks for the whole and holds people loyal. Rabbi Ibn Ezra, an 11th century Spanish Torah commentator makes this point explaining when we read the plural “let us make” as language it is “minhag haM’lakhim l’daber,” the custom of kings to speak this way. Certainly an appropriate depiction of language for God.
Ibn Ezra makes a different point, as well. In the next verse (1:27) we read, “God created man in His image, b’tzalmo.” The image described is not God’s but each individual person’s. God individually formed each one of us. Each one of us is unique, unlike any one else. “Let us make” portrays God in relationship with each human being God creates.
A French teacher of Torah, Rabbi David Kimchi, whose years overlapped Ibn Ezra’s, brings another perspective. Because humanity is the crown jewel of creation, symbolized by being the last of all creatures formed, in creating human beings God makes use of all the elements of the universe that already exist. The plural language represents a coming together, the totality of all that exists which is present in the physical and spiritual reality of human life.
The 12th century Spanish scholar Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, Nahmonides, synthesizes these views of those who taught Torah before him. “The correct explanation of “let us make” is that God created something from nothing only on the first day, and afterwards formed and made things from those created elements.” In the case of human beings, Nahmonides explains, the earth brings forth the body from its elements and the spirit comes from God. In bodily capacity people are part of the earth. Our souls, however, come from God.
We human beings are the product of our environments. Torah teaches that we are of the animal world and the Divine realm. We are finite, creatures endowed with capacities and abilities that reflect God’s image in our own. We are of the earth and uniquely able to transform it, like God – with limitations.
I’ll tell you a cute story. Years from now scientists have solved all the questions that plague humanity. Then they are ready for the ultimate challenge. They elect a representative to address God.
“God,” says the scientist in charge. “You are no longer needed. You served a function in Your day, but that day is gone. We can do everything that You can do, so goodbye.”
There is a moment of silence. Then a voice booms out of the sky: “Everything?”
“Can you make a human being from dust?” “Absolutely.” “Ok,” says God. “Let me see you make a human being.”
The scientist reaches down and digs his hands into the earth. “Oh no,” says God. “Get your own dirt.”
We believe God is eternal. We are not. We believe God is spiritual. We are not. God’s existence is eternal and spiritual in contrast to our temporal and physical being. There are limits on our great human strengths and abilities. Personal power and purpose in life result from identifying what we can and cannot control. This is our unique privilege and opportunity.
As modern students of Torah, what do we do with these medieval interpretations? How do we read ourselves into the narrative of Torah and read out from it for the moral values of our lives?
We live in an era of scientific discovery and innovation. A time when we anticipate cars without drivers and industries driven by technologies without employees. We live today with predictions that our dependence on data and the development of artificial intelligence will replace us. Robots and AI may be able to out think us. Some researchers and philosophers go so far as to anticipate the end of the human era on earth.
Israeli historian Yuval Harari claims that Google, Amazon, and Facebook already know us better than we know ourselves. He warns there is no precedent to the powers new technology can unleash. On the other hand, I would point out, there is absolute precedent in every generation for people adapting and adjusting to new discoveries and technologies.
In response to this intriguing new world, I learn two things from the commentaries about God’s creation of people. Jewish tradition imagines that God consulted all of existence, took all of existence into consideration during creation. Do we? As we invent and create ours is the moral imperative to protect our humanity and the environment which enables and sustains our lives. Do we sufficiently try to anticipate the benefits and consequences of what we seek to do or invent?
After all, we learn that the Torah image of “let us make” symbolizes the coming together of God’s essence and the elements of the world. In other words, our lives result from the combination of everything that forms us and informs who we are. We are each, uniquely, the result of so many people, influences, and experiences.
Professor Harari also writes that while “science is much better than religion at saying what is, and in finding practical solutions to all kinds of problems, science by definition has no way to answer value questions.” We do.
We are of the earth and, like God, uniquely able to transform it – with limitations.
We are of our families and able to transform them. We are of our community, of our nation, of our people and able to transform them. We are of our relationships, of our interests, of our instincts and able to transform them.
We are blessed to bring more than information and data to our lives. We live with intellect and emotion. We are more than what we know. We are what we sense, what we feel, what we believe, what we desire, what we decide, and what we control.
The ultimate message of these first words of Torah is this. There is only one God. Rabbi David Kimchi includes in his commentary this Midrash. “At the time when Moses had to write down the details of everything God created on each of the six days, he balked when he came to this verse, ‘Let us make the human in our image, after our likeness.’ Moses asked God if this formulation would not encourage heretics to think that God had a partner as a Divinity. God replied, ‘Write it down as I dictated it to you; if someone wants to fool himself into believing that I must have a partner, let him delude himself.’”
This is a warning to us all. We ought not to delude ourselves. The Torah lets God’s words reflect the language of royalty and nobility. We live loyal to God for the gift of our lives. We also live subject to the ethics and mores that sustain human community. We must hold ourselves accountable not only to our visions of the future but also to our values.
I came to Chizuk Amuno Congregation in July 2004 to serve as this synagogue community’s seventh Senior Rabbi. Teaching is the rabbinic role I find most enjoyable. Celebrating and observing the sacred, personal moments of people’s lives is the experience of being a rabbi that means the most to me. Helping to build and form the character and values of a synagogue community is the rabbinic work about which I am the most passionate. Prior to moving to Baltimore, I served for 21 years as rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.