Breishit 5777 - 2016
Post date: Nov 3, 2016 6:52:11 PM
This week’s perasha, Genesis, or Bereshit, is likely the most studied, analyzed, and digested portion of the Torah. Entire books have been written about a single pasuk (verse) in Bereshit, and it is ludicrous to imagine that one d’var Torah could hope to elucidate the complexities of these chapters. Almost every word, particularly in the first chapter of Bereshit, has a deep and rich meaning, and I sometimes wish we could spend an entire year simply reading this chapter.
However, since we have only one week, I will choose to focus on one of my favorite p’sukim (verses), that contains one of my favorite phrases. “Va’iv’rah elohim et-ha’adam b’tzal’mo, b’tzelem elohim barah oto. Zachar u’n’kay’vah, barah otam.” And God created the man in God’s image, in the image of God, God created him. Male and female, God created them. Note that the root of “ve’iv’rah” is the same as “borei”, as in the second word of the Torah. (בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א).
Setting aside the gender binary raised here, and the seeming primacy of creating the male, I want to look more closely at the idea that God created in God’s image.
There is a well-known song by the Jewish artist Dan Nichols inspired by this very passuk in Bereshit. The song – titled B’tzelem Elohim – contains the chorus: “When I reach out to you, and you to me, then we become b’tzelem elohim. When we share our hopes and our dreams – each one of us, b’tzelem elohim.” The song is ultimately about human connection, and allowing ourselves to express the element of divinity within each of us, but the chorus always raised a somewhat different thought for me.
When I hear this song (which is often, as it’s on one of my default playlists), I think about humility. To me, the idea of each person being created in the image of God means that my life is no more or less important than anyone else’s. Indeed, the Mishnah (a predecessor and component of Talmud, the oldest extant commentary on the Bible) states, “That all people have a common ancestor should make for peace, since no one can say to anyone else, ‘My ancestor was greater than your ancestor.’” -Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
The logical extension of this belief, then, is that my opinions are no more or less valid, and my viewpoints no more or less correct than anyone else’s. As a committed New Englander with far too much higher education, this is a challenging thought to stomach. My opinions are no more or less right than those who hold fast to ideas of racism, bigotry, and hate?
But then I read on, and came to Bereshit chapter 6: “The sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives, whomsoever they chose… And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” It is not clear who the “sons of God” might be, but what does appear to be conveyed in these p’sukim is that there are some among the people on earth who take what they please, without regard for the desires of others. Here, the reference is clearly to “taking” someone as a spouse, though I believe this can be broadened to “taking” generally, when one takes without concern for the wants or needs of any but himself.
The message of the Torah about this behavior seems to be that it is “only evil, continually” to take what you want, without considering the implications or consequences of your actions. So, how can we reconcile these ideas? God creates people – all people – b’tzelem elohim – in God’s image. Thus, all people are equal, deserving of our compassion, respect, and kindness. And yet, some behavior is certainly evil.
I believe the resolution is in the identity of those “takers” in chapter 6 – they are called “b’nei ha’elohim” – literally, sons of the Gods. How is this possible? In Judaism, God does not have sons. Furthermore, Judaism’s raison d’etre is monotheism, which you might call a belief in the unity and completeness of that which we can never know -- God.
So, let's unpack this using text analysis and Biblical criticism.
Throughout the next 10 p’sukim in chapter 6 of Bereshit, God is referred to by the
tetragrammaton, the four-letter unpunctuated, unpronounceable name of God, Yud Hey Vav Hey. In biblical criticism, that would make the beginning of chapter 6 part of the “J” source (the Jehovist source, which uses this name of God throughout). Why in verse 2 then, would God be referred to as “elohim”? This, in biblical criticism, would make the verse part of the “E” source (the Elohist source).
I believe the answer is that those who are referred to in verse 2 as “b’nei ha’elohim” are not sons of God, but rather “sons of gods.” In this interpretation, the “sons of gods” could be thought of as another generation of human beings. In our 21st century world, we sometimes refer to these people as archetypal bullies. While the first generation was created b’tzelem elohim – in the image of God – this generation is created only as the sons of lesser gods. They are so not for any inherent reason, but because of their behavior – because of the choices that they make – to take women as wives, without regard for the desires or needs of anyone other than themselves. I believe it is this generation – the generation of the “sons of gods” that God later wipes out in the flood.
So, in the end it is not that anything goes, simply because another person is created b’tzelem elohim. Rather, it seems to be that anything goes – any opinion, any viewpoint, any behavior – as long as it does not disregard the rights of other human beings.
In his book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Sam Harris promotes a science of morality based on the “well being of conscious creatures”. He argues that 'moral questions' have objectively right and wrong answers which are grounded in empirical facts about what causes people to flourish. Harris, an avowed atheist, draws the same conclusion as I do, even though one of his self-proclaimed missions is to create a framework by which he can compare objectively, religious strictures and laws.
Viewpoints, opinions, and behavior that impedes the wellbeing of another person – these are not tolerable. While individual people themselves must be respected, as they, too, are human beings, behavior that takes away – be it taking away dignity, freedom, life, or health – without regard for the rights of others can be neither respected nor tolerated – it is evil, continually.