Created in the Image of God
Kol Nidre: September 15, 2002/5763
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit
When I first saw the Sistine Chapel, I was so blown away that I decided I had to take a picture of it myself, something that was strictly forbidden at the time. Oh sure, you could buy a postcard but I was 20 years old and I thought, wouldn't it be great to sneak a camera in... The guard was unamused. I remember being escorted outside as I tried to explain how moved I was by the magnificent art, with God extending his strong arm to Adam.
Michelangelo took his interpretation of the phrase Btzelem Elohim, that man was created in the image of God, quite literally. We see God as a muscular sage with a flowing beard. Of course, the rabbis never understood God in this way and the m'farshim all go out of their way to make sure that we do not read these words, Btzelem Elohim, as anthropomorphic. Rashi says that being created in God's image meant that humans possess quality of understanding and discernment. Nachmonides explained B'tzelem Elohim by saying that the human spirit was immortal, just as God was immortal. Maimonides goes so far as to say that anyone who believes that God has corporeal form is both a heretic and has no share in the olam haba, in the world to come. While most of the rabbinic commentaries look at "B'tzelem Elohim" and reflect on God, I'm drawn to the concept for its value in defining how we should relate to other human beings.
On campus, I often teach from the phrase "B'tzelem Elohim" in the course of discussions of religion and homosexuality. B'tzelem Elohim teaches that each person's life is unique and holy, and it's instructive to point out that the Torah doesn't say that straight people, or white people or Jewish people were created in God's image. It says all human beings were created in the image of God. While this teaching is important, during these aseret yamei teshuvah, I've been trying to use this powerful concept, that each person is essentially a manifestation of the Holy One, to go deeper into my own teshuvah, this work of reassessment and reconnection so crucial to moving forward into the year.
Now, it's not that difficult for me to see the image of God in the people I love, my family and the friends I cherish. The love, strength, uniqueness, wonder, beauty I feel in their presence (sometimes after a glass or two of wine) is very connected to my understanding of God's presence in the world. And it's not hard to look at the homeless person on the street and feel a jolt remembering that she or he is created in God's image and be moved to tzedukkah or g'milut hassidim. This is how I've tended to apply my understanding of B'tzelem Elohim. But I think that this concept can raise deeper questions and I've been thinking about two questions connected to B'tzelem Elohim that I find compelling in relation to teshuvah. The first is, how do we find God's presence in the truly difficult people who often take a disproportionate part of our time and emotional energy? The second is, letting aside other people, if we see ourselves as created in the image of God, what impact might that have on our actions and decisions every day?
I'd like tell a story about one of the most difficult students I ever worked with at Tufts. This happened when I first started to work at Hillel, quite a while ago. Jonathan was a real pain in the neck. He was smart, articulate, socially awkward, angry, devious and in the words of our friend Dan Shevitz, "always ready to defend his religious ideals to the last drop of your blood." Jonathan was also passionately militant and wanted to bring the JDL to campus any time he smelled anti-Semitism and he claimed that he smelled it a lot. But really, the issue wasn't his militancy. The issue was that it was so difficult to make any clear connection with him. Every time I spoke with him, I felt cornered, trapped and angry. So, since I was new at the work, I basically ignored him a lot and tried to work around him. So, after one particularly bad incident where he invited a bunch of outside people to campus to disrupt a lecture, I went to him, sat down and said, look Jon. Whether we like it or not, we are in this together and have to find some way to work with each other. I'll commit to really working with you but you have to be honest with me: what's going on here? And totally to my surprise, he started to cry. He told me that he had a condition where he was slowly going blind. He needed to have an operation but was terrified to have it. I began to understand why I felt closed in and afraid when I was with him. That was where he lived every day. He stayed with the JDL but over the rest of the year, we actually became fairly close. I understood him better and we found some more productive ways to work together.
Buber says that God exists in the space between human beings. God isn't found in people, but rather in that space between, where two people are present for one another, in relationship. Perhaps one step toward recognizing that even difficult people are created in God's image is finding a way to create and hold that space, hamakum, the place in between. Of course, this is difficult to do when we don't like or enjoy the other person. Still, in my experience, things only changed in my relationship with Jon when I found the strength to place myself in relationship with him.
It's frightening how many of our supposed interactions with other people, especially people with whom we experience conflict, take place in our mind, in one-sided, imagined conversations. Sometimes when I spiral off into an imagined argument and feel myself getting angry at someone, it feels so real that I have to stop myself and say, "this conversation is imaginary, none of this is really happening.' If we play out the concept that all people are created in God's image and that God is found in the space between people, these one sided arguments might be a form of idolatry, never creating the space between two people into which God can potentially enter.
I would like to share one other thought related to B'tzelem Elohim. So far, I've been speaking about how this concept is connected to the way we relate to others. It seems important to remember that we, too, are created in God's image, and as such, need to treat ourselves as seriously as that realization demands.
The second story I want to tell is about a young woman who came to speak with me at the beginning of the year several years ago after she returned from studying abroad in Italy. She was basically doing all right but was struggling to come to terms with the way she had acted in the relationship with her Italian boyfriend during the year abroad. They had broken up when she had left to come back to the States. Even though he pursued her, in reality, he didn't treat her very well and the whole time he was professing his love for her, he seemed to be chasing after other women. But she had so wanted to have a romantic experience abroad that she just let things happen. This was all more difficult because it was the first time she was involved sexually with someone and said, "I wanted it to all be so romantic but it just felt wrong." Now she was looking back and she was trying to figure out who was to blame. I asked, "Did you talk with your boyfriend about this? Did you tell him you weren't ready to be involved?" She said, no, she never told him. She felt a lot of pressure and it wasn't really a talking relationship. It was just easier to pretend things were all right and say nothing.
While the particulars of this story are compelling, the issue is much larger. "The yes that is really yes, and the no that is really no" shouldn't only be applied to our responses to other people. We must recognize our own holy worth and treat ourselves with the appropriate respect and reverence due to a being created in the image of the Holy One. Our actions have to be consistent with our values; it would be irreverent and disrespectful to act otherwise. This evening, we chanted Kol Nidrei three times and affirmed "nidrana la nidrei, sh'vuatana la sh'vuot" "Our personal vows are not vows, our oaths are not oaths." While we understand this declaration to release us from impetuous vows, or vows we are unable to keep, these statements underscore a truth that we struggle with during this period of teshuvah. Too often, nidrana la nidrei, what we say is not what we mean to say, what we do does not resonate with our true selves. Then, the process of teshuvah becomes a process of realignment, making sure that we continually bring ourselves back to act in a way that is consistent with our essential values.
I once was giving a drosh at Tufts and was talking about the importance of the relationship between parents and children. A faculty member who was sitting in the congregation got up and walked out of the room in the middle of the talk. I thought, "Did I say something to offend her?" After yomtov she called me and said, "You were talking about strengthening the bonds between parents and children and I started to miss my six year old so much that I couldn't stand it. I left to go home and play with him." I count that among my more successful sermons, even if she only heard part of it.
I want to finish the story of the woman who was studying in Italy. We ended up discussing the values that should be prerequisites for intimacy in a relationship: love, communication, commitment and honesty. I believe that the sin, if we want to talk in theological terms, wasn't between her and her boyfriend. It's not ben adam l'havero. It's a sin between adam l'makum, between her and God. If she gave the full impression that she was in agreement when she was not, she moved away from her own convictions. I stressed that her worth was so great and it was important for her actions to be consistent with her values. That had to be the starting point for any decisions about how she acted in a relationship.
On this Shabbas Shuvah, traditionally we understand the gates of teshuvah to be wide open. Perhaps it's not only that our prayers and resolutions have an easier time entering the heavenly realm. Perhaps the flow goes both ways and this is a more opportune time for God's presence to enter our lives, in the spaces we create when we place ourself in relationship with another person, in the holiness we recognize when we act in accord with our deepest values. I like to think that at this time, maybe everything in the universe becomes more permeable. Our minds more willing to consider, our hearts more open to listen and forgive. May our actions seal us for blessings in the book of life.