I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but I have to admit this is one of, if not my most, favorite sections of the Torah: the beginning. Every word is fodder for commentary, perhaps moreso than the rest of the Torah, because it’s our Creation Story. As any social scientist will tell you, a Creation Story tells you much about the people who pass it down. Our Creation Story, the Jewish story, begins, “In the beginning, when God was about to create heaven and earth…” (Gen. 1:1 – The Torah, A Women’s Commentary translation)
I’ve written here before that it’s a long-held rabbinic maxim that no word in Torah goes wasted. If something is repeated, or left out in a re-telling, we look for a reason. Some of us have heard an awful lot of sermons lately, but I heard only one that really stuck with me. I heard it on Erev (eve) Rosh Hashanah, the night the whole season began, the eve of the birthday of the world. How apropos. We’re about to start telling that very story this Shabbat.
The insight comes from Rabbi Isaac Serotta, in Highland Park, IL, and it’s about our human potential. First he quoted the two passages: “God now said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image,(Hebrew – tzelem) after our likeness’ ( Hebrew – d’mut). (Gen. 1:26) The classic question here, of course, is, “Who’s God talking to?” and the classic Rabbinic answer is the angels. But in the very next sentence, we read, “God created the human beings in the divine image, creating them in the image of God (using tzelem, image, again). What happened to d’mut, “likeness”?
Here, the angels aren’t around. God’s not talking or consulting anyone, God’s just doing. It’s just us. And at that point, we become truly human. Tzelem (image) tells us we each have the Divine holiness, we’re all walking around with that God-spark of creation. But now we spend the rest of our lives chasing that d’mut, that likness….we have to learn to act like God. Our actions are determined by our choices. We may start from a divine-image beginning, but it’s up to us to infuse our actions with divine-likeness. Later on in the story we read about our insistence on free will. Perhaps God knew we were going to cause a fuss about that, so before it even comes up, we’re presented with this dichotomy of “image” and “likeness”. One’s God’s doing, the other is our responsibility. If we want to get back to the Garden, so to speak, it’s our job to try and attain God’s likeness again.
For a moment, back to that, “Who is God talking to?” question. In talking with the lesser beings hanging around the Creator God, Rashi, the great 11th century French sage, says God is teaching a moral lesson: that in consulting lesser beings, God is displaying humility.
Might I suggest God is teaching good governing strategy, too? We hold fast to the idea in our own country; the government derives its power to rule from the consent of those being ruled. As opposed to, perhaps, Divine Right, which you might think would apply in God’s case here. It may have been enough to rule with Divine Right, i.e., creating without consulting, when it came to the natural world, but when it came to us humans, God consulted. As Aviva Zornberg puts it in her book “The Begininng of Desire”, “the role of the angels is to suggest a ‘many-ness’ of viewpoints, a spectrum of opinions, that God has to convince, placate, ultimately,to ‘receive permission.’” (p5)
The OWS (Occupy Wall Street) events that are spreading around the world point to this, too. People are feeling “unconsulted”, unheard by those who seem to be ruling by Divine Right, not Divine humility. Even God knew that wasn’t a good idea. The multitude of viewpoints has been with us since The Beginning, and too often these days, those voices aren’t being heard. I hope they’re being heard now.