Bereshit 5780

October 25, 2019


Traditionally, when a community or individual completes a tractate of Talmud or Mishnah, which are the foundational sources of Jewish oral law, a formula is recited in which the learners promise to return again and again to their learning. To internalize Torah deeply, our tradition teaches, means that we must continuously return to it, not merely so we can review the words on the page but so that we can bring all of the new insights we have accrued since we last studied it to our newest encounter. The same process and understanding applies to our learning of the written Torah, or Five Books of Moses which we begin again this week with the first Torah portion in Genesis, Parashat Bereshit—literally the beginning or in the beginning. After a marathon of holy days, culminating with the most joyous, Simchat Torah, we prepare ourselves for this new Torah reading cycle. We will read the same portions of Torah we have read for centuries and may even have associations with the time of year in which a given Torah portion is read which we recall fondly year after year. And yet, we begin again because we know that, as we learn famously in Perkei Avot—the Chapters or sayings of our fathers, a tractate of Mishnah, turn it turn it, for everything is in it. In Jewish religious understanding, the Torah has eternal religious value, outside of temporal time and space. The newfound insight, wisdom and understanding that we each acquire allows us to find new meaning in ancient text, to challenge ancient text and to engage in the time-honored sacred Jewish exercise of vigorous debate and voluminous commentary.

Our parsha this week contains some of the Torah’s most foundational narratives, including the creation of the world and all of the beings who call this planet home. In that famous opening chapter of our parsha (Genesis 1:27), we find one of the most radical teachings I believe our tradition offers us—the idea that every human being is created in the image of G-d. Jewish commentators have puzzled over this teaching for centuries. Rashi, a famous medieval French commentator, who lived during the 11th and 12th centuries CE takes a more literal perspective, focusing upon the possibilities the human body offers as being like the image of G-d. What I understand from this is that to be created in G-d’s image means that we are able to be active participants in creating the world around us.

By contrast, Radak, another medieval commentator, holds that to be created in G-d’s image refers to the soul of each human being. Every human soul is entirely different and distinctive from every other human soul, which allows us to each bring our unique gifts, talents and passions to the world.

Being created in the image of G-d is also commonly understood to mean that every human being has inherent value and worth which can never be taken from them. That inherent worthiness is directly correlated to the spark of the divine that dwells within each person. This notion of every human being carrying within them a spark of the Divine is commonly found in Chasidic commentary and spiritual understanding. If being created in G-d’s image also means that we are partners with G-d in the renewal of creation every day, as is found in the opening blessing of the traditional Jewish morning prayer service, the task that lies before us is to help to make this world a dwelling place for the Divine Presence always. Chasidic commentaries understand this constant human task as happening both through how we care for creation and through how we care for our fellow human beings. To have a spark of the Divine Presence within means that regardless of what society tells us and continues to teach us relentlessly, kavod habriot—human dignity, is a birthright, not something we need to earn, but something inherent, innate. How might we each truly live this out in our daily lives, not merely by speaking or teaching it, but through embodying it in how we carry ourselves and in the actions we take? What freedom and newfound possibility for human living might we uncover if we never forget that every person we encounter, in our work, on the street, in the convenience store has worlds of wisdom within them and that the world needs them just as much, and not more, than the world needs us? No one is created any more or any less in G-d’s image, holds traditional Jewish thought. All of us are needed, all of us matter inherently, and all of us have much to contribute to transforming our world, daily into all that we long and dream of it being.


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