Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Bereishit 5779

What are the Three Scariest Words (TSW) in the English language? There was an NPR piece about the TSW a boy can hear. They were “be a man.” Some people still think that “I love you” are the TSW. Some husbands are terrified of “notice anything different?” For younger people, the TSW are “there’s no Wi-Fi.” As a kid, my TSW were: David Eliott Walk! Because my mother, ob”m, only addressed me as thus when I was in big trouble. But throughout my adult life, my TSW have been “some assembly required.” That’s a definite no-win situation. If you get the thing put together, people say, “Well, it only needed ‘some’ assembly.” And, of course, when inevitably you can’t get the thing to work, clearly you’re inept. But this week’s Torah reading gives us another spine-tingling example: “Let’s make humanity” (Breishit 1:27).

Here’s the situation. We’re deep into the sixth day of Creation. A world has been created from scratch and it’s been judged “good” half a dozen times. The only job left is to create humankind. The Midrash says that Adam was created in the seventh hour (1 p.m.). According to the Continental Divide Museum in Colorado, if the history of the earth were compressed into a year, humans would appear about 30 seconds before midnight on December 31. From any point of view, we’re the new boy on the block.

Then something unexpected occurs. Instead of the accepted formula of God “saying” and things happening, we have: God said, “Let us make a human being in our image in our likeness” (Bereishit 1:26). What does this mean? So much to parse. Who is God talking to? What are God’s “likeness” and “‘image”’? This article is about the first question. However, I will give a quick and, sadly, insufficient answer to the last query. The Nefesh Hachaim (Reb Chaim Volozhin, 1749-1821) begins his sefer by explaining, “The expression ‘image of God’ means that we share a semblance of some aspect of God (Chapter 1)... When God created humanity, we were endowed with the ability to sustain and give energy to countless worlds...or conversely, to do incalculable damage to many worlds (Chapter 3).” Besides God, only humans have this power to build or, God forbid, destroy.

Now to the main event. What does “na’aseh adam” (let’s make humanity) mean? Perhaps the simplest and most popular answer, given by both Rashi and Yonatan ben Uziel, is that God consulted with the angels in heaven. Rashi claims that this is a sign of God’s humility and concern for the angels’ feelings, so they wouldn’t be jealous of these humans. The Radak avers that the rest of Creation was consulted because we humans will rule over them. Both of these answers are great advice for parents, teachers and bosses. The Rashbam suggests the royal “we,” as in Queen Victoria wryly observing, “We are not amused.” He prefers to give examples from Sefer Melachim, but I am amused by Queen Victoria.

Before we give my preferred solution to the conundrum, allow me one more anomaly in the creation of mankind: the use of the term bara, or created. This word is used sparingly in the Bible’s first chapter, just in the first statement (God bara heaven and earth) and in verse 22 for the diversity of animal life (and God bara the great sea beasts and all the swarming animals upon the land...). However, concerning our creation, God uses this highly controlled verb three times in verse 27 (And God created a human in the Divine image, in the image was this creation, male and female were they created). This all accentuates the unique nature of humanity and our Creation.

For me, the beginning of my preferred answer comes from the charges given to the first humans both here and in chapter 2: “Fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth (1:28)” and God “placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it (2:15).” We have responsibilities in this new world. The Rav pointed out that God’s special relationship with humanity is seen most clearly in the fact that God spoke to us. God addresses the first humans. This is unique (Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 76).

And there’s our answer. Who was God addressing with the statement ‘Let’s make humanity? Us! We are partners with God in the most important job with which we will ever be tasked, our own personality development. We have to believe that we have control over many aspects of our lives. Otherwise, a system of Torah and mitzvot, of ethics and morality, is absurd (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, 5:2).

We are unique in this realm. As Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski has said, “Only a human being can reflect on and implement self-improvement. Animals are born essentially complete, and change only by growing larger and stronger… Furthermore, regardless of one’s genetic composition, a person can make salutary changes in himself… A human can delay gratification… A human being can reflect on the consequences of his actions… Man has the capacity to control anger… A person has the capacity to forgive… What was being asked of us is that we develop those traits that are the hallmark of a human being, the spiritual traits that elevate him above the level of Homo sapiens” (from Twerski on Spirituality, 1998).

Harav Adin Steinsaltz wrote about Pesach that “we shall truly be redeemed only when we take it upon ourselves to fulfill our need to live in our own unique way” (“On Being Free,” p23). We have a part in our own redemption because we are responsible for own spiritual growth.

Our greatest prayers to God aren’t “Do it!” or “Give me!” They are “Bless me,” which means make my efforts flourish. God is our Parent and Partner, not our Puppeteer. So don’t be afraid of saying “Let’s do it!”

By Rabbi David Walk


 

Rabbi David Walk, who has recently made aliyah, was a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s education director. He continues to be a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years, he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.

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