Parshah Commentary for Bereshit

30 Sep

This week’s parshah contains one of the most puzzling phrases in the Torah: “And God said ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26).” The first, and most glaring question that this verse raises is why the first person plural is used. Some commentators simply dismiss this as God using the royal “we,” but it seems strange that God would use the royal “we” here and then never use it again in the entire Torah. So if God is not using the royal “we,” then God must be talking to someone… but mankind has not yet been created, so who is around for God to be talking to? Some Rabbis believe that God is talking to the angels, while others believe that God is talking to the animals. Either of these answers opens up its own set of questions.

How can we be made in the image of animals if all animals look different? And how can we be made in their likeness when we are creatures of rational thought and the animals are not? We certainly cannot be made in the image of the angels because we look nothing like the four-faced, one-legged, split-hoofed, four-winged angels described by Ezekiel, and how can we be made in the likeness of the angels when we are such different creatures than they are? They are immortal and we are not. We require food, drink, and sleep, but they do not. They exist at a set level of holiness, while our actions can raise ours high above theirs or way down below it.
Another question this verse raises is why God would even bother to consult with lower beings in the first place? Surely God knows better than the angels or the animals. Rashi comments that this verse is included to show God’s humility as an example for man to follow, and this concept helps to unlock a potential answer.

If we look at this puzzling phrase as a teaching tool about attributes that God wants us to emulate, we can understand that we have been created in the image and likeness of the animals, the angels, and God. We have been created in the image of the animals in that we share their physical needs and biological cycles, and in the image of the angels in that we do resemble one of their four faces and have similar hands and torsos. We have been created in the likeness of the animals in that we have the complete free will which angels lack, and we have been created in the likeness of the angels in that we have the capacity to understand the effects that our actions have beyond just our basic instincts.

Most importantly, though, we are created in God’s likeness, and thus we must strive to do the things that God does. Just as God visited Abraham when he was recovering from surgery, so too should we visit the sick. Just as God comforted Isaac after Abraham’s death, so too should we comfort mourners. Just as God fed the hungry Israelites in the desert, so too should we feed the hungry. Just as God has forgiven Israel’s sins, so too should we forgive others.

From God we received examples of how we can act, from the animals we received the ability to act, and from the angels we received the ability to determine whether our acts are good acts. Just as God acts to make the world a better place, so too should we act to make the world a better place.

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