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Bereishit(Genesis 1:1-6:8)

The Great Communicator

Every thinking individual who reaches the age of reason is confronted by some crucial existential questions. Who am I really? What is the purpose of my life? What is the extent of my spiritual powers? Mankind has struggled to arrive at the answers to these questions since the dawn of recorded history.

This Torah portion, Bereishit, tackles these issues head on. The Parsha offers the Creator's own input concerning the answers to these questions. It would surely be impossible to come up with a more authoritative or reliable source than the Creator Himself. Let us attempt to track some of the answers he provides:

"God (ELOHIM) created man in His image, in the image of ELOHIM He created him, male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:27)

 

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THE IMAGE PROBLEM

How is it possible for man to be created in God's image when God has no image?

One of the fundamentals of Judaism, the third of the "Thirteen Principles of Faith" authored by Maimonides, states:

"I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, is not physical and is not affected by physical phenomena, and that there is no comparison whatsoever to Him."

The statement that God created man in His image seems to contradict this principle of faith head on. But does it? Perhaps the answer lies in the particular name of God - ELOHIM - used to describe the creation of the human being in God's image.

Names reveal a great deal. In the Arabic dictionary there are 27 names for the camel. A society in which the camel is an essential component of everyday life, will naturally invent a different name for every sort of camel - young, old, male, female, barren, pregnant, etc. Similarly, English has many different words to describe the self-propelled motor vehicle - automobile, car, bus, truck, limousine, tank, etc. A Jew's relationship with God is the main focus of his life, so it is not surprising to find many different names for God in the Torah. Each name expresses a particular aspect of our relationship with Him. It is therefore legitimate to inquire why the specific Divine name ELOHIM was selected in describing man as being created in the image of God.

 

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THE SOLUTION IS HIDDEN IN THE HOLY NAME 'ELOHIM'

Since ELOHIM is the name that G-d uses to identify Himself in Genesis 1, we might think of this name as representing God in the role of Supreme Architect; or, since ELOHIM is the name used to identify G-d as the creator of human beings, we might think of this name as descriptive of Him as our heavenly father. But according to the Shulchan Aruch, the codex of Jewish law, this name conveys a much more complex idea (see Orach Chaim, Ch. 5). It defines ELOHIM as "master and controller of all the energy in the universe, potential or kinetic." This definition goes far beyond the ideas of supreme architect or heavenly father. The architect of a building, or the father of a child, is readily dispensable following the completion of the building or the birth of the child. Whatever happens to the architect or the father, the building or the child, continue and endure. But God's relationship with His creation is radically different.

Just as only God could have created the universe, it can only survive through His continuing input. Even after the structures of creation are in place, there is still no alternative energy source beside G-d to keep it all running. When a person lifts his hand, God must supply the energy to make it happen. When a leaf is blown by the wind, God must supply the energy for it. Indeed, the hand and the leaf, and even the wind itself, continue to exist only because God keeps supplying them constantly with the energy of being. The universe exists only for the blink of an eye at a time.

ELOHIM is the name that God chose for Himself in His mantle of Creator. In the story of the creation this name appears in the Torah not less than 32 times. In Hebrew, the number 32 is written with the letters lamed bet, the same letters that form the word lev or "heart." Just as the heart must keep pumping for life to continue, ELOHIM must constantly inject the energy of being for the universe to continue to exist.

 

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THE IMAGE OF ELOHIM

The renowned student of the Vilna Gaon, R'Chaim of Volozhin, uses this idea to explain the description of man as a being created in the image of ELOHIM. The image means to convey that just as the universe is totally dependent on constant input from God, it is equally dependent on constant input from man. The energy that keeps the universe in being is God's energy, but the decision to inject that energy belongs to man.

When He created man and gave him free will, God made a policy decision. After His initial acts of creation, all further inputs of Divine energy would be supplied by Him only in response to the thoughts, words and deeds of man. The amount of energy supplied to the universe by ELOHIM at any time, on every level - from the sphere of the highest angels down to the most physical aspects of being - is totally dependent on man's actions. This makes man an active partner in creation whose contribution very much resembles God's.

The ELOHIM aspect of man provides us with an insight that can help us to answer a famous question regarding the significance of the commandments. The Torah is primarily a list of commandments governing a Jew's behavior, 613 in all. Some of these commandments concern his thoughts and feelings; some of them concern his speech; while most of them concern his actions. The very foundation of religious belief is the axiom that these commandments provide the framework for the existence of a system of rewards and punishments. Faithful observance earns the diligent practitioner a share in the World to Come, and even well-being in this world in ideal circumstances, while violating the commandments results in the opposite.

 

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ARE MITZVOTH REALLY SIGNIFICANT

But are the activities that are the subjects of these commandments inherently significant? Or, are they merely meaningless rituals invented by God so that He can reward us for faithful performance or punish us for disobedience?

A cynic once compared the role God assigned man in this world to a rich man who decides to support an incompetent cousin. He invents a useless job for him; the job keeps him occupied shuffling meaningless papers, allows him to feel tremendously important, and most importantly, enables him to collect a handsome salary at the end of the month feeling proud for all that he has accomplished absolutely nothing. Is this all that Avodath Hashem, "service of God," amounts to? What can we human beings supply that God lacks, especially since we know that He lacks nothing by definition?

The answer lies in this concept that man was created in the image of ELOHIM. Each commandment of the Torah that relates to an action, speech or thought, corresponds to a specific energy input required to keep the universe in being. The performance of the commandment causes God to maintain or increase His ELOHIM input, while the lack of performance or violation wreaks havoc and destruction on the universe at some level by reducing the quality and amount of the ELOHIM input that God injects. Man's actions are the very opposite of trivial. The exercise of his free will determines the quality of being in the entire universe.

 

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THE MECHANISM OF THE SPEECHES

Can we comprehend the mechanism that makes all this happen? We learn from the Sages:

The world was created with ten speeches. What does this come to teach us? Could it not have been created with a single speech? [Yes, but it was made with ten speeches rather than one] to exact punishment from the wicked who destroy the world that was created with ten speeches, and to bestow reward upon the righteous who sustain the world that was created with ten speeches. (Pirkei Avoth, 5:1)

No sane person delivers a speech unless he has an attentive audience. To emphasize the point that He was seeking such an audience, God delivered a series of speeches. Had He created the world with only a single sentence, one could have thought that is just His way of doing things. We people need actions, tools and force, to accomplish our desires, whereas God is able to accomplish His will by merely speaking. But the idea of ten speeches emphatically conveys God's desire to communicate. Delivering ten speeches amounts to offering an entire course.

In other words, the creation of the universe is really an act of communication/revelation. Without an audience that is prepared to listen, delivering speeches is the same as talking to the wall, an exercise in futility. God does not engage in futile acts. In His entire creation, He granted free will to man and to man alone. The only intelligent creature in the universe capable of deciding whether to listen to God's speeches or to walk out of the lecture room is man. This is what free will is all about. By paying attention and attempting to decipher God's message, man really validates the universe.

 

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OBSERVANCE VALIDATES THE UNIVERSE

When a Jew carries out the commandments of the Torah, He symbolically informs God that He understands the message of creation and is attempting to respond to it. God requires such responses. He cannot continue to speak if no one is paying attention to His message. Thus, the righteous deserve to be rewarded ? it is their attention that allows God to continue speaking, and thus gives existence to the universe that God continues to create through His creation speech. The wicked deserve punishment since they ignore God's speech and deprive Him of the opportunity to continue creation.

We find support for this thesis elsewhere in the Torah:

"The Lord God [ADONAI ELOHIM] created man out of the dust of the earth, and blew into his nose the breath of life, and man became a living spirit." (Genesis 2:7)

Onkelos - the Roman convert, who became the first Jew to offer a translation of the Torah into Aramaic that was approved by the Sages for widespread Jewish use - translates "living spirit" as the "speaking life force". The observable result of the Divine Breath blown into man's nose, representing the actual insertion of the Tzelem Elohim, the image of God into man, was the acquisition by man of the power to communicate. This power obviously embraces the ability to communicate with God as well.

 

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UNION OF BODY AND SOUL

If we regard man as a union of body and soul, or physicality and spirituality, the ability to speak would have to be considered the point where his disparate parts fuse into a single entity. Speech is partly physical and partly spiritual. It is impossible to speak without thought, but the motion of some bodily parts is necessarily involved as well. Man's unique ability to forge the physical and the spiritual into a single entity is perfectly represented by his power of speech.

This has far-reaching implications; according to the passage quoted above God is directly connected to our world through the breath He blew into man's nostrils, which found its outward expression in man's ability to communicate. On the deepest level, the power of communication is itself the point of fusion between the physical universe and its spiritual counterpart. It is man's ability to communicate that makes him a Godly creature.

Although man is part of the created universe, his mission is to remain separate and distinct from the rest. Employing his unique gift of intelligence, he is expected to rise above the universe and constitute an attentive audience always reaching out to hear the Divine Voice beyond. He must than internalize the message and respond. If man fails in this task and elects to turn a deaf ear to God's voice, the consequences are enormous and tragic. Man sinks to being nothing more than one of nature's myriad phenomena, no more important or significant than the tiniest insect.

If man earns merit they tell him, "You come before the Angels" but if not, they say to him "the fly preceded you, the mosquito was created before you, the worm was there ahead of you." (Bereishis Rabbah 8:1)

 

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COMMUNICATIONS NETWORK

The universe was designed to serve as a communications network capable of linking God and man with each other. The greater the volume of the traffic flowing along the network, the more resources need to be invested in increasing its efficiency and sophistication. The less the network is used, the more it is allowed to decay. A communication network that carries no signals is a useless pile of junk. If man fails to use the universe to communicate with God, the universe loses the pulse of life, and becomes what scientists declare it to be, an inert lifeless mass spinning endlessly to no purpose, and therefore to ultimate destruction.

Bereishis shows us that God invested man with infinite spiritual potential. The creative power that God used to will the universe into being is infinite by definition, and as we have demonstrated in this essay, man's power equals the Divine energy input into the universe. For it is man that harmonizes all the Divine energy in the universe, and it is man who validates the universe by turning the panoply of sound generated by the Divine speeches into the music of the spheres.

Published: January 18, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Cathy, October 3, 2007 7:57 PM

Our role within God's universe

From the text: "Although man is part of the created universe, his mission is to remain separate and distinct from the rest."

Response: God speaks to us through His universe. When His creations cry out to us, we must listen and make adjustments, because we are God's partners in caring for what He has given us. And by taking care of His universe, we are in fact taking care of ourselves.

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