A couple of years ago, for the High HolyDays, Or Shalom Synagogue’s Rabbi Hannah Dresner decided that her overall theme would be humility. So she distributed these little wooden coins which she enjoined us to keep in our virtual pockets. I still have mine.
The story is that Rabbi Simcha Bunim of P’shiskha taught that everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes/אָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר, and on the other: The world was created for me/בשבילי נברא העולם. Rabbi Bunim taught that, from time to time, we must reach into one pocket or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.
The first phrase was spoken by Abraham when he realized that he was bargaining with God over S'dom (סדום) and `Amora (עמורה) - Sodom and Gomorrah: Genesis 18:27
The second phrase is from the Talmud, illustrating that we are all unique individuals, though we are formed from the same mould: BT Sanhedrin 37b.
We encounter this paradox often in Jewish theology. On Yom Kippur I lead a class during the break on Mishna Rosh Hashanah. The first half of the Mishna is all about the setting of the calendar and determining and declaring the new month. It’s about human agency. Natural time (the identification), and its declaration (human time) may required desecrating God’s time (Shabbat). We have power over God. It’s a fascinating and surprising read. The second half of the MIshna is about the laws of blowing the shofar which is all about the declaration of Divine sovereignty. On the one hand, we’re in charge. On the other, we surrender to God’s power. It’s about us and it’s not about us.
We find this same paradox in our reading today. In Bereishit 1:26 and 27 we read:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
Robert Alter’s beautiful translation:
26: And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.
27: And God created the human in his image,
in the image of God He created him,
male and female He created them.
But what does it mean to be created in the image/tzelem of God, by His likeness? In many ways, it depends on what you think God is. The 11th century French commentator, RaShI says that it means that we are given the ability to understand and reason. The Medieval philosopher RaMBaM (Maimonides, 12th to early 13th century) took great pains to explain that it does not mean that we are made in God’s physical form because God is incorporeal and doesn’t have one. So, tzelem must represent a nonphysical quality, which RaMBaM identified as intellectual apprehension.
The 15th-16th century Italian commentator, Sforno says that it means we have access to spiritual connection. The 18th century Moroccan Kabbalist, Or HaChaim says that it means that we’re endowed with capacity both for justice and for mercy. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the late 19th-early 20th century chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, says that it means that we were given free will. Rabbi Arthur Green, 20th and 21st century scholar, founder of Hebrew College Rabbinic School and Hassidic scholar, says it is not only a description of our creative powers, but also a statement of responsibility about how we treat others.
But wait! Let’s look at the paradox. In the second creation story, in Bereishit 2:7 we read:
וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃
2:7 then the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.
And in 2:19 when God realizes that it’s not good for the human to be alone and decides to make him a sustainer, we read about the creation of animals:
וַיִּצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה כָּל־חַיַּ֤ת הַשָּׂדֶה֙ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיָּבֵא֙ אֶל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם לִרְא֖וֹת מַה־יִּקְרָא־ל֑וֹ וְכֹל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִקְרָא־ל֧וֹ הָֽאָדָ֛ם נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּ֖ה ה֥וּא שְׁמֽוֹ׃
2:19 And the Lord God fashioned from the soil each beast of the field and each fowl of the heavens and brought each to the human to see what he would call it, and whatever the human called a living creature, that was its name.
Here we have a much more humble origin; we are similar to the animals, fashioned from the soil. We are creators and we are creatures (with a few extra abilities). We are but dust and ashes. For us the world was created.
How do we live in this paradox?
Two short Hassidic stories and a Midrash give us different perspectives on this age-old theological question.
There was a pious, well-known but poorly dressed rebbe who took a lengthy train ride to a town far away. He was subject to insult and verbal abuse from a base fellow in his train car. When the train finally came to a halt, the rebbe came off the platform to thousands of excited disciples who waited for his arrival.
The fellow in his car looked mortified as he stood beside the rebbe. “I’m so ashamed. I had no idea who you were. Please accept my apologies.” The rebbe turned to him and said, “Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to everyone else. When you insulted me, you did so because I was everyone else.”
Another: A young man studying in a yeshiva went barefoot to the doorstep of a philanthropist. He knocked on the door and asked the man for the money to buy a pair of shoes. The philanthropist merely slammed the door in his face. Humiliated, the student went back to the beit midrash, the house of study. Over time, his hard work paid off, and he became a scholar of great repute. The very same philanthropist approached him many years later and asked if he could be his patron and publish his first book. The student-turned-scholar remembered this man’s face and said in sadness, “No thanks. There was a time when you could have had me for a pair of shoes.”
And from Midrash Tehillim:
Rabbi Joshua, the son of Levi, said: at the time that a human being is walking down the road, a host of angels walks before him, crying out, saying make way for the created image of God.
How do we live in this paradox, this absolute tension between these two impulses Jewish tradition presents us with? I am but dust and ashes. The world was created for me.