Creating in the Image of the Divine

Parashat Bereishit 5782

One of the great ideas of the Torah is that the first human was made in God’s image. We read in chapter 1, verses 26 and 27 of Bereishit (Genesis): 

Vayomer Elohim, na-aseh adam b’tzalmeinu ki-d’moteinu… Vayivra Elohim et ha-adam b’tzalmo. B’tzelem elohim bara oto, zachar u’nikeiva bara oto. God said, “Let us make adam in our image, after our likeness… And God created adam in God’s image, in the image of God did God create (adam).

The idea of the first human being created in the image of the Divine was a radical idea in the ancient Near East. Heretofore only ruling kings had considered themselves made in the image or likeness of a god. The Torah rejects the idea that only the powerful and elite bear a resemblance to the divine, and asserts emphatically that we are all endowed with characteristics of the Sovereign of Sovereigns. We hear echoes of this assertion later in the Torah when we learn that the entire People of Israel is to be “holy” because God, their Creator and Ruler, is holy. Nowadays, we believe the Torah calls us to live lives of godliness — to become partners with God in creating a more perfect world and to extend to one another the same attributes of lovingkindness and justice that our tradition associates with God.

In chapter 5 of Bereishit, we learn that part of what it means to be created “in God’s image, after God’s likeness,” is that we should ourselves must seek to create others in God’s image:

Va’yehi Adam sheloshim u-me’at shana va-yoled bidmuto c’tzalmo, vayikra et sh’mo Shet. When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth (Gen. 5:3).

Adam was made in God’s image, and lo and behold, Adam’s child is made in his image. The late 12th-early 13th century French commentator, Rabbi David Kimhi, suggests that the likeness that Adam has imparted to Seth is something entirely human. Just as Adam had matured into an intelligent human being capable of learning from his mistakes, so too will Seth grow in intelligence. Kimhi suggests that the reason Cain and Abel are not listed here is because they were children of the younger, more reckless, less intelligent Adam. The image that Adam wanted to impart to his offspring was, thus, first realized in Seth. 

I think there is a lesson here about parenting, specifically, but generativity and the creative enterprise, more generally. That is, in whatever we create — whether it be children or students or ideas or things of beauty — we should strive to imbue our creations with the best aspects of who we are. In the case of Adam, this meant waiting 130 years for those best aspects to emerge within himself before trying again to create another human being. Sometimes we need to be patient before embarking on the act of creation to ensure that we have the skills to fashion something worthy of our own name.

But the text in chapter 5 is ambiguous. It says that Adam begat a son “in his image, after his likeness.” Who is the “his” here? If it is Adam, then let’s remember what Kimhi teaches us about what it takes for you and me to be creative. If, on the other hand, the “his” is engendered language referring to God, then perhaps we can find different meaning in the teaching of his Spanish contemporary Nahmanides, or Ramban.

Ramban teaches:

Obviously every living thing begotten from another living thing is in its likeness and after its image. This verse is telling us that Adam begot a son in God’s likeness, after God’s image, just as Adam himself had originally been (The Commentator’s Bible: Genesis, p. 58). 

Ramban’s view is shared by the Eitz Chayim Torah and Commentary, where we read “The first two human beings transmitted ‘the image of God’ in themselves to all future generations” (p. 30).

What Rambam and the Eitz Chayim teach us is that we are passing on to our children more than our own DNA, even more than our own character traits, for better or for worse. When we raise children or express generativity in other ways, we are transmitting something much larger and greater than ourselves. We are transmitting the very image and likeness of God that has been handed down to us from the time of Adam and Eve. 

What a responsibility! On one hand, we need to be capable stewards of God’s image. We need to give it exercise. We need to show it off. We need to nurture it so that God’s very being is experienced in the world. On the other hand, we must realize that God’s image is not for our own glorification but for the glorification of humanity for all time. We must be capable stewards, but we also must be capable teachers. To use a metaphor from track and field, we have to be careful that the baton does not get dropped as we pass it off to the next generation.

Ultimately, I think both Kimhi and Ramban are correct. Through our creative acts, we reproduce the best and worst of ourselves, but when we strive to pass on the best of ourselves, we are also passing on the image of the Divine that we inherited from those who came before us. To be a good steward is to care for that image of the Divine within each of us — to allow the Godliness within us to flourish. When we are ready to pass that picture of Godliness onto others, we must do so with utmost love and care.

Perhaps Adam needed to live 130 years before he was prepared to transmit his own image to his child. Perhaps, too, he needed that time to understand how to care for and nurture the image and likeness of God himself and to feel confident that he could then teach his child. It is my prayer that we can follow in Adam’s footsteps in our own, much shorter lifetimes, so that the best of us will flourish in future generations and God’s image will continue to shine light on the world.

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