Parashat Noah: The answer to the unasked question

The fact that we were created “in the image of God” means we must not degrade the value of others or of ourselves.

By
November 3, 2016 18:18
4 minute read.
Painting by Yoram Raanan

Painting by Yoram Raanan. (photo credit: PAINTING BY YORAM RAANAN)

 
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The first two parashot in the Torah, Bereishit and Noah, act as a sort of preface to the Torah’s central story.

The main part of the Torah is the story of a family and of a nation, of fathers and mothers, of tribes that were in exile and then left it, received the laws of God and marched toward the Promised Land.

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By contrast, the first two parashot do not deal with the people of Israel but with the basis of human existence.

They are universal, expressing a position on the most basic of foundations: the concept of Creation; the world as good or bad; work and rest; relationships; man versus sin; sin and punishment, and more.

As such, we are not surprised to find that in this week’s parasha of Noah, we find the answer to one of the most difficult of questions, a question that concerns almost no one, and yet if humanity were to adopt the answer that the Torah provides for this question, untold suffering would be prevented. The question is: Why is it forbidden to murder? We should note this is a question we are not supposed to ask. Even the Torah does not ask it. It is man’s basic instinct that tells him that murder is the most serious thing one can imagine. On the other hand, we must not be blind to the past or to the present. Murders have taken place all through human history and still take place today, sometimes in horrifying measure.

Therefore, despite the Torah not asking the question, it does provide an answer.

This is what God says to Noah and his sons: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).



This is the answer to the unasked question. It is forbidden to murder, because man was created in the “image of God.”

What is the meaning of the term “image of God”? Commentators have wrestled with this for thousands of years. But in all explanations, the basic meaning is the same: Man is different from the rest of creation and is unique in one trait, due to which he is considered as representing holiness in reality. Therefore, any person of any race, religion or gender is holy, and harm to him or her is defiling the sacred, intolerable desecration, desecration that must not even be imagined.

For an example of this Jewish concept, let us read what is told of one of the greatest of Jewish sages about 2,000 years ago, Hillel the Elder, whose beit midrash (seminary) was famously called Beit Hillel, the House of Hillel: Hillel the Elder, when he took leave of his students, would walk with them. They asked him, “Rabbi, where are you walking to?” He said to them, “To fulfill a commandment!” They said to him, “And which commandment is that?” He said to them, “To bathe in the bathhouse.” They said to him: “But is that really a commandment?” He said to them: “Yes. Just as in the case of the statues [lit. icons] of kings that are set up in the theaters and the circuses, the one who is appointed over them bathes them and scrubs them, and they give him sustenance and, what is more, he attains status with the leaders of the kingdom, I, who was created in the [Divine] image and form, even more so!” (Leviticus Raba 34:3).

Why does man represent God? What is the quality that makes man unique in relation to all other creatures? There are those who called this trait “knowledge” and others who called it “choice” or gave other definitions. It seems that most commentators aimed at the same point: Man is the only creation with the power to make moral decisions.

As opposed to other creatures that act based on natural instincts alone, man is the only creature who can be drawn to a specific act and yet choose a different one. Man can want to steal and yet tell himself to listen to the voice of his moral conscience and choose not to. Man can get angry and yet abstain from reacting in a way that hurts another. Man can think of betraying someone’s trust in him, yet stop himself because of a moral decision.

In truth, it is just as important that each and every one of us learns to acknowledge his or her own worth.

The fact that we were created “in the image of God” means we must not degrade the value of others or of ourselves.

Thus, the Torah set out the foundation of human existence: life with the awareness of holiness, of self-worth and the acknowledgment of the value of others.

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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