Parashat Noah: The answer to the unasked question

‘CAIN LEADETH Abel to death,’ James Tissot, 1896-1902: ‘Why is it forbidden to murder?’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘CAIN LEADETH Abel to death,’ James Tissot, 1896-1902: ‘Why is it forbidden to murder?’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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 emerged from it, received the laws of God and marched toward the Promised Land.
The first two parashot do not deal with the people of Israel but with the basis of human existence. They are universal parashot that express 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; et al.
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 would 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 take place still 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 based on 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, every person – of any race, religion or gender – is holy, and harm to him or her is desecration of the sacred, intolerable defamation, defamation that must not even be imagined.
As 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 was walking with his students. They asked him, ‘Rabbi, where are you going?’ He answered, ‘To fulfill a commandment!’ They asked him, ‘And what commandment is that?’ He answered, ‘To bathe in the bathhouse.’ They asked him: ‘But is that really a commandment?’ He answered: ‘Yes. If 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 he is rewarded for this, and furthermore 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 have called this trait “knowledge” and others who called it “choice” or 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 that can be drawn to a specific act and yet choose a different one. Man can want to steal yet tell himself to listen to the sound 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.
Truthfully, it is just as important that each and every one of us learns to acknowledge our own worth. 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, a life of self-worth and of appreciating others.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.