Parshat Bereshit introduces the idea that all humankind was created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. Ancient and modern interpreters alike view this as a foundational concept about the value of life.
Rabbi Akiva is cited in Pirkei Avot as teaching that “beloved is the person created in God’s image.” The awareness that we are created in God’s image is a reminder of God’s love for humankind. In another midrash Hillel Hazaken cites this concept as the halakhic source for the mitzvah to care for our physical bodies as he was on his way to wash at the bathhouse. Yet another midrash explains that when we “shame” others, we are in fact shaming the likeness of God. So, the midrashic conception of tzelem Elokim ranges from the imperative to physically care for our bodies, to acting humanely and with love toward others. In other sources, creativity and procreation are seen as enhancing the divine image, while murder is the ultimate diminishing of tzelem Elokim in this world.
Two contemporary rabbis and great thinkers expand on these ideas. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg defines tzelem Elokim as meaning that humans are created with infinite value, equality and uniqueness which should be used to enhance human relationships and improve the world. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow writes that the concept of the Divine image is the basis for all interpersonal mitzvot, and also teaches us to relate to the physical body and pleasure positively, within the framework of Jewish law.
Now in particular, as we grapple with loss and with loved ones struggling with emotional well-being, “tzelem Elokim” reminds us of the preciousness of every life and the duty to protect and save lives. May we all find ways to see the tzelem Elokim in ourselves and others. Shabbat Shalom.
Creation of Adam by Michelangelo