In God’s Image: B’tselem Elohim

Jewish texts teach that all humans are created in the image of God.


“We are created in the image of God, if you will, and we are obliged to return the favor.”
Rabbi Arthur Green

I was recently on an overnight flight. A young woman who sat on my left was rather unfriendly. I ignored the slight until, by chance, I was actually introduced to her a few days later. “We’ve actually met,” I said. “We sat next to each other on our flight over.” Her face reddened. She was clearly embarrassed. “I had no idea it was you.”

Many people have shared similar stories with me. They weren’t treated like a someone until they were recognized as a someone. There’s a saying out there: “Be careful how you treat people on the way up because you never know who you will meet on the way down.” That expression doesn’t quite capture the dignity of what it means to be a human being but merely what it means to be politically expedient.

Two Hasidic Tales

The best of such encounters is captured in two Hasidic tales. The first is about a pious, well-known but poorly dressed Hasidic 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.”

Rabbi Art Green‘s quote is taken from his book Seek My Face in an essay about God’s image. Looking back at his quote, we ask ourselves what it means to be created in God’s image. It is not only a description of our creative powers; it is also a statement of responsibility about the way that we treat others. Do we see God in them? Do we recognize that all people are created in this image, not just famous people or people who can serve us in some way?

Rabbi Green continues and elaborates on this responsibility: “The inner drive to imitate the ever-giving source of life calls forth in us an unceasing flow of love, generosity of spirit, and full acceptance, both of ourselves and of all God’s creatures.” In the ideal sense, if we truly believe we are all created in God’s image we have to recognize everyone around us at all times. The Hasidic stories of these two men surface the rather superficial way that we so often acknowledge or ignore the existence of others.

Perhaps this explains the saying from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that we are to greet everyone with a pleasant face. We shine upon others in order to help others shine and to validate their sense of self-worth. The worth of a person is not transactional; who are you that I should pay attention to you? The better question to ask when we withhold our attentions is: who am I that I should ignore you?

Reprinted with permission from the author.

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