Sotah 14

Close to you.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of b’tzelem Elohim — the Jewish teaching that human beings are created in God’s image. There are numerous takes on this, one of my favorites coming from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, which notes that while coins minted by humans are indistinguishable from one another, the divine stamp on each person makes us all look different. 

Today’s daf offers a teaching related to that principle, suggesting that being created in the image of God is not about we look, but about how we act. 

We start with an inquiry from Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Hanina:

What is the meaning of that which is written: “After the Lord your God shall you walk” (Deuteronomy 13:5)? But is it possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? But hasn’t it already been stated: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24).

Given the comparison between God and fire, Rabbi Hama is concerned that walking too closely to God might get you burned. And frankly, don’t we have another biblical example, from the Tower of Babel story, of trying to get too near God? All in all, perhaps sticking close to God isn’t the best idea.

Dismissing this idea, Rabbi Hama then goes on to answer his own rhetorical question:

Rather, one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He. 

Just as He clothes the naked, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, you clothe the naked. 

Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick, as it is written (with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision): “And the Lord appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so too, you visit the sick. 

Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners, as it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, you console mourners. 

Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead, as it is written: “And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, you bury the dead.

Rabbi Hama suggests that what the verse in Deuteronomy means when it says to walk after God is to act as God acts. He then points to several examples of God’s own behavior — providing clothing to the naked, visiting the sick, consoling mourners and burying the dead — and encourages human beings to do the same. 

This is frankly a lovely passage, concretely laying out specific actions so we know what’s expected of us. While the general encouragement in Deuteronomy 13:5 to stick with God leaves tons of interpretive wiggle room, Rabbi Hama’s teaching is highly particular, laying out exactly how we ought to behave. This in turn offers a different read on the concept of b’tzelem Elohim, reminding us that not only do people reflect God’s image, but that this entails acting toward them in benevolent ways. 

Read all of Sotah 14 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 12th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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