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"Is Humanity Created in the Divine Image?" Transcription: Rabbi Ilana's Breishit Sermon (29 Tishrei, 5784)

10/14/2023 08:00:00 PM


Rabbi Ilana

To watch the sermon as it was delivered on Shabbat, click here and scroll to 50 minutes in.

Our bat-mitzvah girl, Ella, gave an insightful interpretation of the phrase that repeats itself throughout the first chapter of Genesis: וירא כי טוב, And God saw that it was good. She said that the world isn’t really all that good. It’s messy. It’s violent. It can be ugly. And yet, in God’s eyes, it was good enough. And that is liberating, to know that it is ok for things to be good enough.

God could say the world was good enough, because creation was not the end of the story, but the beginning. The world God created was good enough, to be home for the first human being, created in God’s image. The first human, whom God blessed to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the land and conquer it. Conquer it.

The world God created was so far from perfect, that the third human being - Cain - killed the fourth human being - Abel. That’s also in this week’s Torah portion. 

But this world - our human world - is also a place of desire, and creativity, tender intimacy, and beauty.  We see all of that on display in this week’s Torah portion, too, and in our lives every day. Even on the worst days, if we look for it.

Genesis does not describe the world as we wish it to be, but as it is, where great ugliness and great beauty exist side-by-side. 

And because we know that the co-existence is good enough, for now, we permit ourselves to enjoy Shabbat, and to celebrate an amazing young person becoming bat-mitzvah, even as we are aware of tremendous darkness.

We can do both at once. We can cry and laugh at the same moment. Because the world is messy.

We are holding on to so many, different, intense emotions right now.

Ella also suggested that for her, as for many of us, Judaism is our language for expressing our humanity. When she and I were studying together, she said such touching things about the importance of Shabbat. For you Ella, I really wanted to write a sermon about Judaism, and Shabbat. Not about good enough, just about good.

Instead, after the events of this past week, I need to talk about humanity. And to ask if “good enough” even applies?

What was unleashed on Israel last Saturday was so vile, so animalistic. Where these really human beings that did such things? We are told that all of humanity was created in the image of God. Where was the tselem Elohim, the divine image, on that day? 

The stories of the past week brought out for many of our intergenerational trauma. Flashbacks to the Holocaust. We carry transmitted memories of dehumanization. Those memories were reawakened last week. We rage against it.  We never, ever wanted to feel that way again. Israel is our shield against those feelings, our safe haven. How could such things happen there? This can’t be what it means to be Jewish!

And then, for me at least, my stress level went down as I saw that the IDF had regained control of the situation. Also as I saw Israelis uniting across what had seemed, just last week, to be an existentially threatening political divide. What a relief, that sense of solidarity.

But as we are beginning to breathe again, the death toll in Gaza is climbing. And we know that many, many of the dead are innocent. Families just trying to survive. Humanitarian workers, drawn to bring healing to places of suffering. They are pawns in this horrific struggle, and my heart weeps and rages for them, too.

And - as flyers went up on college campuses applauding the brutalities of last Saturday. As students are made to feel unsafe in Jewish spaces. As carefully worded emails went out to school and work communities, offering sympathy to all involved but refusing to name the inhumanity of Hamas - it is hard to feel anything but defensive anger. 

What does it mean to be Jewish? 

And are ALL human beings created in the image of God?

These are questions that we grapple with for a lifetime. Not to be answered on a single Saturday morning, but I will lift up two stories that may bring us a little closer to understanding.

The first story was reported in the Times of Israel. It comes from the town of Ofakim, just five minutes from Adi Negev. Though we heard from Ella that Adi Negev was, thankfully, spared the violence, Ofakim was not. An older couple, Rachel and David, were sitting quietly at home last Saturday, when their house was invaded by 5 terrorists.

The terrorists were armed with guns and handgrenades, and they told Rachel and David that they were there to kill them. Given everything else that happened that day, they clearly meant it. But for some reason they hesitated. Was it the warmth of Rachel’s smile? Did David and Rachel remind them of their own parents?

The couple was terrified, but they tried not to show it. Rachel in particular treated them like guests in her home, rather than as terrorists come to kill her. She offered them coffee and cookies. One of them was wounded, and she bandaged his wound.

Rachel was so successful in distracting her captors, and making them feel comfortable, at one point the terrorists began singing songs by an Israeli pop star, Lior Narkis. It’s almost impossible to imagine!

In the meantime, policemen were gathering outside the house. Rachel and David’s son, Evyatar, is a police officer and he was there with his colleagues, right outside his parents’ home. Evyatar’s presence was a huge advantage, because he knew the layout of the house. 

The police began negotiating with the terrorists. Evyatar could see his parents, just meters away, but no one not let on that he was anything special to them. The negotiations gave the police time to gather information and make a plan. One of them asked how many men were inside the house. Rachel held five fingers across her face - five terrorists.

Eventually, the police scaled the walls and broke in through a skylight in the shower - that Evyatar had guided them to. אתם חיים, אתם חיים! You’re alive, you’re alive, Evyatar cried as he held his parents in a tight embrace. They were unhurt and free.

We know that the vast majority of stories did not go anything like that last Saturday. There was no room for negotiations. No crack for the tselem Elohim, the divine image, to shine through. But for some reason, in this one instance, the crack was there. These five men were just hesitant enough about killing another human being, that Rachel could see across the great hatred and fear in that house, to tend to the humanity within her captors. And so, save herself and her husband. And also, she saved those men, from the guilt of the atrocity that they had planned to commit.

My second story comes from an American university campus. Our campuses are heated up, in a war of words and placards and - in this case - spray paint. This story was shared with me by my daughter Shira, who is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University. By the way, Ella - Shira says mazel tov.

In the middle of Hopkins campus is a sculpture of the school mascot, a giant blue jay holding a shield. And it’s part of the school culture, for student groups to sneak into the courtyard at night and spray paint messages on that shield. Early last week, someone painted an image of an Israeli flag. Shira doesn’t know who did it, but she texted me a photo of it, and it was striking. A dark stone statue, with the shield painted over bright white, with bright blue stripes and a big star. Three cobblestones leading up to the statue were painted blue & white, too.

The next day, someone else had covered over the Israeli flag with dark green paint, and in bright red the words “Free Palestine”. More bright red was splattered over the blue & white cobblestones, looking very much like fresh blood.

The student leadership of Hillel, the Jewish students organization, held an emergency meeting. Should they counter with another Israeli flag? No. The students decided to de-escalate the spray paint war. That night, they applied a thick coat of white paint over the shield. Then they sprayed in black: “Peace”, “Shalom” and “Salam” - each in the correct alphabet. 

What does it mean to be Jewish? There are as many answers to that question as there are Jews. But the original Hillel, the man who 2000 years ago was one of the founders of rabbinic Judaism, said that to be a Jew is to be a rodef Shalom - one who chases peace.

Unfortunately, no such easy solutions are available in the real war right now, in Israel and Gaza. But that contrast is important to remember. We can de-escalate our tensions at home, because here, we are not fighting for life and death. For example, a congregant forwarded to me a particularly tone-deaf note that the head of his work organization had sent out about the war. The congregant was enraged - rightfully - and was considering forwarding the email to the ADL. But that would have done nothing but escalate the frustration. I encouraged him to speak to the author of the email first. “She probably has no idea that what she wrote was offensive, and you can compassionately educate her.”  He appreciated this alternative approach.

When life is actually at stake, as it is in Israel right now, there are fewer options available. How to defend against such callous disregard for human life - ours and their own?  

I cannot comprehend the humanity of the men who attacked Israel last Saturday. And yet, and yet,  it seems likely that some of those men may have been singing Israeli rock music, the day before they let themselves become monsters.

Remember what Ella taught us. God said “Tov”, “It is good”, about a world that is, at best, good enough. There are times when the goodness of life is overrun by evil. When the divine image is completely occluded.

We need to remember that those instances are never the entire picture. It is a messy world, where awesome beauty co-exists with terrifying ugliness. 

Judaism teaches us to find the sparks of beauty, even in the spaces of greatest despair.  It teaches us to hold on to joy in the midst of sorrow. It teaches us to search for the divinity in others, even when it can be hard to find. And above all, to know that in the midst of deep darkness, the light will return. 

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784