Bid’mut Elohim

Bid’mut Elohim – Rosh Hashanah 5764 (2003)

Every year, I prepare to speak with you. Every year, I try to find something to say that will be worth listening to. These next ten days will be the only chance I have to share my thoughts with most of you at such length for another year. That makes this an awesome privilege, and a daunting challenge.

This year has been a little different. Not because I don’t have anything to say – anyone who knows me even a little knows that’s not a problem! – but because I’ve been struggling with an issue that at first seemed to have more to do with social action than spirituality.

For me, there are two key requirements for every sermon: first of all, it must be grounded in some genuine, meaningful Jewish issue. And secondly, there must be room for you to find meaning in what I say even if you don’t agree with me.

That’s what makes this such a delicious challenge.

I discovered, as I wrestled with myself and what to say, that the issue I thought in the beginning was mainly about social action was really about a fundamental issue of Jewish spirituality. And conversely, I re-learned the lesson that in Judaism, what makes us holy is the actions we take, more than the things we believe.

So today I’d like to share some thoughts with you, thoughts that have two components: a fundamental issue of Judaism, and an important social issue. My hope is that, by the time I’m through, you’ll find something that stirs you to look at the world just a little bit differently.

It all begins, as most things should, with a story.

Some time ago, there was a Jew who lived in a small town in the old country. Let’s call him Rafael. Now in this town, there were other Jews, but not many. Most of the Jews kept to themselves, for while the other townspeople were not cruel, many of them looked upon the Jews with suspicion, a suspicion born of ignorance. Of course, not all of the other townspeople felt this way, but many did, and spoke loudly of their mistrust. So the Jews stayed to themselves, living quiet lives. And the town ignored them, most of the time. And so it had been for many years, and so it seemed it would always be.

Then one day, in another country, some other Jews came upon hard times. Unlike the Jews of this town, who were Ashkenazim, these beleaguered Jews were Sephardim. Their ruler stole from them, and beat them, all the time wearing the smile of a friend to the rest of the world. And so Rafael, this one Jew in a small town so far away, resolved to do something. He resolved to do something, despite the fact that these others were so far away, and despite the fact that they were Sephardim.

Quietly, trying not to arouse the rest of the town, Rafael approached his brethren and asked them to help. And quietly, for week after week, he collected food, and clothing, and whatever shekels people could spare to send to those in need. He did it quietly, for he knew that in his town, and in his land, the fear and ignorance of many would be aroused by such an activity. Those who were already filled with mistrust would cry out against a conspiracy of the Jews, and who knows what price would have to be paid?

So Rafael, along with his brethren, worked quietly, determinedly, peacefully.

Now in the beginning, when he would approach someone and ask them for help, many of those he asked would be a little reluctant. Perhaps they were wary of getting into trouble, or perhaps they felt they did not have enough to give, for these were difficult times for all the members of the town, Jews and non-Jews alike.

So he would tell them a story from the Talmud, for he loved the Talmud, and loved to share what he had learned.

“Years ago,” he would say, “a man once came to Rabbi Shammai. This man was a pretentious man, and though he was not a Jew, he admired the accomplishments of the Jews around him. He thought to himself, ‘If only I were a Jew, I would live an easier life!’ For he truly did not understand what it meant to be a Jew.

“So this man came to Rabbi Shammai, all full of himself, and his importance, and of the value of his time.

“‘Rabbi Shammai,’ he said, ‘I want to be a Jew.’

“Rabbi Shammai simply looked at him, his eyes filled with healthy cynicism.

“‘Rabbi Shammai,’ he continued, ‘I want you to tell me the essence of Judaism.’ For he thought that by learning just the essence, he could quickly reap the benefits of being Jewish. ‘And,’ he continued, impatiently, glancing up at the sun in the sky, ‘I want you to teach me while you are standing on one foot.’ For he knew that whenever he asked a Jew a simple question, he always got many answers.

“Rabbi Shammai raised an eyebrow and curled his finger toward the man, inviting him to step closer. As he did, the Rabbi struck him hard with his walking stick, turned on his heel, and strode away.”

At this, the people listening to Rafael would laugh as the proud man got his comeuppance. Then Rafael would continue.

“The man was undaunted. He knew of another Rabbi, Rabbi Hillel, and so he went to him with the same demand. ‘I want you to teach me the essence of Judaism, and teach it while you are standing on one foot.’

“Rabbi Hillel lifted an eyebrow, and the man cowered for a moment, afraid he was going to be struck again. But then the Rabbi lifted one foot and said to the man, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary – now go and study.’ And then the Rabbi turned on his heel and walked away.”

At this, the people would sigh thoughtfully, and Rafael would speak to them of what it meant to be a good neighbor, even when one’s neighbor was far away, and sooner or later, those people listening would agree to help. Some would give clothes, some would give money, some would give the wares they made or the wares they sold. And so it continued for a while: Rafael would collect things of value from his small village, and send them off to the Sephardim. In fact, while he always remained discreet, even some of the non-Jews heard of his campaign, and helped out as well.

Before I go on, I must share with you something that I learned as I was preparing for today. The message of the story of Shammai and Hillel – the centrality of the Golden Rule within Judaism – is a message that is repeated in every major religion. But Rabbi Hillel’s phrasing of it – What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor – has always seemed rather negative to me, rather limiting. Where is the call for positive action? It really seems to say, don’t hurt your neighbor, but it doesn’t make a forceful call for proactive assistance.

Elsewhere in Torah – Leviticus 19:18, to be precise – that principle is stated positively. It says: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a much more forceful statement of the need to be active in our assistance and treatment of others. It made me curious: was there something about this statement that the Rabbis found lacking, that Rabbi Hillel should not have quoted it directly?

So I looked further. I discovered that there was an argument between the Rabbis as to which was the most important verse in Torah: which verse captured the true essence of Judaism. Rabbi Akiba proposed that very line from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But Rabbi Ben Azzai disagreed.

He argued that a more important line comes from Genesis, from one of the texts we traditionally study today. His nominee comes from the fifth chapter, and refers to the creation of Adam. It says: “in the likeness of God He made him.” Why did Ben Azzai choose this line? There are many possible reasons; probably more than one are correct.

For one thing, the golden rule does not mention God. It places an ethical imperative upon our behavior, without imposing a theological basis. Azzai’s choice, on the other hand, indicates that the reason we follow the golden rule is precisely because we are each created in God’s image. As Rabbi Tanhuma said, when commenting on Azzai’s choice: “If you shame your neighbor, know Whom you put to shame.” In other words, we offend God when we shame our neighbor, for each of us is made in God’s image.

An old midrash offers another explanation. The command to love your neighbor as yourself can be interpreted as applying only to our neighbors. Now, it is important to remember that for those who originally composed the ancient midrashim, neighbor usually meant fellow Jew, whereas stranger or an unspecified person meant anyone, Jewish or not. So the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself could be interpreted as extending to other Jews, but no further. on the other hand, recalling that we are made in God’s image – all of humanity, not just Jews – drives home the point that all people are to be treated according to the standards of the Golden Rule.

So, one advantage of remembering that we are made in God’s image is that it reminds us of why we must treat others well; another is that it makes it clear that this treatment should extend to all humanity, not merely to other Jews.

Now, let me continue with this more modern midrash. Recall, Rafael has been recruiting help for those distant Jews, and using the Golden Rule as his persuasion.

Eventually, he would win most people over. But then, the unexpected happened.

One day, a local soldier came upon a shipment bound for the Jews of that far off land. The soldier believed that the mere act of shipping clothes to Jews in that other land was an act of treason. He recognized one of the cloaks as being Rafael’s, and his hatred grew. He returned to his commander, and told him what he had found. The next day, soldiers appeared at the homes of hundreds of the most prominent Jews in the town, and interrogated them. The soldiers demanded that they admit that they were Jews, to declare if their parents had been Jews, whether they loved their country, whether they hated non-Jews, all kinds of questions. Of course, the soldiers assumed that the hearts of the Jews were full of treason against their country. They took Rafael and his closest friends, proclaimed them to be traitors, and locked Rafael up in prison, where they held him for weeks, denying his family the chance to see him, and wreaking havoc upon his business.

It was a horrifying event. It sent shivers through all of the Jews of the community. So what happened?

Before I answer that question, I want you to imagine something. Imagine that this is not a midrash, but a true story.

Imagine for a moment that there are some Jews today in Kyrgyzstan who are in trouble. And imagine, if you will, that a congregation in Russia organizes a fund to help those Jews. Now the Russian Jews know that it is dangerous for the Jews in Kyrgyzstan, and they also know that the Russian government will not take kindly to their supporting their Kyrgyzstani brethren. So they organize their fund quietly, peacefully, and carry forward their plan to send money, food and medicine to those Kyrgyzstani Jews.

Now imagine that these Russian Jews are discovered. What happens? Well, in true Russian style, the leaders are arrested, thrown in jail, and held without bail. And hundreds of Jews in the area are interrogated, all in a grand sweep, and questioned about their dedication to Judaism, their ancestry, their commitment to Russia, and so on.

Learning of this, what should our reaction be? Who should we cry out to: a Jewish agency? Our Senators and Representatives? The Russian embassy? And what should we say?

Should we not tell these people of the Golden Rule? Or even better, of the fact that we are all made in God’s image, and deserve to be treated fairly?

Now this phrase made in God’s image is a tricky one, in more ways than you might imagine. First of all, it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t mean “image” literally, for none of us believe in a God that has two arms, two legs, and so on. So how do we understand this phrase? By taking “God’s image” to mean “having the qualities of God.” But then, of course, we get into a very interesting discussion of what God’s qualities are, and which of those qualities we share with God.

As it turns out, I think Rabbi Ben Azzai knew a little more than he let on when he chose that particular verse: in the likeness of God He made him. You see, when we normally refer to being made in God’s image, we quote from the first chapter of Genesis and use the phrase b’tzelem Elohim: in the image of God He created him. But Ben Azzai chose a passage with a different phrase: bid’mut Elohim, in the likeness of God. What is the difference?

Tzelem is a word whose secondary meaning is likeness; its primary meaning is an image, specifically of idols. If we were going to say that an idol was made in the image of the god that the people were worshipping, we would use the word tzelem.

Damah, the root of the word in the second phrase, has a single meaning: to be like. So the second phrase tells us that we are in fact like God; the first implies (through its primary meaning) that we are like little toys, little pottery idols, little playthings for God. So that is why I think Rabbi Ben Azzai knew what he was doing: rather than pick the common phrase, the familiar saying that everyone knew was true, he looked deeper. He looked into the heart of the matter, and sought out the true meaning of what was being said. Then he took action.

Now, let me return to the midrash. Or rather, to the real story.

This is not a story about the happenings in some far off land. And it’s not the story of what happened in Russia. It’s a story of what happened right here, in our country. In fact, in our community.

And it’s not a story of something that happened a long time ago, or even a few years ago. It’s the story of what happened this past February.

“What?” you say, “This happened in Syracuse? This past winter? I didn’t hear anything about Jews being rounded up for interrogations!”

No, you didn’t. Because it didn’t happen to Jews. It happened to 150 members of our community who share the closest ties to us of any religion in the world. It happened to 150 of our Muslim brothers and sisters.

I won’t get into the details of the charges against the leaders, for at that level, there are still a lot of shades of grey. And I don’t want to say that the principal characters were without blame, for again, there is still a lot to be learned. But consider this:

Hundreds of very good, well-meaning people decided that the children of Iraq needed our help. Almost all of these people were Muslims. And, out of their convictions for peace and justice, they decided that those children in that far off land needed their help. And so help they did.

But in the last two years, fear of Muslims in general has risen, particularly within our government. And now, Muslims are being treated like conspirators, like traitors, like less-than-citizens, like less-than-human.

Now, you may argue that since the terrorists who attacked our country came from Muslim countries, we have a right to protect ourselves by treating all Muslims suspiciously. But I believe that if you hold that claim up to the light of day, it withers. And if you hold it up to the light of Torah, it shatters.

We are made to be like God. on the one hand, this means that all people share a common bond, that each of us must be treated with equality and respect. It means we must treat each other fairly, with justice and compassion. Interrogating 150 people in our small community merely on the basis of their religion and – let us be honest, their appearance – is neither just nor compassionate. It is fearful, and fear-based. As Jews, we have been the victims of precisely that fear and hatred in the past. We have been called traitors, accused of belonging to some secret conspiracy, of not being true Americans, of being killers in our hearts. Just as our Muslim brethren have been accused.

Even more importantly, we must act like God – bid’mut Elohim – to the best of our ability. We must speak up for those who are oppressed, even when they remind us of people who hate us. For we must never judge another simply on the basis of their religion or their appearance. It is anti-American, and it is anti-Jewish.

But most of all, we must learn the lessons of Rabbi Ben Azzai: First, we must never think of people as playthings, but as beings who were made by God, and made to be like God. And second, we must always look beneath the surface, discarding in an instant the common knowledge to seek out the truth. And then, finally, as our Judaism teaches us, we must take action.

For then we will begin to become like God: to see clearly, and to act with justice and compassion.

May this year be one in which you rekindle that spark of God within you, then rediscover and nurture it amongst all our neighbors, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu.

© 2003-2007 James F. Brulé