This time last year, I was packing boxes, finishing the legal documents to close on our new home two hundred miles away, saying farewell to the many people I care about living around Lake Tahoe. It was a tumultous time, given that moving and changing jobs are two of the highest stressors people encounter in their lives. And I had a sick daughter and a husband who hated where he was living. And I threw my hips out with the packing. And I had no job prospects. And yet, I was excited for the new adventure, carrying a faith that we could handle how it might unfold. My daughter is healthy, happy and working. My hips have recovered. Our home is beautiful and cozy and my husband is thriving in his year round garden. I have a part time job at a school combining two wonderful temple communities, working with wonderful spiritual leaders, and a caring community of parents and children. I am joyfully officiating weddings throughout the Bay Area—in redwood forests, vineyards, on the San Francisco Bay, all over. I will begin teaching adults again through an exciting program, Kevah. I feel blessed to be surrounded by friends and supportive colleagues. We are in an entirely different space than we were this time last year.
And as Jews, we start our cycle again, learning again that in the beginning, or in the midst of the beginning, Elohim created the universe from tohu va’vohu – welter and waste, chaos… and then, after great cycles of creation, got around to creating humanity—in the image of the divine.
And as we start again, we recognize that each of us reading the text, studying it, thinking about it, each of us is different from who we were, where we were, what we thought this time last year. Not everyone has lived the changes my family has. Some have had more consequential changes, while others less so. But each of us, in our journey around the sun, on our journey inward or outward in company or alone, has changed. And so the text sounds a little different.
We read about creation, of everything, and about our species, and this year, I find myself affected by what we lived through this summer, in Ferguson, Missouri, and what we have lived through with the discussions about violence against women and against young black men.
This past Monday, the New York Times published an Op-Ed piece by Kate Mann that explored what is happening in the way black young men are being shot and killed by police, let alone civilians, in Ferguson, in St. Louis, in a long list of places. She proposes that it isn’t because the police don’t recognize the humanity of the young black man surrendering before them, but because they DO recognize it, but as threatening and dangerous. They must be put in their place in the human hierarchy, not as equals, but as less than. Less than in the way George Orwell noted that some of us are more equal than others.
Aaron Dorfman, writing for the American Jewish World Service, notes that this torah portion, the first one as we start from the beginning of the scroll, also creates separation and division – there is light AND dark, heavens AND earth, water AND dry land. This human response to the world, to categorize and judge starts here in the first chapter, and could—and has—led to bias and discrimination. Think of all the ways in which being left-handed has been denigrated over the centuries. And certainly being black, or a woman. I remember the day I inspected my brand new Roget’s Thesaurus, a Bat Mitzvah gift, looking for synonyms for man and woman, and was appalled at the list of names that were synonymous with my gender…
But within our Torah portion, each of the pairs taken together is deemed tov, good. Each part of the pair is required to make a whole picture, a unity.
Or as Prince Hal notes in Henry IV, Part 1 (Act I, Scene 2),
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished for come.
In other words, we need them both for each to shine.
Being created in the image of the divine means, to me, that divinity does not come in one color or one gender or one nationality or one sexual orientation or one ability or disability or one religion, but encompasses all of them. A child working as a slave on a cocoa farm in the Ivory Coast has the same spark of divinity as I do or as the farm owner. A girl in Afghanistan trying to go to school has the same holiness in her as a boy attending Eton. A Shia Muslim cleric shares that certain holy factor with a rabbi. And Michael Brown has the same image of divinity within him as his killer.
What does that say about divinity, let alone humanity?
Rabbi Rami Shapiro noted in his book The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness that the original intention of creation of humankind was that we would be created in the image AND likeness of the divine, but in the end we were only created in the image… Shapiro’s theory is that we each carry that holy spark, but we have to activate it, through intentional good. Our image of the holy only becomes the likeness when we choose to act in holy ways. It is that partnership that finally elevates us beyond our animal selves.
This means that Michael Brown and his killer can both have the image of the Ground of Being within them, but each of them must activate it to achieve the likeness.
And that choice, within religious and spiritual people, can be so challenging. Do we look at each person as holding that spark, waiting to be activated or do we look at them as less than we are, because they practice a different level of observance, or worship a different name, or have different body parts or colors?
Rebbe Nachman of Breslav taught that each of us has a point of good in us, and it is our responsibility to find that spark in both others and in ourselves, and nurture it so that we can each flourish and so that we can all flourish.
Does the idea of us each representing a different image of the holy encourage us to treat others with respect or does it continue to separate us from each other?
Or can we see each other like all the components of Sukkot’s lulav: necessary to the survival of our species, worthy of love and respect, equal in rights to the people we love?
As we start the cycle again, can we take what we’ve learned this past year, the horror of Ferguson, and move ourselves, move our families, move our communities, move our species forward? Can we take small steps in our circles of influence that together can change how we treat the ones who are created in the image of holiness so that we can all activate our own likeness?
May it be so.
 Gen. 1:26 specifies that “God said: ‘Let us make humanity in our image (b’tzalmenu), after our likeness (kidmutanu).’” The next verse explained what God actually did: “And God created humanity in God’s own image (b’tzalmo), the image (b’tzelem) of God created God him.