Shabbat Message: To See the Divine Image in Every Human Face

Posted on October 16, 2020 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

Our Rabbis, of blessed memory, said that certain verses in the Torah call out to us: “darsheini!” Interpret me! notice me! learn and teach me!

This week as we return to b’reishit, to the beginning of the Torah, we encounter so many profound words, stories and values that demand our attention. But this year, as we face so many challenges, I hear one verse, one teaching in particular, crying out to us: “Darsheini!”

It is a teaching so fundamental to our being, so foundational to our existence that it informs all that we are and all that we do. As we read in Genesis 1 verse 27:

“And God created the human being in the Divine image, in the image of God the Eternal created humankind; male and female God created them.”

Our Rabbis heard these words demand their attention and they heeded its call: darsheini!

In one midrash they taught that God took dust from the four corners of the earth, of every color and hue, and breathed into it the divine spirit, the breath of life.

Another midrash teaches that a single human couple was created so no one could say, “my people are better than your people because we are one people, one human family, all the offspring of Adam and Eve.

These words of Torah speak to us today, saying: Open your hearts and minds. Open your eyes to see and understand that when you see your fellow, as when you look in the mirror, you see the image of God; you see something sacred, something of infinite value.

We need to hear these words today because it is so painfully clear that too many of God’s children either have not heard them or refuse to heed them. Too many treat their sisters and brothers as “others,” as less than, and that is a desecration of God’s image.

But on this Shabbat b’reishit, as we return to the roots of our being and our values, we should also remember how it looks and feels when we do see and honor the divine image in one another.

In an essay entitled, “The Kindness of Strangers,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shared one such example.

It is the story of an eleven-year-old black boy who moved with his parents and family to a white neighborhood in Washington in 1966. Sitting with his two brothers and two sisters on the front step of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not.

Passers-by turned to look at them, but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Years later, writing about those first days in their new home, he says, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here . . .”

As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!”

Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream-cheese and jelly sandwiches which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment – the young man later wrote – changed his life. It gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before. It made him realize… that a black family could feel at home in a white area and that there could be relationships that were color-blind.

Over the years, he learned to admire much about the woman across the street, but it was that first spontaneous act of greeting that became, for him, a definitive memory. It broke down a wall of separation and turned strangers into friends.

The young man, Stephen Carter, eventually became a law professor at Yale and wrote a book about what he learned that day. He called it Civility. The name of the woman, he tells us, was Sara Kestenbaum, and she died all too young.

He adds that it was no coincidence that she was a religious Jew. “In the Jewish tradition,” he notes, such civility is called “chesed – the doing of acts of kindness – which is in turn derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God.”

“… To this day,” he adds, “I can close my eyes and feel on my tongue the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming… [kindness] can change a life forever.”

May we never fail to see the image of God in ourselves, in one another, and in every human face. And may be inspired on this Shabbat of beginnings to honor that image in everything we say and do.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Arnie Gluck