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On Living in the Image of the Divine
Moideh Ani Lifanecha Melech Chai VeKayam SheHechezarta Bi Nishmasi BiChemla Rabbah Emunasecha.
Thank you Reboinoisheloilum for returning me to normal life, after many weeks of intense interruption caused by the weather, my vacations, my various speaking engagements, and my many visits to the newest Mikvahs in Hawaii that left me of the brink of being fired for missing so many days of work, for breaking my normal regimen, and for distracting all of my beloved donors… err … Talmidim from writing me checks… err… doing Mitzvois and supporting Limud Toirah.
I was delighted to hear Parshas Beraishis a couple of months ago as we read that humankind, all of humanity, was created Betzelem Eloykim, in the image of the Divine. What does that mean?
According to Abaya, being created Betzelem Eloykim means that we were created very tall, very smart, very good looking, with the most beautiful perfectly curled Payis that one could ever imagine.
According to Rava, being created Betzelem Eloykim means that we were created to be intense and unpredictable, one day loving our children, and the next day smiting them with a plague or two, or a Schtickel famine. One day we speak of our undying commitment to our “bride” Klal Yisroel, and the next day we cut up her credit card, take away her car keys, and trade her to the Babylonians for $50,000 in cash, a utility infielder, and a nation to be named later.
But according to Rav Ashi, Abaya and Rava spent too much time at the “bummy” Shul and drank too many shots at Kiddush. Says Rav Ashi, mankind was created Betzelem Eloykim in the sense that we, mankind, were given free will. Unlike the plants and the animals, the other living inhabitants of this earth, we are not trapped to fulfill a very basic purpose as part of an ecosystem: To capture sunlight and convert it into energy, likely a plant. To consume plants in order to survive, like an herbivore. Or to eat herbivores while the National Geographic or Discovery Network cameras are rolling, like a carnivore. No, we have a purpose beyond our basic material needs. We have large brains. We have logic that allows us to exceed our animalistic kill-or-be-killed nature. We have opposable thumbs, and tools. We have writing and communications. We have the Internet. We have NPR. We have Sitcoms. We have Netflix. And some of us even have the Toirah.
We have the ability to build airplanes and grand buildings and write poetry and perform scientific research. We have the ability to do good deeds and help others. But we also have the ability to lie and cheat and steal. And kill. We have the ability to wage war against the guilty and the innocent, and to murder on an industrial scale.
And how do we determine what to do, as individuals, as part of a community, or as part of society as a whole? We have free will. Betzelem Eloykim.
It is no coincidence that Parshas Beraishis is read following the long cycle of the Yumim Toivim, including Roish Hashanah and Yoim Kippur. On these days, and throughout the entire Aseres Yemai Teshivah, we ask Hakadoshboruchhu for acceptance, despite our inherently imperfect human natures. And why should He listen to us? “Kee Anu Amecha, VeAtta Eloykaynu; Anu Banecha, VeAtta Avinu.” “Because we are Your nation, and You are our Lord; We are Your children, and You are our father.” We are human beings. We do not always live up to the Reboinoishloilum’s expectations. But nevertheless we want Him, we pray to Him, to accept us as we are. We are complex. We are not all alike. We have diverse human natures and preferences and habits. Why? Because we have free choice. Because we were created Betzelem Eloykim.
And where does free will manifest itself? Well I am hungry right now, and I can decide to go to the kosher pizza place around the corner, have two slices and a coke, for the total price of $25. Or I can walk three blocks to McDonalds, Chass V’Sholom, and feed myself, my wife, my children, and my Einiklach, for the same $25. I can chose to keep Shabboskoidesh. Or I can desecrate Shabboskoidesh, violating the Word of Hakadoishboruchhu and risk really pissing Him off by turning on a light switch, Rachmuna Litzlan. I can choose to go to sleep at night by counting sheep (Hoyshiyah. Esss.. Amecha.. U’Varaiych…….. Esss……….. .ZZZZZZZ), or I can put myself to sleep by kneading the challah while thinking about Miley Cyrus, Claire Danes, George Clooney, or Rabbi Shmuley Boiteach, if you know what I mean.
But all of these examples are Bain Adam LaMakoim; They relate to religious commandments, rules and customs between man and the Aimishteh. But what of Bain Adam LeChaveiroi, actions that are between man and his fellow man? Whether they are actions dictated by the Toirah, or common rules of basic humanity, of society? Again, we are guided by our fundamental nature of being created Betzelem Eloykim. We have free will. We have free choice.
Rabboisai, when we look at the Eseres Hadibrois, the Ten Commandments, it is easy to discern that they are roughly divided between Mitzvois Bain Adam LaMakoim, and Mitzvois Bain Adam LeChaveiroi. Klal Yisroel has the Toirah NOT ONLY to teach us how to relate to the Divine, but also to teach us the proper ways to engage with our fellow man. Kabayd Ess Avicha ViEss Imecha – Respect your father and your mother. Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not covet the spouse of another. Do not covet the property of another. These are the basic foundations of a functional society.
One need not be a Chassidic Rebbe or a Rosheshiva (like me) or a Rebbetzin with a three thousand dollar Sheytel, or even to believe in an anthropomorphic Reboinoisheloilum who engages with humankind though history in order to appreciate the centrality of these basic societal laws. Yes, even an Am Haaretz like you, my beloved Talmid, understands that if we do not answer to a basic human moral compass, all of society will break down. And one need only look 70 or 80 years back in our collective Jewish history to understand what happens when all of society breaks down – when there is confiscation of assets and enslavement and forced division of families and rape and medical experiments on human beings and gas chambers and mass murder. Klal Yisroel, of all Peoples, understands the importance of an orderly and just society.
But let us say, for arguments sake, that all of society does break down? What happens? Well, as we know from Parshas Noiach, Hakadoshboruchhu was once so disgusted, He decided to destroy the whole world, save Noiach, his family, the millionaire and his wife, the movie star, the professor and Mary-Anne, and two of every kind of animal. But in the aftermath of the Mabul, the Great Flood, the Aimishteh makes a treaty and a vow never to destroy the world again. The Reboinoishloilum exercises His free choice to create the world. And then destroys the world. And then ultimately pledges to never destroy the world again.
Humankind may be flawed. Humanity may not always live up to Hakadoshboruchhu’s plans, but He is fundamentally committed to tolerance and acceptance. “Kee Anu Amecha, VeAtta Eloykaynu; Anu Banecha, VeAtta Avinu.”
Rabboisai, we are living in dark times. There is a plague impacting pockets of the Orthodox community.
In the past year, the Orthodox world was shocked to learn of the depravity of Barry Freundel, a prominent rabbi in Washington DC known for his intellect, his leadership on conversions, and his conservative stances against both the Open Orthodoxy movement and acceptance of homosexuals within Orthodoxy (advocating "reparative therapy", which is considered by many to be a dangerous form of abuse and an expression of human ignorance). This same "rabbi", who has held key regional and national Jewish leadership roles, a man who has lectured in some of the finest academic institutions in the world, was discovered to be a sadistic pervert, and an abuser of the weak. In addition to having been found to have been videotaping women showering and preparing for immersing in the Mikvah, he is also reported to have exploited prospective converts by forcing them to do clerical and other labor in his home. And he is suspected of sexually exploiting vulnerable converts.
Looking at the arrest of the high profile Barry Freundel, it is hard not to recall other recent scandals that have plagued Orthodoxy of late among other prominent figures: Michael Broyde (not a sex crime); Moti Elon, a nationally prominent Dati Leumi figure in Israel. And Yisroel Belsky -- a man who persecuted a sexual abuse victim and his family, in a crime where the accused ultimately pleaded guilty, and yet he remains the #2 Kashrus expert in the OU, the largest and most prolific global professional Jewish organization. Why are so many prominent leaders caught up in the worst scandals possible, all violations of Bain Adam LeChaveiroi?
And over the last couple of weeks, many of us have been SHOCKED by the testimony delivered before the Royal Commission in Australia, which is charged with uncovering the systemic sexual abuse of children and subsequent coverups in certain Orthodox Jewish educational institutions in Australia. Here is an actual quote from some of the testimony:
Counsel assisting the Commission Maria Gerace asked: "did you understand that it was against the law for an adult to touch the genitals of another child?"
"I didn't know that as a fact," Rabbi Feldman answered.
Rabboisai, we are living in dark times. We are living in an era when many in the Orthodox community, including many in the Orthodox leadership, have placed all of their emphasis on Bain Adam LaMakoim, and have set aside a basic commitment to Bain Adam LeChaveiroi. In the name of Toirah – but really in the name of maintaining hegemony and power and control – they are ignoring sexual abuse; they are causing humiliation and pain; they are even causing death.
Rabboisai, Judaism is not the exclusive purview of the Chassidic Rebbes or the black hat Misnagid Rabbis or the Modern Orthodox Rabbis or the leaders of Yeshiva University. It is not the exclusive domain of the Askanim, the power brokers, or of the wealthy.
WE WERE ALL created Betzelem Eloykim, in the image of the Divine. Judaism belongs to all of us.
Rabboisai, we are living in dark times. Judaism has a cancer. It is time to take Judaism back.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess