What Does It Mean To Be Created In The Image Of God?
The Meaning Of Melacha And Creation On Shabbat
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
What does it mean that we are created in the image of God, b'tzelem Elohim? Rabbi Fohrman argues that the answer lies in God's own process of creation, work – and most importantly, His rest on the Sabbath Day. What can we learn from these concepts to be more Godlike in our actions?
In Vayakhel, the Tabernacle and Shabbat are juxtaposed, which leads our Sages to explore the idea of refraining from work – melacha – and the spiritual meaning of keeping Shabbat law. But what is the actual connection between the Tabernacle and Shabbat, and what does this teach us about tzelem Elohim? Join Rabbi Fohrman as he reexamines the creation story and the original Sabbath.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Vayakhel.
As most of us know, the Torah prohibits labor on the Sabbath. But what does labor mean?
The Origin of the 39 Melachot of Shabbat
The Hebrew word for this is 'melacha,' and according to the Mishnah and Gemara there end up being 39 different categories of melacha which are all prohibited on the Sabbath. Where did those categories of labor comes from? It turns out they come from an inference made by our Sages regarding a juxtaposition of texts in this week's Parsha.
When you open this week's Parsha, the first thing you hear is a command that Moshe gives to the Jews regarding the observance of the Sabbath. "Sheshet yamim ta'aseh malacha," for six days you should do labor, "u'b'yom ha-shivi'I," but on the seventh day, "yihyeh lachme kodesh," it should be a holy day, a day of Sabbath to God.
Right after this, "vayomer Moshe el-kol-adat bnei Yisrael le'emor," Moshe says to the entire people, "kchu mitchem trumah l'HaShem kol n'div libo," a command for everyone to bring various different kinds of raw materials out of which the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, will be constructed. And the Sages inferred from the juxtaposition of these two texts—the command to observe the Sabbath and the command to construct the Tabernacle—that the template for prohibited labor on the Sabbath comes from the way the Tabernacle was constructed.
Understanding the Laws of Shabbat
If you want to understand what it is that you're not allowed to do on the Sabbath, just look at what the people did when constructing the Miskhan.
The people colored material with dyes, so coloring material with dye is prohibited on the Sabbath. The people engaged in weaving when constructing the Miskhan, so weaving is prohibited on the Sabbath…and so on and so on until we get 39 different types of activities that are all prohibited on the Sabbath. And the question I want to ask you is, why? Why is it that the way the Tabernacle was constructed becomes the template for the kind of labor that's prohibited on the Sabbath? I understand the legal inference which the Talmud is making. But, conceptually, these things seem to have nothing to do with each other. What does the Sabbath have to do with the Mishkan?
I think when we think about this, we'll begin to see a very fascinating connection between the original Sabbath on which God rests and the Sabbath that God is now commanding mankind to undertake just before commanding us to build the Mishkan.
When God Made Man in His Own Image
Let's think about the original Sabbath. How did that day come to be? God rested on the seventh day after creating the world in six days. We all know that. But let's ask: what was the significance of God creating the world on those six days? How did that act of creation change the status quo?
Now the answer to that question seems incredibly obvious, doesn't it? I mean, obviously, the act of creation was the most dramatic change of the status quo that one could possibly imagine. Before, there was absolutely nothing, and then, after creation, there was everything! But if you think about it, that's only true from mankind's point of view. It's not actually true from God's point of view.
Ask the question this way: from God's point of view, what was the significance of the act of creation? You can't say, "before creation, there was nothing." Yes, if you're a man living in a world of space and time with stars, planets, hydrogen, oxygen, black holes, and all of that, before creation there was nothing. But not if you're God.
If you're God, you don't live in that world. As a matter of fact, if you're God, before creation, there was everything. You were doing just fine, living in your own tremendous realm, whatever that is. And if you think about it deeply, from God's point of view, creation didn't make everything. If anything, creation was almost a kind of diminishment. It was like you carved out a space in your world for something that wasn't you. The Kabbalists called this idea "tzimtzum," almost a contraction of God, so to speak, when God makes space for something else besides him in existence. Why did God do that? God did it for the same reason that people have children; God did it out of love. As a matter of fact, the process of doing this was very much akin to the process of having a child.
Think about it. Your whole body, all of your organs, every last one of them, it's all there to nourish your life, except for one part of the human body that isn't there for you, but for someone else. And that's the womb. The womb is there for creation. It's an environment that's perfectly calibrated to nourish the being that you want to create.
So why did God do this? Why did God contract Himself, as it were, to make room for something else?
Tzelem Elohim: Why God Created Man in His Own Image
He did it because He had plan; a plan that involved a kind of womb. He wanted to create a being, a child, a creature, another separate being possessed of free will with whom God could form a relationship. But that being, which we call mankind, it couldn't exist in God's world; it had to have a world of its own. It needed a whole new environment in order to exist. So God went about creating that environment in what we call six days.
That environment required the creation of space and time itself. God doesn't need space, God doesn't need time; He lives outside of these constructs. It involved the creation of sub-atomic particles, the simplest atoms, hydrogen. These hydrogen atoms would aggregate into clouds, the clouds would collapse through the force of their own gravity and friction would ignite their thermo-nuclear furnaces then they would become stars. Supernovas would create carbon, zinc, gold, all the heavy elements. This environment would require perfectly calibrated laws of physics, a nuclear strong force in perfect ratio to a nuclear weak force. Gravity, electromagnetism, Planck's Constant, laws of thermodynamics—all of these things would need to be held in perfect balance in order for the environment to work and God did all of that out of love.
God Himself didn't need any of that. God doesn't need planets and stars, laws of physics. But God paid attention to those laws for one reason. Because God knew that the being that He wanted to love required them in order to exist. And after creating that wondrous environment, the final thing God made on that sixth day was that child, that being itself that God would love.
"Vayivra Elohim et-ha-adam b'tzalmo," and God created man in His image. Strange. God created this being to be like God in some sort of way. What had God been doing this whole time? God had been creating this perfectly calibrated environment. Well the being that He created had the power to create too.
Understanding Malacha: What Does It Mean to Be Made in God's Image?
In one glorious instant, God has brought everything that the universe would be into to existence and then spends six days molding it, shaping it to suit His will, dividing things, putting this over here and that over there, allowing things to develop, to unfold their potential. That process God called 'melacha,' the process of deciding with mind what you want and then acting to make it so. Man can adapt his environment to suit his desires. Man is a practitioner of melacha, too.
But not only can man adapt his own environment using this process we call malacha, man truly is Godlike in that he can create an environment too. As a matter of fact he can do—his destiny is to do—exactly what it is that God did.
What did God do when God created the universe? First, there was everything and then God said "no, I'm going to create a little apartment in everything for the being that I love." And now, mankind does the same thing. Mankind looks at his everything. His everything is the vast universe of space and time. And mankind says I'm going to carve out a little section of this for the one that I love. It's going to require special laws, laws that have nothing to do with me but that have to do with God, but I'm going to observe those laws because I love God and because I need to do that in order to create a place that works for God.
So there's laws of tumah and tahara, of purity and impurity. There's laws of kodesh and chol that have nothing to do with the human realm, they have to do with God's realm. But we observe those laws because we care about God and we want the environment to work for God because we want God to inhabit that apartment. The same way that God observes the laws of physics to make our world work, we observe those Godly laws to make God's apartment work. And we call that apartment the Mishkan. And just as we create the Mishkan, God says "you know what, I have a secret to let you in on little creator. It's called rest. You should observe the Sabbath just like I do."
So, of course, where are the laws of Sabbath going to come from? What did God do when He rested?
Why We Rest from Malacha on Shabbat
God rested from all the malacha that He did when he created that little apartment. So we're going to rest by desisting from all the malacha that we do to create God's apartment. It makes perfect sense. Because little creator is just like Big Creator.
As a matter of fact, who is it that builds the Mishkan? What's his name? His name is Betzalel. What a strange name. What if Betzalel were an acronym, what would it stand for? What is mankind? This one created in the image of God? How do you say 'the image of God' in Hebrew? "B'tzelem Elohim." Betzalel is the one who realizes the vast potential of humanity to be like God. He represents all of us in attaining our collective potential. He is our agent, in a way, to realize our very humanity.
Neil Armstrong understood when he took his first steps on the moon that he wasn't just taking them as a man. It was one great leap for mankind. And Betzalel takes a great leap too, a great leap for all of us. He allows us all to attain our destiny as tzelem Elohim, being Godlike, creating the apartment for the One that we love.