Tzelem Elohim: Recognizing the Godly in Ourselves & Others

The article below appears in the newly published book On Sacred Ground: Jewish and Christian Clergy Reflect on Transformative Passages from the Five Books of Moses, edited by Jeff Bernhardt [available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble].


Tzelem Elohim: Recognizing the Godly in Ourselves & Others

Every member of the human race is a recipient of being created “in the image of God.” In later generations, the rabbis affirmed this principle, remarking that every human being is distinctive, yet all are in God’s image.

As a rabbi, I come across the entire range of human behavior. Rabbis (as well as clergy of other communities of faith) see the best and the worst that humanity can exhibit. It is easy for me to categorize people as good or bad, to dismiss those whose behaviors I find repulsive or to almost deify those whose behavior seems the epitome of righteousness.

The idea that all humanity is created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, helps me each day to balance my perspective about the people I come into contact with. The student who gives me a hard time, the congregant who has committed a crime, the colleague who is difficult to work with, are all created in God’s image as much as the neighbor who each week serves meals at the homeless shelter or the friend who donates generously to every noble cause.

The influences that cause one human being to hide his/her Godly characteristics or cause another to shine are complex, no doubt. But whenever a person enters my office or classroom, I rise before them, as I remind myself that s/he represents the image of God, and therefore deserves my respect and honor.

At the same time, I ask that those with whom I interact acknowledge that spark of divinity within me. Like everyone, I live in the “real” world, having mundane business to conduct and everyday conversations and relationships. And yet there is a part of me, always playing in the background (at least) that is Godly. When others speak to my higher self, that tzelem Elohim (divine image) in me, it raises me and our relationship to a higher level. And that, in turn, elevates both of us as well as anyone else with whom we will come into contact.

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