Toiling in Imitation: How Being Godly Impels Us to Care for Others

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כׇּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem your God.
—Leviticus 19:2

God assembles everyone to hear this verse from Moses “because the majority of the essentials of the Torah depend upon it.” [1] The commandment to “be holy because I am holy” answers the most vital question we can ask: what is our purpose in this world as a human being?

Hillel famously posits “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” [2] because no one else is me, and therefore no one else is available to make my unique contribution.

However, he continues, “וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, – If I am only for myself, מָה אֲנִי – what I’m I?”. Homiletically, this “מָה אֲנִי – what am I” can be understood as an allusion to the “I – אֲנִ֖י“ in “כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י – because I [God] am holy,” rendering Hillel’s statement to mean: If I am selfish, what will be with the holiness that God has imbued me with, which was intended to help others?

The word “עַצְמִי – to myself” has the same numerical value as the words “צלם האדם – a person’s image,” when they are being the person that God intended them to be. Both equal 210 and allude to the poles on the spectrum of holiness.

Rebbe Akiva taught: “חָבִיב אָדָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם. חִבָּה יְתֵרָה נוֹדַעַת לוֹ שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם – Beloved is a person for they were created in the image [of God]. Especially beloved is a person for it was made known to them that they had been created in the image [of God], as it is said: “for in the image of God made humankind (Genesis 9:6).” [3]

The Sefas Emes points out that Rebbe Akiva chose to quote a verse from Genesis 9, as opposed to Genesis 1:27 where the first human was actually created in God’s image, because Genesis 9:6 includes the body, not just the soul, in the preservation of human lives as agents of the Divine in this world. Perhaps Rebbe Akiva is teaching a foundational truth about relationships, reframing what it means to love and be loved. One’s potential to animate the image of the Divine in another is determined by their capacity to tend to the well being of another person.

One profound expression of taking responsibility for another is the moment of kiddushin, a traditional betrothal. It takes place under a wedding canopy and is followed by the recitation of seven blessings. Kiddushin itself comes from the language of holiness. 
The center point of these blessings is the fourth blessing which reads: “אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם דְּמוּת תַּבְנִיתוֹ, וְהִתְקִין לוֹ מִמֶּנּוּ בִּנְיַן עֲדֵי עַד – Blessed are You…Who fashioned the human being in the Godly image, in the image of God’s likeness, and prepared for the human being, from itself, an eternal structure.” Because we contain God within us, we are worthy of love and obligated to be holy in the way we love each other. Choosing to act as God does allows us to be Godly – not simply as a likeness of God’s appearance.

Highlighting this concept is appropriate, and crucial, when family and friends are gathered to celebrate the beginning of a marriage and create momentum towards a holy partnership. When we focus on the needs of people, we access and actualize the holiness of the Divine by emulating God. 

The rabbis tell us that we should follow God’s model – הֱוֵי דּוֹמֶה לוֹ, מָה הוּא חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם — אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם – just as God is compassionate and merciful, so too should we be compassionate and merciful.” [4] We must pay laborers on time [5] because “וְנֶאֱמָן הוּא בַעַל מְלַאכְתְּךָ שֶׁיְּשַׁלֵּם לְךָ שְׂכַר פְּעֻלָּתֶךָ – Faithful is your employer [God] to pay you the reward of your labor.” [6]

The midrash [7] observes a shift from the singular language of God’s holiness “קָד֔וֹשׁ,” in the verse above, to the plurality of the human counterparts “קְדֹשִׁ֣ים” and attributes the distinction to the different natures of the supernal and earthly planes. In heaven, there is one holiness – “הָעֶלְיוֹנִים…קְדֻשָּׁה אֶחָת,” as opposed to here where we are all individuals, so we must first choose to come together, in a minyan, to be able to say “וְקָרָ֨א זֶ֤ה אֶל־זֶה֙ וְאָמַ֔ר קָד֧וֹשׁ קָד֛וֹשׁ קָד֖וֹשׁ – And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy!” [8] in the singular.

Our journey to build healthy, permanent structures of unity can only be achieved when we nurture these sparks of divine holiness in each other. It is not that caring for others makes us more Godly, as much as being Godly impels us to care for others.

1. Rashi Leviticus 19:2 quoting Torat Kohanim.
2. Avot 1:14.
3. Avot 3:14.
4. Talmud Shabbat 133b.
5. Deuteronomy 24:15.
6. Avot 2:16.
7. See Vayikra Rabbah 24:8.
8. Isaiah 6:3.

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. This is part of a series of his writings that capture the tradition of exploring text, numerology, and our humanity.

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