"Let Us Make Man"

  • Rav Michael Hattin







This shiur is dedicated by Akiva Karalitzky in honor of
Rabbi and Mrs Aaron Borow



"Let Us Make Man"


By Rabbi Michael Hattin





Parashat Bereishit, the opening section of the Torah, introduces God the Creator.  Fashioning corporeality from nothingness and imposing order where chaos had reigned, God imbues His creation with intent, meaning and direction.  In a climactic process stretching over the so-called 'Seven Days,' energy furnishes inchoate matter, and that matter is given definition and expression as elemental forms.  Inexorably, the inanimate matter yields vegetation, primitive life, and finally, man.  This week we shall direct our attention to the creation of man, as it unfolds from the perspective of the Divine.  By studying the passage describing God's most exalted creative act, we hope to understand not only a curious textual anomaly, but a profound statement of man's purpose as well.


The Sixth Day


"And the Lord said: 'Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind, herbivorous animals and creeping things and carnivorous beasts of the earth after their kind,' and it was so.  The Lord fashioned ('VaYaas') the carnivorous beasts of the earth after their kind, and the herbivorous animals after their kind, and the things that creep upon the earth after their kind, and the Lord saw that it was good."


"The Lord said: 'Let Us make man in Our image after Our likeness, and they will have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the animals and all of the earth, and over all things that creep upon the earth.'  The Lord created ('VaYivra') the man in His image, in the image of the Lord He created him, male and female He created them."


"The Lord blessed them and said to them: 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and rule over it; exercise dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and over all life that crawls upon the earth.'  The Lord further said: 'Behold I have given you all of the seed-bearing vegetation over all of the earth, as well as all of the fruit of the fruit-bearing trees as your own, they shall furnish you with food.  As for all of the living creatures of the earth, the birds of the sky, and all of the living things that creep upon the earth, I have given the grasses and vegetation for their food,' and it was so."


"The Lord saw all that He had fashioned and behold, it was very good; it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day" (Bereishit 1:24-31).


Broader Contexts and Unusual Textual Features


Thus is described the sixth day of creation.  Let us recall the immediately preceding context of Day Five, which had witnessed the creation of the creatures of the sea and the birds of the sky.  Taken together, the emerging pattern is quite clear, for sea creatures bow to birds, to beasts and finally to man.  The creative process is thus hierarchical, with biologically more simple life forms succeeded by more complex ones.  Thus, without even addressing the specific passage of man's creation, the context makes it clear that man represents the most biologically complex of earth's creatures and therefore the most 'fit to rule.'


In this connection, it is useful to contrast the terseness and brevity of words that characterize the formation of the other creatures, with the lavish lexicon of terms that describes the fashioning of man.  All of the other creatures on the face of the earth are fashioned with a single, curt Divine fiat that is then concretized by a Divine act: "And the Lord said: 'Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind...and it was so.  The Lord fashioned the beasts of the earth after their kind...and the Lord saw that it was good."  Man, on the other hand, is introduced with an unusual and unique expression of Divine involvement that is unparalleled in the entire account: "The Lord said: 'Let Us make man in Our image after Our likeness..."  Here, man is depicted not as the passive result of an irresistible Divine command, but rather as the consequence of exceptional Godly deliberation and care.  The repetitiveness of the passage - "the Lord created ('VaYivra') the man in His image, in the image of the Lord He created him, male and female He created them" – has a lyrical quality that resonates with expectation and hope.


Furthermore, rather than being the product of an act of 'fashioning' (ASiyaH), man is the product of an act of 'creation' (BReiAh).  The Hebrew verb 'BaRA' signifying 'creation' is often employed to describe a particular exploit of which only God is capable: the bringing forth of substance from oblivion.  Thus, the Torah begins its account with 'Bereishit BaRA Elohim,' 'In the beginning of the Lord's creation...'  The great sea creatures fashioned on the fifth day are similarly described as having been 'created' (VaYivra Elohim et hataninim'), for their unrivaled massiveness could only be explained by recourse to an act of direct Divine intervention.  The first man is neither brought forth from nonexistence nor configured with an unusual physique.   The threefold use of the term 'BaRA' in the context of the fashioning of the human being must therefore suggest the introduction of a entity that is not merely more biologically complex than other creatures, but in some other way absolutely extraordinary.


Finally, we note that only after the creation of man is the enterprise characterized as 'very good,' for at the completion of every other stage of creation, the text states only that 'it was good.'  Implicitly, the creation of humanity is therefore an act of completion without which the cosmos are somehow deficient.


Thus far, we have seen that the context of the passage describing the creation of man, as well as its internal structure and judicious choice of vocabulary, all serve to single out this act from everything else that precedes it.  The pivotal phrase in the passage, however, is one that is not only charged with special poignancy but also fraught with unusual difficulty: "The Lord said: 'Let Us make man in Our image after Our likeness..."  The unprecedented use of the plural form suggests, of course, a multiplicity of deities, while the expressions of 'image' and 'likeness' seem to connote corporeality.  Both of these conceptions of God, plurality and materiality, are anathema to Jewish tradition and effectively undermine the entire foundation of its lofty and exalted teachings.  How are these words to be understood, and what light do they shed on the creation of man of which the passage so eloquently speaks?


The Interpretation of Rashi – The Moral Lesson


The commentaries offer a series of possible explanations for this crucial phrase and we will consider a number of them.  Rashi (11th century, France), borrowing from a much earlier Midrashic source (see Bereishit Rabba 8:8), characteristically obviates the difficulty by suggesting that the primary thrust of the text is to offer a homiletic idea so important that it overrides other objections. 


"'Let Us make man' teaches us the humility of God.  Because man was created in the image of the angels and they might therefore be jealous of him, God took counsel with them...Even though the angels did not assist at all in the creation of man, and notwithstanding the fact that the plural usage might be misinterpreted by heretics, the text sought to convey a message of proper conduct and humble behavior, namely that an individual of great authority and ability should nevertheless seek the counsel of those less endowed.  Had the text stated "I shall make man" we would have understood that God addressed Himself alone, and not his heavenly retinue.  The text was still careful to provide a refutation of the heretics, for it states immediately afterwards "The Lord created the man...," where 'created' is in the singular form 'VaYivra' and not the plural form 'VaYivriu...' "Our likeness" means to understand and to be intelligent" (commentary to verse 26).


For Rashi, the passive accomplices in the creation of man are the heavenly angels.  God deigns to 'include' them in the process in order to preclude their 'feelings' of rejection and disregard!  Now of course the heavenly angels do not possess human frailties or foibles, and therefore the real targets of this critical lesson in cultivating a correct and upright demeanor are human beings themselves.  For Rashi, God is willing to introduce a questionable expression into the text of the Torah at the very moment of man's creation in order to emphasize that the conduct of man must be qualitatively different than that of any other creature, in consonance with the unique circumstances of his formation.  Man must be a moral creature, thoughtful and considerate of others, humble and modest and seeking to promote inclusion rather than arrogant exclusivity, for his creation is predicated upon mindfulness for the 'feelings of others.' 


Rashi's interpretation might be contextually difficult, for the verses are in fact completely silent with respect to these angels, whose assumed presence and non-participation are the supposed basis of the textual oddity.   Thematically, however, Rashi's explanation is brilliant, for it succeeds in translating a peculiarity of the Biblical text into a basic instruction for ethical and principled conduct, implying along the way that the essence of man is his moral capacity.  To be created in God's 'image' is, for Rashi, to be in possession of intelligence and wisdom, for the Creator has no corporeal characteristics.  However, these Divine faculties are static and self-serving quantities, unless they are animated by the higher vocation of concern.


The Interpretation of Rav Saadia – Responsible Rule


Rav Saadia Gaon (10th century, Babylon) offers a more convincing if less dramatic interpretation, based upon a grammatical usage that is unusual in our spoken English but not uncommon in other languages.  Quoted by the Ibn Ezra, Rav Saadia explains that the meaning of  "'in Our image after Our likeness' refers to the exercise of authority and dominion...As for the term 'let Us make man,' this plural form is the speech of royalty..."  In other words, the thrust of the passage is to describe the essential attribute of man that separates him from other creatures, and that is his unparalleled capacity to exercise control and supremacy over all else.  All of creation is under his sway, and in this special manner he resembles his Creator. 


As an emphatic expression of this shared attribute unselfishly bestowed, God introduces the formation of man by employing the plural form, for this usage is associated with authority. For Saadia, man's most far-reaching effect as a species is his unparalleled ability to impact upon the rest of creation, but this awesome power must be tempered by a correspondingly great exercise of responsibility.  God has endowed man with 'royal' authority and absolute rule over the earth.  However, to realize his mission, to truthfully follow the example of his Creator, man must act responsibly, repudiating despotic and oppressive tyranny and in their place embracing stewardship.


Of course, Rav Saadia's interpretation assumes the existence of the authoritative or honorific plural in Biblical Hebrew.  This usage does exist but is quite rare, and is usually associated with noun forms rather than with verbs.  Its remarkable adoption by the Torah here would therefore constitute an even more pronounced statement of man's exceptional aptitude.


The Interpretation of the Ramban – The Duality of Man


Perhaps most compelling among the classic commentaries is the explanation of the Ramban (13th century, Spain).  As he himself makes clear, however, the interpretation that he offers was actually formulated by Rabbi Joseph Kimchi (12th century, Narbonne), and "it is the most reasonable explanation of all."  The Ramban writes:


"The creation of man merited a unique expression on account of his unique status, for his nature is unlike that of the animals that preceded him.  On the first day, God brought forth substance from nothingness and afterwards utilized that elemental material to make and to fashion all else.  God imbued the waters with the creative capacity to bring forth living creatures, and the corresponding expression was 'Let the waters swarm with living things.'  Similarly, with respect to terrestrial life, God said 'Let the earth bring forth living creatures...' 


"Concerning man, God said 'Let Us make man' for the plural refers to 'Myself and the earth mentioned earlier,' for we shall together make man.  That is to say that the earth will bring forth his material body just as it did with the animals, and as the verses later state 'God the Lord fashioned the man from the dust of the earth' (Bereishit 2:7).  God, in turn, will provide the supernal spirit as the verse states 'and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life...' (IBID). 


"The verse continues 'in Our image after Our likeness,' for man resembles both; his material body is drawn from the earth, but his soul is incorporeal spirituality, eternal and imperishable...Thus, man resembles the lower and upper worlds in form and in glory, for the objective of his endeavors is to achieve wisdom, knowledge and correct conduct.  He truly is fashioned in the likeness of the earth whence his body is created, and the heavens from where his spirit is brought forth" (commentary to Bereishit 1:26).


Man – Earth and Sky


For the Ramban, the textual cue for his profound insight is the creation of the sea creatures and the land creatures, the acts of creation that take place on the fifth and sixth days respectively.    In both cases, God initiates their creation by calling upon the elemental material from which their corporeality is derived, to summarily bring them forth.  The sea creatures emerge from the waters, and God therefore addresses that basic but pregnant matter to provide the elements necessary for their physical formation.  Terrestrial life emerges from the alluvial earth, and God calls upon that palpable substance to yield the components necessary for their formation.  The sea creatures, and the animals that inhabit the earth possess biological life and physiological animation, but no soul or higher spiritual faculty.  Therefore at the time of their demise, they perish and are no more, for their physical bodies then break down, decay and inexorably return to their source.


With respect to man, in contrast, the earth does not act alone to provide all of his reality, for there is a unique aspect to his makeup.  The spirit that moves him derives from above; it is incorporeal, intangible and therefore not subject to the inevitable finality that characterizes all matter.  The soul is from God; it is the 'breath of life' that constitutes man's extraordinary essence as well as being the source of his special mission.


The use of the plural is therefore not a concession to unseen participants as Rashi would have it, nor an authoritarian expression of mastery as Saadia would have it, but a call to the expectant earth to join with God in fashioning man, the most remarkable creature under the sun.  It is a concise and perfectly ample expression of man's essential attributes.  In bodily function, anatomical need, and biological drive he is no different than the other life forms with which he shares the terrestrial plane.  But man has a soul.  It is immaterial, ethereal and wholly incapable of being tangibly gauged or delineated.  It is a gift from God, for the intangible Creator is its cause.  But that soul or spiritual quantity, whose primary expression is an awareness of the Divine, is the wellspring of man's most exalted potential.  Intelligence, understanding, but mostly the quest to live in God's presence are its hallmarks, and in its tender cultivation man finds rest.


For the Ramban, there is no conflict implied by the duality of man, for man's body as well as his soul are both products of the Divine act.  Man can achieve harmony among his constituent components by being cognizant of their respective needs and sensitive to their corresponding requirements.  To live a life of the body only is to suffer from existential imbalance.  The needs of the intangible soul, to be connected to God and to be nurtured by His presence, are equally real and pressing, though admittedly impossible to measure empirically.  Only by being aware of man's truest essence, by internalizing the message of 'Let Us make man,' does humanity have a hope of not only achieving an ever-increasing standard of living, but a more meaningful and fulfilling life as well.


Shabbat Shalom