Made in the image of God.
Each year during the High Holy Days we spend time reflecting inwards, considering how we acted over the past year. Did we uphold our Jewish values? Did we prioritize the right things? Did we pursue our passions? These questions often get lost in the monotony of work, and school, and busy lives. We want to focus on them, but sometimes our to-do lists get in the way. Many of us are here today in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah because we want the opportunity to recalibrate ourselves. To focus on what it means to act justly, and to treat others with kindness.
There is a Jewish folktale that I love to read on Rosh Hashanah about a small Jewish village. It is titled “How does God See God’s Self?”
It was the first day after the people of a village had ushered in the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, and the villagers should have been happy but instead everyone was upset. They were unhappy because the emissary of the czar was coming to the village, and there was one thing that people knew about the emissary of the czar: when he came to the village, it was never for something good, and it was certainly not a time to rejoice. The czar was, after all, not friendly toward the Jewish people. So on this day, the first day of the New Year, when the czar’s emissary arrived in town, everybody came into the village to find out for themselves what the emissary had to say.
“The czar mocks the God of the Jews,” said the emissary. “You gather in your synagogues, and you pray to your God, you say that your God knows everything, that your God can see everything, that your God is all-powerful. Yet your God is invisible! The czar doesn't believe any of it. The czar asks ‘if what you say of God is true, then can your God become visible merely by wishing it so?’”
There was a hush among the crowd, and the villagers looked at one another. They were unsure of how to answer the question. “If God is all-powerful and God is invisible, how can God see God’s self?” they wondered.
Before he departed, the emissary said, “The czar gives you one week in which to answer his question. If at the end of the week you cannot come up with a satisfactory answer for the czar, then your synagogue will be closed, and you will have nowhere to go when your Holy Day of Yom Kippur arrives.”
Well, you can imagine. The people were beside themselves. They didn't know what to do. All day and all night they considered the question: If God is all-powerful and God is invisible how can God see God's self?
Unable to settle on an answer, they finally did what jews do when they can't answer a question: they turned to the Rabbi. They said, “Rabbi, the czar's emissary has come to us and left us with this question: If God is all-powerful and God is invisible how can God see God's self?”
The rabbi thought about it. He closed his eyes. He stroked his beard. He began to hum a niggun. But no answer came to him. “I'll need some time to think about this,” he finally said.
“But we have only one week, Rabbi,” the villager said excitedly. “The czar’s emissary will return, and he wants an answer. Otherwise the synagogue will be closed, and we will have nowhere to go for Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur.”
The rabbi went home. He studied, and he prayed, and he thought. But he couldn't come up with an answer to the question of how God sees God’s self. After a few days have passed the Rabbi thought that perhaps the distractions of the village were making it difficult for him to come up with an answer, so he decided to go out into the forest and sit among the trees and wild animals and flowers. Perhaps, he thought, like the great Reb Nachman he would be inspired by the forest.
“If God is all-powerful and God is invisible,” the rabbi mused, “how does God see God self?” He thought and thought and thought. Still he couldn't come up with an answer. When there was only one day remaining before the czar's emissary was due to return for an answer to the question, the rabbi rose to leave the forest. As he walked on the path back to the village, he spotted one of the children from the Hebrew School.
“Rabbi, why is it you look so sad?” the child asked.
The rabbi explained that for almost an entire week he had been thinking about an answer to a question--and he had been unable to come up with an answer.
“What's the question?” the child asked.
“If God is all-powerful and God is invisible how can God see God's self?”
The child smiled at the rabbi. “Oh, Rabbi, I know the answer to that question.” The child giggled. “You taught us the answer to that question in Hebrew School.”
The Rabbi was astonished; he couldn't believe what he was hearing. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Rabbi don't you remember? You taught us that each person is created in God's image so when God wants to see God’s self all god has to do is look at one of us. We are god's mirror.”
You can imagine how relieved the rabbi felt. He went back to the town and gathered all the people in the village square. He shared with them the child's answer. “And, so,” he concluded, “if God wants to see God’s self, all God has to do is look down upon one of us.”
When the emissary of the czar arrived, the answer was given. It satisfied the czar and the people were able to go to the synagogue for Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur. Throughout the day, as the people of the village prayed, they took the opportunity to think about what it means to be created in God's image and all the responsibilities that it entails. They thought about how they would need to behave in the year ahead-- how they would relate to one another, show kindness toward one another, and act righteously-- because they knew that whenever God wanted to see God’s self, all God had to do was look down and see them.”
This New Year is our opportunity to live up what it means to be B’tzelem
Elohim, to be made in the image of God. It is our opportunity to ask for forgiveness from God and from our fellow person. And to move forward living through our Jewish values.
May we all have a year in which we remember that we living B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. May we all treat and be treated justly, with kindness, and compassion.
**Rosh Hashanah Morning 2018/5779