We are created in the image of God, the Torah tells us. What it does not tell us is what that means, especially considering that God has no “image” in the traditional sense. Maimonides, the Rambam, made this his Third Fundamental Principle of Jewish belief (see his introduction to Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1): God, he said, “has no body at all, actually or potentially.”
Yet the Torah is clear that “God created man in His image” (Genesis 1:27). As such, we need to determine what God’s “image” means.
The “image” of Him, in the first chapter of the Torah is that of Creator. God created a world that was “very good,” but not perfect; He then created humankind and gave it the task of making the world better still.
In other words, the “image of God” means we are to emulate Him. We are to “walk in all His ways at all times,” as Deuteronomy 19:9 puts it. (Similar expressions are found throughout the Torah and the Tanach, the Bible.)
To “walk in His ways” has multiple meanings. The most obvious, of course, is to obey His commandments. Another is to examine His behavior and try to emulate it as best we can.
Contrary to popular belief, God is not perfect. We are told in various biblical verses that His ways are perfect, His teachings are perfect, His justice is perfect, His understanding is perfect, but never are we told that He Himself is perfect. In fact, time and again we see that He is not. How else can we explain the Torah’s statement (Genesis 6:6), “And the Lord regretted that He had made the human on earth”? God made a mistake and He regretted that mistake. A “perfect” God does not make mistakes. Our God does – but He also owns up to His mistakes and acts to correct them.
Thus, to emulate God, we humans must own up to our mistakes, regret having made them, and then act to correct them.
Sometimes, to correct a mistake requires compromise. The truth is, all of God’s mistakes involve His expectations for His unique creation: people. The first time they do not live up to His expectations, He sends a Great Flood, only to realize that, too, was a mistake. Instead, He adopts a compromise. Because humankind had demonstrated a lust for blood – especially killing animals for food – God compromises by allowing humans to eat meat (see Genesis 9:3), albeit within defined parameters.
This week, in Ki Tisa, we see one of God’s most glaring compromises. He said nothing about sacrifices when He appeared at Sinai, and actually never raised the subject before, with Moses, or with any of the patriarchs. While He did not prohibit sacrifices, however – itself an apparent compromise – He did ask that the Israelites keep it simple. “Make for Me an altar of earth,” or of “unhewn stone” (Exodus 20:22-23), He declares. All He wants is for Israel to behave in a certain way, and to demonstrate to the world at large how God wants all humankind to behave.
This week, however, He sees that Israel is not prepared to accept His message. The people create a Golden Calf and offer sacrifices to it, because they are hopelessly stuck in the ways of the pagan world from which they emerged. God, therefore, puts forth a huge compromise: He instructs Israel to create a portable sanctuary. Soon, He will detail the rules for the sacrificial cult that will go with it. He wants a relationship with Israel and the only way that is possible is if He is prepared to make concessions, as indeed He is.
We all tend to dig in our heels when we think we are in the right. Yet, if we want a relationship with others, we need to emulate God. If He is willing to compromise, so must we be willing to do so.
After all, we are created in His image.