In God’s Image

Ha'azinu | Sukkot By :  Alisa Braun Academic Director, Community Engagement Posted On Sep 17, 2021 / 5782 | Torah Commentary

What does it mean to be created in God’s image? Or to act in a God-like way? As I reread Parashat Ha’azinu, I was struck by the ways Moses’s song poetically develops God’s care for the Israelites, and I discovered in the vivid and diverse metaphors the beginnings of an answer. From the opening lines, where God’s words are likened to varieties of rain, sustaining and giving life to all, to God as an eagle “who rouses his nestlings” and “bears them along his pinions” (Deut. 32:11), this God builds up, guides, teaches, and protects. God provides for the Israelites’ physical needs with gifts of abundance, nurturing the people with “honey from the crag” as a mother nurses her child (Deut. 32:13). The Israelites’ lack of gratitude inflames God’s anger, but God bestows mercy and forgiveness, despite there being no mention of teshuva (repentance). God gives.

God’s benevolence is, according the teachings of Rav Eliyahu Dessler, the key to understanding what it means to be created in God’s image.[1] Dessler (1892–1953) was a proponent of the classical Mussar tradition, a system of self-reflection and ethical character formation grounded in the teachings of Rabbi Israel Salanter. Dessler writes:

When the Almighty created human beings He made them capable of both giving and taking. The faculty of giving is a sublime power; it is one of the attributes of the blessed Creator of all things. He is the Giver par excellence; His mercy, His bounty and His goodness extend to all His creatures. His giving is pure giving for He takes nothing in return. He can take nothing for He lacks nothing, as the verse says, ” . . . If you are righteous what do you give to Him?” Our service to Him is not for His need but for our own, since we need a means of expressing our gratitude to Him. Man has been granted this sublime power of giving, enabling him too to be merciful, to bestow happiness, to give of himself. “God created man in His own image.”

For Rav Dessler, God, as creator of all things, is the “Giver par excellence”; thus, the most God-like act an individual can perform is to give. Too often, we equate giving with loss. If I give to someone else, I will have less. In contrast, Dessler suggests that through giving, we actualize our full selves. We are not giving “away” something, but fully engaging our powers to be God’s agents in the world. The true purpose of existence is to live this life of generosity. Further, “service to God” (i.e., prayer) is not something that God needs; rather, we humans need a means of expressing our gratitude. Prayer reminds us of what we have received and affords an opportunity to be thankful for those gifts. In expressing gratitude, we are acting as a “giver.” Though we cannot give God anything of substance, we can offer thanks.

It is, I think, no coincidence that Ha-azinu is read just before Sukkot, a holiday whose rituals highlight the importance of expressing gratitude and giving. In the parashah, the Israelites enjoy the land’s largesse but forget God’s goodness and turn to other gods. Sukkot is also hag ha-asif (Harvest Festival), recalling the moment in the agricultural calendar when farmers could breathe easily knowing that the last crops had been harvested. Lest they attribute their bountiful harvest solely to their own efforts, they are commanded to dwell in the Sukkah, to acknowledge their own vulnerability and gratitude for God’s protection. We too leave behind the comfort and security of our homes to experience the frailty and uncertainty of life and put our trust in God.

On Sukkot, we are commanded to be joyful, and we create that experience by sharing the sukkah with visitors real and symbolic. The Zohar (Emor 103a) teaches that seven distinguished leaders (ushpizin) join the righteous in the sukkah, with a special invitation extended to one of them each night. According to the Zohar, the food one would have offered the ushpizin should be given to the poor instead: that is the only way to merit the presence of ushpizin in your sukkah. Indeed, according to Maimonides, when one feeds the poor on Sukkot and other major holidays, God rejoices. It used to be common practice to invite the poor to share a Sukkot meal, and nowadays many donate to food pantries and soup kitchens.

This year, as we celebrate Sukkot in the wake of flooding, fire, plague, and political turmoil, we are mindful that many in our own communities and across the world do not enjoy the blessings of food, clothing, shelter, and other basic necessities. But cultivating a habit of giving encompasses more than transforming our abundance into gifts for the needy. It requires us to rethink our orientation to others and interrogate our own desires and drives. When is my giving simply a cover for self-interest? How can I receive in a way that also gives back—through gratitude and care for the giver? May we move into Sukkot with this new understanding of the power of the act of giving, knowing that when we give, we are living b’tselem Elohim and fulfilling our purpose in the world. 

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).   

[1] I am grateful to my colleague Rabbi Eliezer Diamond for introducing me to the writings of Rav Dessler.