The Torah is excessive in its prohibition of idolatry. In fact there is no prohibition repeated more frequently in the Torah. In the Ten Commandments, for example, we read, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4) Why is idolatry so terrible? If God is infinite why would fashioning a sculptured image be so harmful? God cannot be contained by a statue or figurine. How could the creation of such an image be damaging to God?
Abraham Joshua Heschel answers this question. It is forbidden because the only acceptable image of God is a human being. Idolatry is not damaging to God. It is that there is only one possible image of the divine. And that is the one we fashion by living our lives. Our lives are a reflection of the divine. We cannot construct a figurine. Instead we must live our lives, each and every day, each and every moment, as if we are fashioning an image of God.
We learn in this week’s Torah portion that human beings are created in God’s image. “And God created human beings in His image, in the image of God, God created them.” (Genesis 1:27) The only acceptable image of God is therefore each and every one of us. Arthur Green, with whom I studied this past summer, elaborates on Heschel’s insight. “You may not make an image of God because you are the image of God. The only medium in which you can make God’s image is the medium of your entire life.”
No sooner do we learn this insight do we read that the first human beings stray from God’s command. The lives of Adam and Eve therefore appear a betrayal of God’s image. As soon as God created them and placed them in the Garden of Eden they are given one instruction, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it…” (Genesis 2:16-17) They immediately stray and eat of the fruit. They are given one prohibition and they ignore it.
Adam and Eve saw that the fruit was “good for eating and a delight to the eyes” and so they ate. How could they resist? It was so tempting. Temptation bedevils our best of intentions. They are given one command. They make one mistake. How often do our wants, too often disguised as needs, interfere with what we are truly destined to do? Our task is not to satisfy our desires but instead to live according to the divine image found within every one of us.
Each and every day we are fashioning an image of God with our lives. Our actions, our decisions, craft this image in the world around us. This is what Adam and Eve missed almost immediately. Our task is not to follow their example but instead lead our lives as if we are the embodiment of God’s image.