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A work in progress

Bereshit | Genesis 1:1-6:8

This week we come again to the beginning of the Torah — Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and the first generations of humanity. But before these stories, we read the Torah’s description of the creation of the world and everything in it. God creates light, heaven and earth, oceans and dry land, the heavenly bodies, plants, animals, and finally the first human beings.

All of creation is presented in fewer than 35 verses, so it’s no wonder that the account leaves us with many questions. Perhaps one of the most difficult has to do with the description of the creation of human beings. The Torah says, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’” Well, why does God speak in the first person plural?

Rabbi Saadia Gaon (ninth century, Egypt) suggests this is a Hebrew form of the “imperial we,” saying that Hebrew permits a great individual to use plural language. However, throughout the Torah, in fact even in this very passage, God speaks in the first person singular.

So to whom is God speaking when he says, “Let us make man”? After all, Judaism absolutely rejects the possibility of multiple gods or multiple persons within one god. There is only one undivided and indivisible God.

The rabbis offer several explanations:

• God was speaking to the angels. Rashi, for example, says that God consulted with the angels so that they would not be jealous of human beings.

• God was speaking to the Torah, which existed before creation and was, in fact, the blueprint that God used to create the world.

• God was speaking to the animals because, as the midrash teaches, human beings were created with some of the attributes of animals and some of the attributes of angels.

Any of these explanations would make a nice d’var Torah, but a number of years ago, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Fair Lawn in his weekly radio address offered another I hadn’t heard before. According to Rabbi Yudin, when God said, “Let us make man,” he was speaking to us. Just as we learn that God created the world unfinished to provide human beings with a role to play, every human being is unfinished. 

Each of us is a work in progress. And so, as we begin the reading of the Torah again each year, we read the words “Let us make man” to remind us that each of us, with God’s help and God’s guidance, is engaged in the work of making a human being.

No matter how long we live, we never lose the ability to grow — intellectually, morally, and spiritually. None of us is ever finished. None of us will ever become a perfect creature.

The Torah teaches that we are created in God’s image. And so, as we begin again, we are taught once more that we must continue to grow and strive to become people who bring credit and honor to the name and image of God.

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