While some maintain that the human being is only physical form, the Torah, in one of its most important sentences, insists that every person is also created in the image of God – tzelem Elokim (Genesis 1:26,27). On the surface we see each others’ outward appearance, but if we look deeply, we ought to be able to perceive a little bit of God in our fellow human being. In fact, it is the tzelem Elokim which makes the human being unique. In the words of Pirke Avot, “beloved is the human being who is created in the image of God” (Avot 3:18). Several fundamental ideas emerge from the tzelem Elokim principle. Bearing in mind that each and every human being is created with tzelem Elokim, it follows that all people – regardless of race, religion, nationality, age, mental faculties, handicap, etc. – are of equal value.
Human beings can relate to God “vertically” and “horizontally.” In the sense that we have the capacity to reach upwards to the all powerful God through prayer and ritual, we relate vertically. Additionally, when we relate to our fellow person, we connect to that part of God in them. If one hurts another human being, God is hurt. Similarly, if one brings joy to another, God is more joyous. Hence, a horizontal relationship exists as well.
No matter how far one strays, one has the potential to return to the inner Godliness we all possess – which is, of course, good.
Even if a person holds him/herself in low esteem, he/she ought have self confidence. After all, God is in each of us. God, as the ultimate creator has given us the capacity to be endlessly creative – adding an important ingredient to our self-esteem.
As God is omnipresent, so too do people created in the image of God have the inner desire to reach beyond themselves. We accomplish this by developing lasting relationships with another. In that sense, one’s presence is expanded. Similarly, as God is eternal, we, created in the image of God have the instinctual need to transcend ourselves. This need is met by raising children. Unlike animals, human beings are uniquely aware of historic continuity.
The image of God points to life after death. As God lives forever, so too does the part of God in us, our soul, live beyond our physical years. Of course, it must be remembered that tzelem Elokim does not mean that every human being is automatically good. Image of God is potential. If properly nurtured, it takes us to sublime heights. If abused, it can sink us to the lowest depths. Hence the words ki tov, found after every stage of creation, are not recorded after the human being is formed. Whether we are tov depends on the way we live our lives; it is not endowed at birth.
And, the mystics add, that when we live our lives properly, the image of God in each of us merges with the omnipresent God to become One – Ehad. The tzelem Elokim is an eternal spark. Whether it is lit is up to us.