Noah 5779


The Answer to the Unasked Question

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

The two first parashot in the Torah, Breishit and Noah, act as a sort of preface to the Torah’s central story. The main part of the Torah is the story of family, and of a nation, of fathers and mothers, of tribes that were in exile and left it, received the laws of G-d and marched toward the Promised Land. The first two parashot do not deal with Am Yisrael, but with the basis of human existence. They are universal parashot that express a position on the most basic of foundations: the concept of creation; the world as good or bad; work and rest; relationships; man versus sin; sin and punishment, and more…

As such, we are not surprised to find that in this week’s parasha of Noah, we find the answer to one of the most difficult of questions, a question that concerns almost no one, and yet – if humanity would adopt the answer that the Torah provides for this question, untold suffering would be prevented. The question is: Why is it forbidden to murder?


We should note – this is a question we are not supposed to ask. Even the Torah does not ask it. It is man’s basic instinct which tells him that murder is the most serious thing one can imagine. On the other hand, we must not be blind to the past or to the present. Murders have taken place all through human history and take place still today, sometimes in horrifying measure. Therefore, despite the Torah not asking the question, it does provide an answer.

This is what G-d says to Noah and his sons:

Whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man.
(Breishit 9, 6)

This is the answer to the unasked question. It is forbidden to murder because man was created in the “image of G-d”.

What is the meaning of the term “image of G-d”? Commentators have wrestled with this for thousands of years. But based on all explanations, the basic meaning is the same: Man is different from the rest of creation and is unique in one trait due to which he is considered as representing holiness in reality. Therefore, any person, of any race, religion, or gender, is holy and harm to him or her is defiling the sacred, intolerable defamation, defamation that must not even be imagined.

As an example of this Jewish concept, let us read what is told of one of the greatest of Jewish sages about 2,000 years ago – Hillel the Elder – whose beit midrash (seminary) was famously called “Beit Hillel”, the House of Hillel:

Hillel the Elder, at the time that he was departing from his students, would walk with them. They said to him, "Rabbi, where are you walking to?" He said to them, "To fulfill a commandment!" They said to him, "And what commandment is this?" He said to them, "To bathe in the bathhouse." They said to him: "But is this really a commandment?" He said to them: "Yes. Just like regarding the statues (lit. icons) of kings, that are set up in the theaters and the circuses, the one who is appointed over them bathes them and scrubs them, and they give him sustenance, and furthermore, he attains status with the leaders of the kingdom; I, who was created in the [Divine] Image and Form, even more so!...
(Vayikra Raba 34, 3)

Why does man represent G-d? What is the quality that makes man unique in relation to all other creatures? There are those who have called this trait “knowledge” and others who called it “choice” or other definitions. It seems that most commentators aimed at the same point: Man is the only creation with the power to make moral decisions.

As opposed to other creatures who act based on natural instincts alone, man is the only creature who can be drawn to a specific act and yet choose a different one. Man can want to steal yet tell himself to listen to the sound of his “moral” conscience and choose not to. Man can get angry yet abstain from reacting in a way that hurts another. Man can think of betraying someone’s trust in him, yet stop himself because of a moral decision.

Truthfully, it is just as important that each and every one of us learns to acknowledge our own worth. The fact that we were created in the “image of G-d” means we must not degrade the value of others or of ourselves. Thus, the Torah set out the foundation of human existence: life with the awareness of holiness, a life of self-worth and of the acknowledgement of the value of others.

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