Becoming the Face of God – Parshat Yitro and the Second Pronouncement

In this week’s Parasha, Parashat Yitro, we read the Aseret Had’varim, the 10 pronouncements of Mount Sinai.

The second pronouncement begins, “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]” (Ex.20:4).

The late 18th century Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efrayim of Sudylkov also known as the Degel Mahaneh Ephraim, reads this verse not as a command against making images of God, but rather as an instruction concerning one’s general religious behavior.  He suggests that the verse means “You shall not make of yourself a sculptured image or a likeness [of God.]”  Don’t make yourself into an image of God?  On one hand, it’s a puzzling reading because we know from the beginning of Genesis that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.  On the other hand, isn’t it obvious that we shouldn’t have the arrogance to make ourselves into God?

Reb Moshe Chaim’s intent is more suble than either of these readings.  He believes that the face of the shekhina (divine presence) visibly shines through the face of the spiritually elevated individual, the most righteous, meritorious, and wise of any generation.  Those who devote their lives to representing God in the world actually become the face of God, as it were.

It’s true, isn’t it?  Don’t you see God’s love for the poor and downtrodden in the face of Mother Theresa?  God’s love for people of all races and creeds in the face of Martin Luther King, Jr.?  God’s love for a Torah both of Shabbat and of Social Justice in the face of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel?

Most of us, however, have not attained this lofty level and are just the image and likeness of God as are all created human beings.  Reb Moshe Chaim’s reading of the second statement teaches us not to be satisfied merely being the image and likeness of God, but rather to push ourselves to embody the face of the Shekhinah.  Anyone can be the image of God.  Don’t be satisfied merely being the image and likeness of God, he tells us.  Aim higher.  Aim to be the face of God.

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2 thoughts on “Becoming the Face of God – Parshat Yitro and the Second Pronouncement

  1. That’s the beauty of Hasidic commentary! On a p’shat level (original, Biblical meaning), the second statement refers to creating a physical image of God. However, the Hasidic tradition tends to reread Biblical lessons as referring to inner spiritual growth. It doesn’t deny the p’shat – it adds to it. Multiple lessons can be learned from any given Biblical verse simultaneously.

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