parsha of the week

Elevating our tzelem Elokim, defeating yetzer hora


One of the more disturbing images from the great rebuke in our parsha, KiTavo, “Your corpses will be food for all the birds of the sky and beasts of the land, and no one will be concerned.”

If we end up as food for birds, there hasn’t been burial. So why add “no one will be concerned?”

Netziv gives two possible explanations. First, that no person will even show up to chase away the birds. Alternatively, a person will come, but will have no success in chasing them away, “a sure sign that the person’s tzelem Elokim (G-d-like persona) is gone.”

The human being sans tzelem Elokim has not the spark that separates him from the animals. How does a human being fall so low to lose one’s tzelem Elokim? Let’s explore the explanations of two Hassidic masters.

G-d created the human in His image: Just as the human was supposed to have fear of G-d, every creature was supposed to have fear of the human. When the human lost his fear of G-d, what he really lost was his tzelem Elokim.

After receiving the punishment of being a wanderer after having killed his brother, Kayin felt that any human who lost his tzelem Elokim could take the next step to commit murder. The irony her is that Kayin is concerned that others will disregard their tzelem Elokim and possibly kill him, though he had abandoned his own tzelem Elokim when he murdered Hevel. (R Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin)

R. Zvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov, in his Igra D’Kalla (Breishis) also references the Kayin story, that when Kayin’s offering was not accepted, he was very angry. The rabbis teach that when the word “tov” (good) is present, it references the good inclination. The word “me’od” (very) indicates the presence of the evil inclination. Kayin’s evil inclination flared up because he had gotten angry, and anger causes a person to lose one’s tzelem Elokim. Nedarim 22:1 equates getting angry with killing one’s own soul. Only a person who has no soul can commit murder; how much time passed from when Kayin got angry until he murdered his brother?

In the Laws of Teshuvah 3:6, Maimonides compiles a list of the kinds of people who have no share in the world to come. Most of the sins he recounts are kind of heinous, but among them he includes “those who speak lashon hora (gossip/slander).”

Among the possibilities for where Maimonides gets this notion is Arakhin 15: “Anyone who speaks lashon hora denies G-d.” The spies (Bamidbar 14) were infamous for speaking lashon hora and denying G-d.

R Elazar Hamodai notes in Avot that one “embarrasses his friend in public” has no share in the world to come. Similarly, “whiten the face of your friend, as if you have committed murder.” (Bava Metzia 58) To drive this message home, the Talmud Yerushalmi tells us at the beginning of Peah that there are four sins for which a person suffers in this world, and deals with it further in whatever ends up being their world to come experience. The first three are murder, idolatry and immorality, and the fourth is lashon hora, “as bad as all of them.”

We begin to understand what the Tokhacha is saying. If you lose your tzelem Elokim because you don’t fear G-d, if you lose your tzelem Elokim because you are easily angered, then it’s a short hop and skip to committing murder. And the murder which many of us commit regularly is not the kind that is put on trial, but lashon hora, whether the slanderous kind, the bring others down kind, or the whiten the face kind.

The Shem Mishmuel argues that the main ingredient to victory over the yetzer hora is tapping into one’s tzelem Elokim. And so we’ve come full circle.

Diminishing, disregarding, or having a lack of tzelem elokim — brought about through not fearing G-d, through anger, and through lashon hora ˆ all bring about the triumph of the yetzer hora. The yetzer hora is what causes us to do all these things. But if we can herald and raise our tzelem Elokim, we will be victorious in battle against our evil inclinations.

Let us be kind and nonjudgmental. Let us offer a critique when it will be accepted, but in a loving way. Let us be accepting of a rebuke that comes from a place of love. Let us remember that every person has a tzelem Elokim and that everyone’s tzelem Elokim is elevated when that is the fabric of humanity that we note as our commonality.