What is the most significant verse in the Torah—the one that best expresses the central principles that undergird all the rest?
Not surprisingly, the Rabbis of the Talmud debated this question amongt themselves and, of course, arrived at an array of different answers. Some point to the first line of Shema, which proclaims God’s oneness. Others argue for what we often call the “Golden Rule,” from Leviticus 19: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But Rabbi Ben Azzai makes the case for a passage from this week’s Torah portion, Bereishit, which opens the book of Genesis and thereby marks the beginning of a new year’s Torah cycle: “God created humanity in God’s own image. . . male and female, God created them.”
Why is this verse so important? As numerous commentators note, it is the foundation of all of Torah’s rules governing human interactions, individual and collective. Only when we come to see our neighbors—and even more pressingly, our enemies—as sacred and inviolable divine creations will we treat them with the love and respect that the rest of the Torah legislates.
Today, in a world that is torn apart at the seams by war, poverty, terror, and injustice, it is hard to even imagine what life would look like if everyone treated one another as if they were created in God’s image. But God asks us to do just this—imagine, and act, we must! We cannot even hope to repair our battered world unless we maintain a clear and vigorous vision of what it might yet become.
And this challenge begins at home, with each of us. This week, make a special effort to remind yourself that someone you don’t particularly like is, indeed, created in the divine image. Re-envision your relationship with that person accordingly—and then consider how this changes your interactions. When we recognize the holiness in others, we become holier ourselves.