Rabbinical Thoughts on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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Our society seems so bent upon the politics of personal destruction. When people fall–as famous and powerful people often do, there is a certain delight and comfort many folks experience in knowing that even the great ones have “feet of clay.”

But where is our reverence for human life? Is not every human being made in the Divine Image? As I write this new article, I wonder: What are the ethical implications of being made in God’s image?

Obviously killing somebody in cold blood is something that fills us with horror. But what about killing somebody’s soul?  What about killing somebody’s reputation? What about destroying a human being’s life dream? Yes, murder comes in many different forms–and our penchant for violence often blinds us from realizing just how barbaric and cruel we really are as a species.

I recall hearing a story about a Christian missionary who spent many years while working with cannibals. When asked about his success, he replied, “Before I arrived, they used to eat their meat with their hands, but after I worked with them, they now eat with forks and knives instead!”  I often think this aphorism describes the violent impulses that permeate our contemporary society. We may appear to be “civilized,” but the shadow nature of our souls remain uncivilized.

Jewish tradition teaches that murdering a human being is considered like one who has harmed the figure of the king; i.e., the likeness of God. R. Tanchuma points out the relational dimensions of the Divine image have important practical implications: Anyone who despises his fellow man is considered as though he despises the Creator, in Whose image he is created.[1] Going one step further, there is a poignant rabbinic story that illustrates this important idea:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, returning from a trip in Migdal Eder, from his teacher’s house met a certain man who was exceedingly ugly. Rabbi Shimon said to him, “Raka (simpleton), how ugly are the children of Abraham our father.” The other man replied, “What can I do for you? You may want to speak to the Craftsman Who made me.” Rabbi Shimon immediately alighted from his horse and bowed before the man and said, “I apologize to you, please forgive me.” He replied to him, “I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman Who made me and say, “How ugly is the vessel which You have made!”

Rabbi Shimon walked behind him for three miles. When the people in town heard of Rabbi Shimon’s arrival, they came out to meet him and greeted him with the words, “Peace be unto you, rabbi.” The other man said to them, “Who are you calling Rabbi?” They answered, “The man who is walking behind you.” Thereupon he exclaimed, “If this man is a rabbi, may there not be any more like him in Israel!” He told the people the whole story, and the townspeople begged him to forgive the rabbi, and he agreed, only on the condition that he never act in this manner again toward anyone. [2]

The story highlights an important truth: the willful mistreatment of another human being, in effect, devalues the image of God because we are all created in the Divine Image. The human face—regardless how disfigured it may be—commands that we show a respect to the uniqueness of the human person which transcends one’s physical attributes. True beauty emanates from goodness and a love of ethics. Without these traits, we might as well be living in caves.

[1] Genesis Rabbah 24:7.

[2] Tractate Derech Eretz (Chapter 4).


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