Last week’s death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers during his arrest has reignited racial tensions that have been simmering for some time now. Because this is not the first time a black man faced his demise at the hands of law enforcement, the outrage that ensued was inevitable.
Peaceful protests around the country have turned into violent looting opportunities for many people, while the majority of law-abiding American citizens pray for an end to this cycle of police brutality that always leads to protests and worse.
We can all use a reminder from the Torah, in Genesis, that every single human being was created in the image of G-d, b’tzelem Elokim. Regardless of a person’s skin color, their country of origin, their occupation or whom they associate with, and even criminals and inmates; if he or she exists, that means they are an extension of G-d’s image. It doesn’t matter who they are and what they do.
There is unfortunately no shortage of examples of the divine image within each individual being forgotten. We’ve seen police officers treat people they arrest as lesser human beings due to their skin color; we’ve seen religious Jews targeted due to their strange appearances; we’ve seen protests turn violent, causing pain and damage to so many by rioting, looting, and murder—and worse, we’ve seen this be rationalized as justified means of expressing frustration.
Treating human beings with dignity is not something that is limited to those you perceive as “good” people and people that you agree with; it is not up to us to determine who deserves to be treated with basic human decency and who doesn’t. The thing is, once you question someone else’s having been created in G-d’s image, that brings into question your own humanity and divine image as well.
As we know, G-d does not have an actual physical image. Depicting G-d as appearing one way or another is in fact considered idolatry, as we read in the Ten Commandments. G-d doesn’t have a specific image because He is everything and nothing at the same time. G-d looks like all of us and looks like none of us simultaneously, so it is impossible to describe His appearance.
G-d is not limited to a particular description and He can therefore include everything. So saying that certain individuals do not deserve the title of being created in G-d’s image, means that you are ascribing limitations to G-d and thereby questioning the divine nature of your own G-dly image.
The beauty of creation is that it contains everything in it, the world being an all-encompassing tapestry of G-d’s handiwork. It is precisely because of our so many differences that we can each, individually, be created in G-d’s image. Because of the many minor details, the big picture can exist.
In the summer of 1991, following the infamous Crown Heights riots, then-New York City Mayor David Dinkins visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In their conversation, Mr. Dinkins kept making reference to “both sides” coming together and working side by side. But the Rebbe insisted that there are no “both sides.” The Mayor spoke about bringing the sides together, while the Rebbe saw beyond the differences and zeroed in on what we have in common.
The Rebbe did not see the Jewish and black communities in Crown Heights as being on different sides. We are all part of the same side, he said, part of a world created with the goal of bringing G-d into it by living up to our collective divine image.
Sure, there are issues that need to be ironed out and resolved. We cannot deny that there are problems in society. To that end, the Rebbe consistently promoted education as the one tool that can correct almost all of society's ills. He spoke about this specifically in the context of juvenile delinquency, and the massive rates of incarceration in our country. Educating a child extends beyond the books and curriculum provided by school. Education must focus on morality and ethics as much as it should on history, science, and grammar.
Teach a child that bigotry and racism are unacceptable. Teach a child to respect others' lives and property. Teach a child that being kind and loving is a virtue, not something to be ashamed of. Teach a child that if someone is different than you, that is all the more reason to love them, because that emphasizes how we are all part of G-d’s image.
And the benefits of a proper education extend beyond the classroom as well.
When a child is reared on morals that value life, he or she will grow up to value other people’s lives and livelihoods, to be kind and caring, and to be a contributor to society rather than a strain. When a child is raised knowing that every human being was created in G-d’s image, and that we each have our own unique potential to live up to without having to trample on others, he or she will grow up to be a positive influence on others, they will grow up to be leaders, helping make the world a better place every single day.