The Most Important Idea in the Torah

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

A man goes to a baseball game, gets great seats on the third base line and settles in to watch the game. All of a sudden he hears someone behind him in the stands shout, “George!” So he gets up and looks around, but doesn’t see anyone.

After the first inning, once again he hears a voice behind him shout, “George!.” So he stands up again and looks around…nothing. Second inning, the same thing happens. Third inning, same voice, still he doesn’t see anyone.

Finally during the seventh inning stretch he hears that voice once again falling loudly from behind, “George!” and he can’t take it anymore. He whips around and shouts back, “Don’t you know my name isn’t George?!”

Advertisers know it. Fund raisers know it. Elected officials know it. Public relations experts know it. Political speech writers know it. Magazine copy editors know it. Television and radio talk show hosts know it. In fact, just about anyone who deals with the public and wants to influence their choices, or behavior, or purchases, or votes knows it.

What do they know? That if you want to influence the behavior of another human being, the one way to make sure that they hear your message, is to broadcast on their favorite station – WIIFM, “WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?”

“What’s in it for me?” What do I get out of it? Why should I buy a Toyota rather than a Buick, Giorgio rather than Ralph Lauren, or vote Republican rather than Democrat? The answer always comes back to WIIFM – “What’s in it for me?”

For thousands of years, the Jewish people as well have asked “What’s in it for me?” as a spiritual question. Every Shabbat, every festival and holy day, every sacred ritual and custom, and every commentary on the Torah and sacred literature of our people, all ultimately come down to the spiritual challenge that answers the question, “What’s in it for me?”

Where do I fit into the Jewish people? Where do I fit into the framework of humanity as a whole? Does it make a difference that I am here, that I was born in the first place, and how I live my life each day? It all comes down to the same questions I ask as a rabbi over and over and over again – does what I say matter? Does what I do matter? Does who I am matter?

Of course we ask the question “What’s in it for me?” That is the question. But the “me” to which we refer is not the consumer me, the social me, or the political me. The “me” to which we refer is that deepest wellspring of self, that innermost core from which our true uniqueness and individual identity springs. That is the “me” we search for, the “me” we long for, the “me” we discover in the most sacred moments of our lives – it is the “me” we rescue through Jewish spiritual ritual and discipline from the frantic, daily struggle to survive in what appears to be an increasingly hostile, frightening and insecure world.

The fact is that Jewish civilization has had an answer to that ultimate question, “What’s in it for me?” for over 3,000 years. It was written in our Torah scroll by whatever spiritual genius first authored that sacred text. It is found in the beginning of Genesis, in the first chapter of the Torah, in the introduction to the human being and human soul – in the most important idea in the Torah. It is found in that radical Jewish notion that boldly challenged every assumption about the nature of human beings that every other civilization on earth believed was true. That human beings are worthless, that human beings are expendable, that human beings are merely tools to be used by those who are strongest, or toys to be played with by divine beings who ruled the universe.

The most important idea in the Torah was the radically transformational belief unveiled in the words of chapter 1 verse 26 of Genesis – vayivra elohim et ha’adam betzalmo – and God created human beings in God’s own image.

Consider this: In the ancient world, the famous Code of Hammurabi established different sets of rules for different groups of people – one punishment for men, and one for women; one for those in the upper classes, and another for the lower. The same was true of the Medieval social order – vassals and slaves, masters and noblemen.

And to this very day, every time you hear someone use a racial slur, repeat a religious joke, put down another nationality, language group, culture, gender, sexual orientation – what they are really saying is that this particular group is somehow less valuable, less worthwhile, less important, less human that you or I.

The Torah boldly goes where no one had gone before, by declaring that human beings were created in the divine image. All human beings. The rabbis echo this idea in the famous Midrash that teaches God began humanity by creating one human being so that no one could say, “My ancestors are better than yours.”

THERE IS NO MORE PROFOUND IDEA IN ALL OF JEWISH LIFE. It inspires human dignity. It is the rationale for human freedom, a freedom that we have seen once again day after day over the past two months in the middle east that simply will not be denied to the human spirit. It is the certainty that Jewish civilization realized that who we are really does matter, and that anything is possible. Indeed, every time we read the Torah, every time we open the siddur, the prayer book, every time we celebrate together the history of the Jewish people in our sacred seasons and holidays, we remind ourselves once again of our infinite human potential for greatness.

Helen Keller once wrote, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.” Every time we recall the struggles and challenges of our collective Jewish past, the Exodus from Egypt and our courage to break the bonds of exploitation and enslavement and champion the singular value of the human spirit, it is our vision that becomes clear, our ambition that becomes inspired.

Jack Canfield tells the story of driving home from work one day and stopping to watch a local Little League baseball game in a park near his home. As he sat down behind one of the team benches, he asked a young boy what the score was.
“We’re behind 14 to nothing,” he answered with a smile.
“Really,” Jack said, “Well you don’t look very discouraged.”
“Discouraged?” the boy asked with a puzzled look on his face. “Why should we be discouraged? We haven’t been up to bat yet!”

Malcom Forbes said that “History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats.”

The great Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu wrote, “To see things in the seed, that is genius.” Well each of us is the seed. And each of us has the potential for greatness. Indeed the genius of Jewish tradition is the opportunity to see personal greatness even in the seeds of adversity.

After all, who better than the Jewish people has endured the darkest nights of oppression and still triumphed with head held high in the end? That simple, ancient Jewish teaching that each of us is created in the sacred image of God really means that for each of us our potential is limitless.

It means that what our minds can conceive and believe, they can achieve. It is telling us “yes,” we can grow into our dreams, “yes” we can transform our lives at any moment, because our potential for spiritual growth is limitless.

There may be 6 billion people on Earth, but as the Midrash taught two thousand years ago – in God’s creative wisdom, no two human beings are exactly alike – every single one of us in a one-of-a-kind, never before and never again creation. Each of us comes along only once in the entire history of humanity.

It is as if you and I have been given a sacred trust from the universe itself – the remarkable gift of our unique lives. The undeniable reality that you are I are each a unique combination of genes that is a once-in-history event, that never occurred in all of recorded time, and will never occur again is the wonder of that simple Hebrew phrase – vayivra elohim et ha’adam betzalmo – and God created human beings, every single one of us in God’s own sacred image.

This is both our spiritual inheritance and our challenge – to live our lives each day so that we are worthy of being called reflections of the divine. When Didi was 22 years old she nearly drowned in the ocean and was rescued by a young man who looked past his friends playing on the beach, recognized her distress far out on the horizon, and risking his own life saved hers.

When she recovered from that terrifying near-death experience she realized that she had been given the gift of life a second time and now it was up to her to make sure that it was a life worth saving.

WIIFM. What’s in it for me, is the ultimate challenge to embrace life fully, as if I too have been rescued from the jaws of death each day – because that is the reality of our lives. So live each day so that tonight and every night before you go to bed, you can look into your own mirror and say, “Today my life, too, was worth saving.”

Baruh ata adonai, elohaynu meleh ha’olam, sheheheyanu, vekeymanu, vehigianu lazman hazeh.