Playing God


When my 9-year-old son recently got an iPod Touch he was excited by the array of apps and games at his fingertips. Learning that an iPod could address him in any way he pleased, my son jokingly asked Siri to call him “God.” This would have been a cute story about boys and their toys, except my son didn’t realize that our online accounts are linked. You can imagine my utter bewilderment when my personal emails suddenly switched from my name to God’s! Needless to say, this problem was rectified, and my son (and Siri) promised to never play God again.

After a good laugh with my wife, I began to wonder what it might actually mean to play God. This thought exercise may seem quixotic, yet there is something empowering about imagining what good we could do without limitations and with infinite resources.

We need look no further than this week’s Torah portion to learn what it means when humans represent God. The reading deals with various states of ritual, impurity and a biblical malady called tzara’at, which is akin to leprosy affecting both skin and physical structures.

The kohanim of the Tabernacle and Temple play a critical role as they are entrusted to diagnose and heal those afflicted with this ailment, from medical attention to pastoral care. For instance, lepers were frequently quarantined outside the camp, and kohanim would check on the sick. Similar to a hospital visit today, we can imagine the kohen bringing comfort through his presence and prayers of healing, all in God’s name.

The kohanim are clearly designated to play a sacred role, yet a textual nuance teaches us that caring for the sick did not fall solely on their clerical shoulders. The Torah says: “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to Aaron the kohen, or to one of his sons, the kohanim” [Leviticus 13:2]. The Torah tells us that the sick should “be brought” to the priests, but who is to take them?

That the identity of these caring souls remains anonymous transmits a powerful message about the constitution of a spiritual community. Caring for God’s creations is not limited to one’s job description but is a shared responsibility. Further, while the kohanim may represent us in our sacred spaces, God expects all of Israel to be “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” [Exodus 19:6].

When the Rabbis in the Talmud wrestle with the meaning of “you shall walk after God” [Deuteronomy 13:5], they conclude that while humans can’t physically walk with or be like God, we are capable of walking in the ways of God, with examples of Divine actions that we can emulate. Just as God clothes Adam and Eve, so can we clothe the poor. Just as God visits Abraham when he is recovering from circumcision, so can we visit the sick in our community. Just as God comforts mourners by visiting Isaac shortly after Abraham’s death, so are we called upon to comfort the grieving and broken-hearted [Tractate Sotah 14a]. It’s worth noting that even our work-week mirrors God’s, with six regular days followed by Shabbat.

Jewish tradition unequivocally asserts that we all are called upon to be imitatio dei, imitating God. Being God’s representatives on earth extends beyond our own Jewish communities and, reminiscent of Jonah and his mission to Nineveh, extends even to those who do not see us as friends.

In his new book, “Thou Shalt Innovate,” Avi Jorisch writes: “the national emblem of Israel, a menorah — the biblical seven-branched lampstand — symbolizes Israel’s desire to act as a source of light.” Through generosity, technology, innovation and compassion, we have the power and tools to share the light of Torah around the globe.

This week’s Torah portion teaches us about the vital role we can all play as God’s representatives in a world in need of healing. And I realize the need to revisit the “iGod” conversation with my son, reminding him that more powerful than the iPod in his hands are his hands themselves. With our hands we can touch people’s lives in countless ways and build a compassionate world as we walk in the ways of God. 

Rabbi Charles E. Savenor serves as the director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 7:23 p.m.

Torah: Lev. 12:1-15:31

Haftarah: II Kings 7:3-20

Havdalah: 8:25 p.m.