The hand of God

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Click photo to download. Caption: Dr. Erica Brown.

One of the most iconic images in the art world is the finger of God reaching out to the finger of Adam and raising him up in the act of creation. Michelangelo’s rendition of the creation story on the Sistine chapel ceiling remains a constant visual imprint for many of us who read these texts. The fingers almost touching communicates an intimacy that many of us strive for in our relationship with God or find forever elusive if we feel “out of touch.”

Andrew Graham-Dixon, chief art critic for London’s Sunday Telegraph, wrote the book Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel and describes the physical and artistic feat of this great artist. When working on some of the largest figure compositions, the entire fresco plaster became infected with “great blooms of fungus,” and Michelangelo compromised his eyesight working for years at the painting. Graham-Dixon wonders why the artist rendered God’s creation of Adam with a finger since other artists depicted the scene differently. Here is his theory:

“I began to see it as the creation of the education of Adam, because that’s the symbolism of the finger. God writes on us with his finger, in certain traditions of theology... The finger is the conduit through which God’s intelligence, his ideas and his morality seep into Man. And if you look at that painting very closely, you see that God isn't actually looking at Adam, he's looking at his own finger, as if to channel his own instructions and thoughts through that finger."

Perhaps—and this is just conjecture—Michelangelo read Isaiah 42, the haftarah reading that accompanies creation. There, we read that God created and stretched out the heavens and spread forth the earth and gave breath to people who live on the earth. But Isaiah's creation account does not stop there. It takes an intimate and visual turn. "I the Lord, in My grace, have summoned you. And I have grasped you by the hand. I created you and appointed you a covenant people, a light to the nations..." (6-7)

God not only made human beings. In this account, God grasped us by the hand and took us on a tour of creation to give us a purpose: be a light to others. This image of light is quite literal as Isaiah continues: “Opening eyes deprived of light. Rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon of those who sit in darkness” (42:7). Being a light to others means going to places of darkness and shedding the light of rescue and relief. Wherever there is darkness, strive to bring the light.

We recently re-opened Genesis and re-read the majestic story of creation. God was the Creator, all-powerful and distant. But in the second chapter, God invested the divine breath into the muddy form of man, imbuing human beings with sanctity, taking them from inanimate, powerless creatures to beings who—with each exhalation—were bringing the divine presence into the world. And when we finished reading Genesis about the creation of man and woman, we turned to Isaiah to understand not how we were formed but why.

It is there that Isaiah reminds us that God created light and then grasped us by the hand and showed us a world with many pockets of darkness. God called us a covenant people, meaning that we are to be partners in the act of creation. God created light in the world and created us. Now it is our turn to create the light. What are you doing to partner in the on-going creation and bring more light into the world?

Dr. Erica Brown (pictured, click to download) is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on October 19, 2012 and filed under Jewish Life, Torah Commentary.