I love faces. Wherever I am, I love looking at people’s faces. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

I love faces. Wherever I am, I love looking at people’s faces. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

Abraham Joshual Heschel writes: “A face is a message, a face speaks, often unbeknown to the person. Is not the human face a living mixture of mystery and meaning? We are all able to see it, and are all unable to describe it. Is it not a strange marvel that among so many hundreds of millions of faces, no two faces are alike? And that no face remains quite the same for more than one instant?”

In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, it is written: “And God said, let us make a human in our image and our likeness.” Have you ever wondered what the ancient Israelites meant by that? Did they really believe that we physically resemble God, or that God physically resembles us? Or were they trying to say something else?

I believe that this mythic story was worded purposefully, in order to point towards the wondrousness of our essential nature and the inherent worth of every individual. Whether or not our understanding of God matches God’s portrayal in the bible, we Jews tell this creation story in order to express a fundamental value – the preciousness of each and every human being. This value was radical and counter-cultural then, and still is today.

Some people believe that it is our soul or “spirit” that is in the image and likeness of God. According to this common view – which has its roots in the ancient Gnostic duality between the “material” realm and the “spiritual” realm – the physical body is a sort of necessary evil, a vessel to be endured and ultimately transcended by the pure soul.

Nowadays we wouldn’t necessarily say that the body is evil – we are more likely to say something lovely like “the body is the temple of the soul.” But we are still expressing this ancient dualism. How many of us, especially as we get older, experience the body as Other?

A quick experiment: Close your eyes, and ask yourself “Where am I?” Where do you locate your Self? Very often, we locate our selves behind our faces somewhere, or perhaps in our heart area. But there is still a largely unconscious assumption that “we” are something other than our bodies.

Another perspective, found in the Jewish tradition, is that body and soul are inseparable, and that what is in the “image and likeness of God” is the one unified human body/soul. Not a divine soul trapped temporarily inside a gross body, but rather one unified being.

In the end, you can choose to understand “the image and likeness of God” in different ways, but the underlying message is that every person is precious. Jewish tradition teaches that our physical appearance – in particular, our wondrous faces – can be a reminder, a wake-up call, to the truth of our inherent worth.

Rather than responding as we are conditioned to do – with either attraction or aversion, instantaneously judging ourselves and others as being “good” looking or “bad” looking – we can cultivate an awareness of how precious everyone is – one face at a time.

And maybe then we would be more likely to act towards ourselves and towards one another with kindness and compassion.

Rabbi Randy Kafka serves Temple Israel South Shore, an independent Reform congregation in North Easton, Mass. To contact her: rkafka@comcast.net (For more information: templeisraelsouthshore.com).