An Illusory Freedom: Choice & Consequence


A favorite trope of philosophers and religious scholars from ancient times to ours has been the concept of free choice. Does it exist as a vague tenet of traditional religious entitlement so we may feel free to question our ‘destiny’? Or is it merely a glib, convenient dodge for questionable behavior? Either way, acting upon it is never without consequences for the present or the future, both of which we like to think we can influence even if that influence may be illusory in itself. One of the stronger arguments for the consequence of interpreting the concept of free choice is found in Parashat Shemini, this week’s Torah reading in the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

In the illustration above, called Choice & Consequence, a scale is suspended from a mystical winged yad (Torah pointer). One pan holds the sephirah of Chesed (lovingkindness) that has been damaged and unbalanced by the sephirah Gevurah, (strength and power) in the other pan. The status of these qualities lies beneath the many vivid examples of victory and tragedy in the Torah narrative. One of most heartbreaking events was the dramatic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, High Priest of Israel. The young men were also godsons of Moses, Aaron’s brother. The Talmud and Kabbalah offer multiple interpretations of this incident. The most familiar is the brother’s unauthorized offering of incense or ‘strange fire though not requested to do so. According to Louis Ginzburg’s Legends of the Bible 1, they were killed upon their offering by two filaments of fire that flashed from the Ark in the Tabernacle. These split into four flames, pierced the nostrils of the young men and incinerated their souls. The bodies are shown intact for the legend also claims that after the event, no external injuries were visible. My imagination rode this story back to an earlier example of an unacceptable sacrifice; that of Adam’s son Cain, his rejected harvest offering and subsequent murder of his brother Abel. God’s rejection of Cain’s offering makes this tale equally tragic despite God’s vague attempt to justify his action to an angry and vengeful Cain. Though the later sacrificial system was designed to short-circuit the expression of these emotions, the loss of these young lives remains a scar on our history. One of the stranger postscripts to Cain’s murder of his brother is that God chose not to destroy Cain for his misdeed. Instead, he was condemned to live with his crime for an extraordinarily long lifetime while bearing an enigmatic stigma. Rashi, the medieval French Torah commentator asserts that this ‘mark of Cain’ was a horn that protruded from his forehead eventually causing his death by a hunter who mistook him for an animal. Another interpretation in the Zohar(Book of Splendor) associates this mark with the Hebrew letter ‘vav‘ because the name Cain or ‘qayin‘ in Hebrew, means ‘hook’.2 Was this ‘vav‘ or ‘hook’ meant to connect Cain to God during his journey towards spiritual redemption? Since both of these assertions intrigued me, I decided to combine them in one image showing Cain’s horn emerging from the ancient Hebrew letter ‘vav‘. The design of his horn was suggested by the ‘horns’ of the mizbeach or sacrificial altar.

I often marvel at how everything is connected in strange and subtle ways. Though created as a stand-alone post, last week’s drawing, ‘Innovasion'(detail shown above) whimsically explored the theme of unusual eating utensils. Coincidentally, the other important theme in Parashat Shemini, happens to be the laws of kashrut (kosher eating practices)regarding animals; laws that clarify which animals may and may not be eaten with any utensils. In my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), the illustration for this section of Parashat Shemini, called Sanction & Censure was my final choice for the book. Yet, I thought it might be interesting to show an alternative option I considered at the time.

By way of explanation, the diverse array of creatures categorized in Parashah Shemini as kosher and unkosher provided an intense artistic challenge. As I began to draw these creatures, I was as delighted as a child to be depicting representatives of the vast array of life forms inhabiting our planet. Digging further into the laws of kashrut, however, these restrictions seemed way too complex to be arbitrary. I wondered about their true meaning for us beyond straightforward obedience. Though I personally understand and observe the basic tenets of kashrus, my imagination is simultaneously attracted to the esoteric. So, upon closer examination, if the animals I have drawn seem to have unique personalities, they do. Their ‘personalities’ were suggested by the Hasidic idea that each creature deemed ‘kosher’ contains ‘sparks of holiness’ and that when properly blessed and eaten, those ‘sparks’ are released, inviting the Divine Presence into our material world. Accordingly the creatures appearing fully colored underscore this idea. Those appearing in neutral grey tones within the black chessboard grid are considered inappropriate to be eaten and for the performance of commandments (mitzvot). Surrounding the ‘chessboard’ are emblems representing four of the spiritual worlds (atzilus,beriyah,yetzirah,asiyah) and elements associated with them (air, water, earth, fire). I thought these should remind us that free choice may not exist merely to reassure our need for independent thinking, but rather we should understand it as a way to reaffirm our connection to creation and to each other.

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