The Vacancy of Freedom

When the world didn’t end on Friday, I thought I’d post a revelatory message on Saturday. Instead, I got carried away applying for a scholarship and lost track of time. So, I figured, let’s just read the next lesson of the Pirkei Avot and post it promptly on Sunday. Well, as I decided to finish said application this evening and took something of a nap earlier in the afternoon, time has once more gotten away with me. Regardless, learning is learning no matter what time it happens at (although, arguably, midnight learning is best left for Shavuot).

3.18 This was a favorite teaching of his:

Man is beloved, for he was created in the image of God. He is exceedingly beloved for it was made known to him that he was created in the Image, as it is written, “In the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).

Israel is beloved, for they are called God’s children. They are exceedingly beloved for it was made known to them that they are God’s children, as it is written, “You are children of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1).

Israel is beloved, for a precious instrument was given to them. They are exceedingly beloved for it was made known to them that they were given a precious instrument with which the world was created, as it is written, “For I give you good doctrine, forsake not My Torah” (Proverbs 4:2).

There are a few things I like to think of as “depressive” texts–not because they depress, but because they’re what I remember–or sometimes fight to remember–when I’m feeling my worst. The first is Solomon’s saying “Gam zeh ya’avor,” “This too shall pass,” and the second is this–another of Rabbi Akiva’s teachings, in particular the part about being created in God’s image: I don’t generally believe God is sadistic, so my suffering must serve some greater purpose–a purpose only he may know, but a benevolent purpose still.

I’ve spent many long years considering what it means to be created in God’s image–doubly so since I was raised, as were most Jews, to believe that God has no “image” and any depictions of him cannot truly encompass him: In this manner he is beyond knowing, infinite in a manner we–as limited humans–cannot recognize. There’s a certain poetry in this realization, something sort of beautiful in this revelation, that always brings a smile to my face.

The obvious interpretation is also the most limiting: That in the image of God, we must look like God–but what a pitiable God if he should be as ugly as each of us in comparison with things of real beauty, and on what spiritual level would self-esteem issues destroy us? Today I feel bad about my image; tomorrow I’m sentenced for heresy. Ignoring its impossibility to be the true intent of this statement, it’s not a satisfying answer anyways.

I like to think of it this way: In which ways are we Godlike? What functions–the most basic of all possible functions–do we share with our creator? After much thought and personal discoveries, I found we are created in God’s image for, like God, we possess the power to create and destroy. What more fundamental similarities do we possess? We are physical beings, but God is non-physical–so what we share must go beyond ourselves and speak to our greatest potentials: To create and destroy.

This teaching also has a certain cadence I enjoy… We are beloved because… We are especially beloved because… It seems to imply the act of knowing, understanding, can change our state of existence. Indeed, I believe this must be so.

When we are well fed, we do not know hunger, so we cannot appreciate what it feels like to have no hunger. However, once we have tasted true hunger, we can appreciate every bite of food we are given not only for its surface, but also its depth–the expulsion of that gnawing, nagging pest inside us that hunger becomes.

Likewise, once we recognize being made in God’s image, we can raise ourselves to a higher standard and draw deeper meaning from this gift: We have the power to create and destroy; what shall we do with it? We shall create and safeguard God’s creation, for only in this coming together can Godliness be achieved.

A similar argument and strand of reasoning applies equally well to the second and third statements almost to the point that I feel any continued discussion is by nature redundant. However, I am still intrigued by the importance realization given in this teaching.

It has been said that ignorance is bliss. It has also been said that with great power comes great responsibility, and also that knowledge is power. This logically implies that responsibility is the antithesis of bliss. By knowing we have been created in God’s image, we now have the responsibility to live virtuous lives, to create rather than to destroy. In becoming wiser, we have lost the freedom of our ignorance and youth.

It is the bane of aging. Even at 23, I can recognize this fact.

What’s worse is as we become aware of our potentials, we gain greater control over our lives and should therefore possess a new standard of freedom that surpasses what we possessed in our ignorance–however, this yields a paradox. How can we simultaneously possess more and less freedom than we had before?

I sometimes wonder if God feels the same. He has created a world in which we all possess free will, but with our free will we have acted against God’s doctrines. However, if he swoops in to change us, he will be taking away our free will, thus ruining his own creation–destroying as opposed to creating. Assuming creation is godly while destruction is not, to destroy us would be to validate us–yet another paradox uncovered.

I should like to think there are obvious answers, but the obvious answers are often the most limiting. We are created in God’s image. We are God’s children. We possess a precious instrument through which the world itself was created. And although we know this, is understanding its implications completely possible on the human level?

I should like to think so–but to know is impossible.

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