Shabbat Bereshit 5774: Take a Bite

 This is very simply a photograph of an apple I bought at an Israeli grocery store.


The sticker on it it what makes it priceless: Bereshit (“Genesis”) / taam Gan Eden (“the taste of the Garden of Eden”)

The term Bereshit is the name of an Israeli fruit produce company. The word eden is related to the Hebrew word for pleasure, edna. The obvious reference is to the fruit of the garden of Eden, but the more playful reference is specifically to the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We don’t know what fruit is at the heart of the story, only that it is delights the eyes, and, we assume, the mouth as well. The Rabbis of the Talmud speculated on several possibilities, including figs, grapes, and even wheat. (See Wikipedia’s article Forbidden Fruit for more on this.) The association with the apple is probably a Christian speculation based on the fact that the Latin word “evil” is closely related to the Latin word for “apple”.

Whatever fruit it was, Eve and Adam were not supposed to eat of it. The fact that G-d created us with brains and seemed to be telling the first humans not to use them, not to consume and interiorize moral knowledge of good and evil, perplexed many rabbinic commentators. Some interpretations of the story declare that this was a test of our obedience to G-d and had nothing to do with learning morality. If so, the sources all agree, we failed miserably – and not for the first time.

There is a modern approach to understanding the story which comes from the science of psychology, which suggests that the entire Garden of Eden story is an allegory for human life and growth. In the Garden, Adam and Eve, and we, are as children; all we need is provided, and all we have to do is to clean up after ourselves, even as G-d told the first humans to “till and tend the land”. 

According to the story, it was Eve’s initiative that led to the first humans disobeying the command to leave the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil alone. She ate of it at the serpent’s suggestion, then gave it to Adam, and he ate too. One thing led to another, and ultimately the two were banished from that perfect Garden of pleasure.

But a Garden of perfect, eternal pleasure does not seem to be what we humans really desire. According to the great medieval Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, the act of our creation was not completed – we did not become fully human until we could learn the difference between good and evil. We do not become human beings, not really and not completely, until the day when we develop the ability to understand and work for good, and against evil, until we can distinguish between right and wrong, and when we have developed the agency to act, knowing the costs of our actions and their promise. 

Living in a perfect paradise is not satisfying; it is boring. And that is why, according to Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), the human race should thank Eve for grabbing that apple – or whatever it was – and taking a bite. By acting to complete her creation, as G-d’s partner in the creation of her own sense of self, Eve opened the way toward our more complete development as human beings – struggling with the dangerous frustrations of our physical urges, the unruly storms of our emotions, and the soaring, exalting heights of our intellectual and spiritual ability. That’s why she is named Eve – Mother of All the Living: she opened the way for us to true, deep, mysterious, full Life.

On this Shabbat, as we bid farewell to a full and intense season of holy days and festivals, consider the spiritual year you are embarking upon: how can you follow Eve’s lead and live fully and meaningfully – physically, emotionally, intellectually.

Shabbat hol hamo’ed Sukkot 5774: What is the Fruit of Your Life?

A very long time ago, our Israelite ancestors were practicing a particular ritual of thanksgiving at this Sukkot Harvest Festival time of year:


And it shall be, when you come into the land that  יה G-d is about to give you in estate, and you take hold of it and dwell in it, you shall take from the first yield of all the fruit of the soil that you will bring from your land which  יה G-d is about to give you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that  יה G-d chooses to make the Name dwell there. You shall come to the priest who will be in those days,and you shall say to him, “I have told today to יה your G-d that I have come into the land which  יה swore to our ancestors to give us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hand and lay it down before the altar of  יה your G-d. And you shall recite before  יה your G-d: “My father was an Aramean about to perish, and he went down to Egypt, and he sojourned there….and  יה brought us out of Egypt….to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, look, I have brough the first yield of the fruit of the soil that you gave me,  יה.(Deut. 26.1-10, excerpted; trans. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)


This is the earliest record we have of a formal recitation; usually it is our acts only that are prescribed. Consider the acts, and the words, which our tradition puts in our mouths in these moments:


1. when you become aware that the promise of your life is being fulfilled (through lots of hard work of tilling and tending, of course), you are to take from the first fruits of that fulfillment.

2. you are to bring those first fruits, in whatever form they take, and donate them.

3. there is a witness (the priest) to your act.

4. you articulate a formal version of your community’s identity story


It’s hard to concentrate on Sukkot when we’ve just put so much energy into Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, but if the two major Days of Awe are thesis and antithesis, then Sukkot is really a powerful form of synthesis, of demonstrating that one has actually reached a new place because of the Days of Awe we’ve just observed. On Rosh HaShanah we reflect and consider, and on Yom Kippur we face the truth of our lives – and on Sukkot, then, one might have something new to say about the real “fruit” of one’s life. 


Note, also, that this is one more ritual act you cannot carry out alone. You need a priestly witness who represents G-d and the community in which you have been working on the seeding, weeding, and harvesting of your life. 


Your life is a field full of glorious fruits and flowers. Look over the field in its richness. What fruits of your life are ready for harvest on this Sukkot? And how will you give thanks by sharing them?


חג שמח – hag sameakh, may you celebrate the abundance in your life during these days of our Sukkot Festival 

Shabbat Shuvah: Yir’ah and Trembling

We are now entered into a ten-day period of what are meant to be Days of Awe. Awe is a difficult concept for us – the vibrant, incessant creativity of the English language has turned “awesome” into an appreciative adjective for almost anything. For our ancestors, awe – in Hebrew, yir’ah – meant the emotions that go along with a state of awareness in which one became aware of the incredible vastness of the Universe, and one’s own smallness within it. What emotions? nothing easy, really: slack-jawed amazement; heart-opening transcendence; the kind of humility that led a poet to write “O G-d, thy sea is so vast, and my ship so small”….and, also, fear.

If we are lucky, we will each have that experience at some point in our lives. For Jews, one way of understanding it is as the “Sinai moment”.  The philosopher Rudolph Otto describes the experience in his classic book The Idea of the Holy. Of all things, Otto visited a shul on Yom Kippur and wrote of having a sense of a mysterium tremendum during the prayers – an overwhelming, mysterious sense of something vast, and it filled him with an unsettling awe.

That awe, yir’ah in Hebrew, connotes the wow of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or of – for a privileged few – seeing the Earth from space, or even of contemplating a good photograph taken by the Hubble telescope. But it also includes an edge of fear: the fear of one so small in all that vastness, that one becomes aware of one’s terrifying vulnerability to loneliness, to accident, and to meaninglessness. What is it, to be a speck in the cosmos? And to be assured that, nevertheless, you, yourself, are worth it all?

And how might one react to this awareness? If you have the experience on a mountaintop, all well and good – but when you bring it to shul, you are given the gift of a chance to explore it, to talk about it, or just to react to it, within a community that will support you in those moments, and even, possibly, say, “yeah – I know what you mean.”

The prayers we recite during the High Holy Days are meant to help you find the awe in your life – whether you are feeling very small, even helpless, or very blessed, and grateful. Either situation can leave one without words. But no situation need leave you without companions.

Teshuvah, “turning” is a movement toward the self, toward others, and toward G-d – all at the same time. On this Shabbat Shuvah, may you find yourself willing to turn, even toward that which is the most awesome and frightening mystery of all – your ability to change.