Shabbat Bereshit: Till It and Tend It

This Shabbat we return to our regularly-scheduled Torah, as it were, after the excitement on Simkhat Torah of reading the very end and the very beginning of the scroll. Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, dies, and is bewailed, and then the people move on – and we find ourselves, following them, suddenly in a Garden of pristine, unsullied, wondrous potential. Everything is new again. Our tradition, when we trust it and follow it, offers us this promise from the beginning of Elul, now seven weeks ago.
In this week’s parashah we find ourselves once again reading of the Garden of Eden, that symbol for the uncomplicated “before” that we look for, and long for. (I’m attaching a sweet poem about the first humans and the power of speech that I couldn’t find room for during the High Holy Days that I hope you will enjoy.) We read that we were created to live in beauty and peace with each other, our fellow creatures, and our surroundings, and that our only responsibility was to care for and respect the earth and all upon it.

  וַיִּיצֶר ה אֱלֹקים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו,
נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
HaShem G*d formed humans of the dust of the ground
and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and humans became alive
ח  וַיִּטַּע ה אֱלֹקים, גַּן-בְּעֵדֶן–מִקֶּדֶם; וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם,
אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָצָר.
And HaShem G*d planted a garden in the east, in Eden
and there placed the humans whom G*d had formed.
ט  וַיַּצְמַח ה אֱלֹקים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה,
וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל- וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.
Out of the ground HaShem caused to grow every
tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life
also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil


טו  וַיִּקַּח ה אֱלֹקים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ. HaShem G*d took the humans, and put them into the garden of Eden
to till it and to tend it. (Bereshit 2.7-8,15)
Life seems so much more complicated than that – but this is the promise as our Jewish tradition puts it: it can be a garden if we were all to care for it and for each other.
Although we turn the pages and roll the scroll, we can’t really go back to the beginning. Even if we all agreed to do so, the challenges and the problems we face are as old as existence, and have reached their current tangled state after many generations of the worst as well as the best of human behavior.
All we can do is try to bring what we’ve learned from the holy days with us. There is forgiveness, there is the possibility of hope, there is inexhaustible supply of love in the world – and we need to help each other to learn to connect to it. Our earliest ancestors found water welling up from the ground; we can find those same eternal wellsprings, although we have to help each other dig.
We have to help each other; our theme this year for much of our learning and exploration together will be this: kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel are responsible for each other.” Our community is as strong for us as each of us feels within us, and this year I will seek to strengthen, deepen, and explore the beauty in all the ways in which all of us connect.
Once more, dear friends, back to the world, its heartbreak and its beauty. May Shir Tikvah’s community support you as you support others in our common struggle to remember the garden and believe in its promise, even now.

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.