Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Parashat Bereishit 5776 Garden Party

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Bereishit 5776
Garden Party

It was a brand new world, pristine and holy. Adam was placed in this nurturing environment, and was given few instructions: To protect and work the Garden, to procreateand then there was something about a tree.

And Almighty God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and He placed there the man whom He had formed. And Almighty God caused to sprout from the ground every tree that is pleasant to look at and good to eat, [including] the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. (Bereishit 2:8-9)

Now Almighty God took the man, and He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.  And Almighty God commanded man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may certainly eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you shall surely die." (Bereishit 2:15-17)

With a beautiful, pastoral, idyllic life ahead, Adam and Eve do the unthinkable: They partake of the fruit of the deadly tree, the very tree they were warned about, and, indeed, the result is that death comes to the world.

In the aftermath of this monumental sin, God stations guards at the entrance to the Garden, to protect the Tree of Life (3:24). This tree has the power to counteract the poisonous effects of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Had Adam and Eve been able to access the Tree of Life, the results of their transgression would have been neutralized. This leads us to raise an obvious question: Why did Adam and Eve not eat from the Tree of Life first, and only then eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? The fruit of the Tree of Life could have served as a prophylactic against the poison!

The Ohr Hachaim (3:22) addresses this question, and his answer is based on shrewd insight into the human psyche: Precisely because the Tree of Life was not prohibited, it was not alluring. Mankind has a peculiarly obsessive desire for the things that we cannot have, even or perhaps especially - when these things might kill us. Adam and Eve had no trouble walking right past the Tree of Life, never giving it a second thought. It became attractive only after they had succumbed to the temptation of the forbidden fruit, only when they were in need of a cure for their self-inflicted suffering.

Other commentators are of the opinion that the Tree of Life was more of an antidote than an inoculation: It would have been ineffective against the effects of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil had it been ingested before the sin. The medicine would work only after the patient became ill, not before.

If this is the case, a second question arises to replace the first: If the fruit of the Tree of Life is only effective as an antidote to sin, why did God create it, and then banish Adam and Eve from the Garden and deny their access to it, even going so far as to place armed guards to block the path lest they partake of this tree? (Bereishit 3:22-24) 

Apparently, the answer lies in the timeline. Following the sin, God did not exile them immediately. Instead, He approached Adam slowly, gradually, and drew him into conversation. He left Adam time and opportunity to admit his guilt, to take responsibility for his actions. God engaged Adam, gave him cues to help him realize the enormity of the sin, and a window of opportunity to pray for forgiveness. Perhaps the Tree of Life was created in order to be used during this window of opportunity, in case man was unable to withstand temptation and fulfill the commandments he had been given. God created the poison, but he also created the antidote. All Adam had to do was express remorse and commit to improving his ways, and the antidote would have been available to him. Neither Adam nor Eve stepped up; they never expressed the slightest remorse nor asked God to forgive their sin, nor did either of them indicate in any way that they would try not to sin again. Perhaps they enjoyed the taste of the forbidden fruit so much that they were addicted to its poison.

In the final account, Adam and Eve, who were charged with protecting the Garden, instead became the ones to abuse it. Had they subsequently owned up to their offence, had they taken advantage of the time God offered to them to grapple with the meaning and repercussions of their actions, had they committed to more responsible and less self-destructive behavior in the future, the antidote stood right before their eyes, as it had been from the start. With the help of the Tree of Life, perhaps they might have been allowed to stay in the Garden to enjoy its fruits.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden

Essays and Lectures Bereishit

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Parashat V’zot Habracha 5776 From Sinai to Jerusalem

Echoes of Eden
 Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat V’zot Habracha 5776
From Sinai to Jerusalem

In the final parashah of the Torah, Moshe takes leave of his people by blessing them:

And this is the blessing with which Moshe, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel [just] before his death. He said: "God came from Sinai and shone forth from Seir to them; He appeared from Mount Paran … (Devarim 32:2)

As a preface to the blessings he is about to bestow upon them, Moshe makes reference to two specific geographical locations, two places that have been mentioned before but whose significance he does not explain:  Se’ir and Paran. Rashi, drawing upon earlier traditions[1], fills in the blanks for us:

…and shone forth from Se’ir to them: [Why did He come from Se’ir?] Because God first offered the children of Esav [who dwelled in Se’ir] that they accept the Torah, but they did not want [to accept it].

…from Mount Paran: [Why did God then come from Paran?] Because He went there and offered the children of Yishmael [who dwelled in Paran] to accept the Torah, but they [also] did not want [to accept it]. (Rashi, Devarim 32:2)
Rashi, always a sensitive reader of the text, explains these cryptic references to long-forgotten places through the application of a well-known tradition that has clear textual grounding: Yishmael, son of Hagar and Avraham, “settled in the Paran wilderness” after he and his mother were banished from Avraham’s tent (Bereishit 21:21), while Esav’s domain in Se’ir was well-known to this generation of Israelites, who had been instructed to steer well clear of the inheritance given to the other son of Yitzchak (Devarim 2:5). Rashi deftly weaves the textual associations of Se’ir and Paran together with the tradition regarding their unwillingness to accept the Torah: Each of these sons of Avraham had been given the opportunity to become the People of the Book, as it were, but each had rejected the offer when they found out what was involved.

This approach stands in stark contrast to the approach of the Children of Israel. At the foot of Mount Sinai, when offered the Torah, they responded without hesitation:  “Na’aseh v’nishma” – “we will do and we will hear”. They accepted the Torah “sight unseen”, as it were, without question, without consideration of the pragmatics, of the demands that their acceptance of this Divine gift would entail.

The relationship between God and the Children of Israel is not dependent upon the content of the Torah; rather, the Torah is an expression of the unique relationship between them. This relationship, also described by Rashi, in the verse that prefaces Moshe’s parting blessings:

And this is the blessing with which Moshe, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel [just] before his death. He said: "God came from Sinai…’
He came out toward them when they came to stand at the foot of the mountain, as a bridegroom goes forth to greet his bride, as it is said, “[And Moshe brought the people forth] toward God” (Shmot 19:17). We learn from this that God came out toward them. (Rashi, Devarim 32:2)

In a sense, when the Jews accepted the Torah, they entered into a covenant with God, taking a vow similar to those of marriage. When a man and woman are wed, they do not know what fortune (or perhaps misfortune) awaits; their future is a book that is as yet unwritten. Their marriage is not based upon any assurance of what the content of that book will be; it is based upon their love for one another, and the decision that they wish to share the journey into the unknown. Rashi contrasts the pragmatic relationship, the aborted relationship between God and the nations that live in Se’ir and Paran, with the loving relationship entered into by those who declared “na’aseh v’nishma”, who had no expectation of reading the content of the book before making the loving commitment to the future of their relationship. Esav and Yishmael demanded to read the fine print before entering into the covenant; what they read seemed to them excessively demanding, and they declined God’s offer. The sons of Yaakov, on the other hand, had complete trust in the One who had offered them the covenant, and wanted nothing more than the loving relationship that this covenant would foster.

There may be a deeper level to this teaching: The names of the two protagonists, Esav and Yishmael, are suspiciously similar to the two words said by the children of Israel, na’aseh v’nishma (we will do we will listen). Taking careful note of the roots of these Hebrew words unlocks layers of meaning that might be overlooked in translations: The word na’aseh (we will do) shares the root asah with the name of Yitzchak’s son Esav, while nishma (we will listen) shares its root, shama, with the name Yishmael.[2]

There are several conclusions that we might draw from this etymological lesson: On the one hand, we might see within it an emphasis on the fidelity of the Jews versus the hesitation of those who perhaps might lay claim to some part of the inheritance of Avraham: The Children of Israel succeeded, in declaring na’aseh v’nishma, where the children of Esav and Yishmael had failed. Furthermore, we may say that in using these precise words, the Children of Israel channeled the spiritual power and potential that the others had forfeited.

On the other hand, as we approach the final verses of the Five Books of Moshe - and begin again, returning to Genesis, to Bereishit, to Creation, perhaps there is a new hope. All of mankind was created in the image of God; the entire world was created with spiritual potential. The message of the last chapter of Devarim leads directly to the message of the first chapter of Bereishit: those who succeeded in creating this unique, loving bond with God, and those who failed. We are given the opportunity to pause and wonder, to pause and hope, that the realty of the past does not dictate the destiny of the future. We do not rest on the laurels of the blessings of V’Zot HaBrachah and the knowledge that our relationship with God is unique; instead, we wait for the day that all peoples of the earth will embrace the word of God and live in tranquility.

Also the strangers that join themselves to God to serve Him and to love the name of God, to be His servants I will bring them to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus declares the Almighty God who gathers the dispersed of Israel: Yet I will gather others to him, beside those that are gathered. (Yishayahu 56:6-8)

Chazak Chazak V’nitchazek!

[1] See Sifri Dvarim V’zot Habracha Piska 343.
[2] This teaching is found in the commentary of the Vilna Gaon in his Aderet Eliyahu, Dvarim 32:2, and in numerous places in the writings of the Hid”a, who attributes the idea to the Torat Haim (authored by R. Abraham Hayyim ben R. Naftali Tzvi Hirsch Schor, d. 1632) commentary to Talmud Bavli Avoda Zara 2b.

                                               Echoes of Eden