Paradise Lost?

Paradise Lost? – Rosh Hashanah 5760 (1999)

We are created, we believe, in God’s image. The first chapter of Torah, in Bereshit, tells us:

[1:27-31] And God created humanity in His image; in the image of God was humanity created; male and female God created them. God blessed them… And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good.

What does it mean to be created in God’s image? Obviously, God does not have physical characteristics, so the number of our limbs, the arrangement of our organs, the color of our skin is irrelevant. What is it about us that hearkens back to the nature of God?

Some would say that it is our capacity to love, others it is our drive to become holy. But I believe that Genesis gives us clues – and a mandate. Let’s begin by reviewing the details of how humanity was created, in the second telling of the story in Genesis, which is more the “guy” version of the story: the nuts and bolts version.

[2:4-22] When Adonai made earth and heaven … Adonai formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Adonai planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom He had formed. And from the ground Adonai caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. … And Adonai commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” … And Adonai cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one of the ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And Adonai fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and he brought her to the man.

So, to review, in this version the male was made first, given the commandment not to eat the fruit from either of the two trees under penalty of death, and then the female was created.

[3:1-7] Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that Adonai had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say: ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?'” The woman replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of any of the other trees of the garden. It is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.'” And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened…

At first, the story seems simple: the woman, seduced by the serpent, eats the forbidden fruit, then gives it to the man, who also eats it. All three get cursed and sent out from the Garden; so begins the life of pain and sorrow, and sin.

Except that I think that the story is not about sin at all, but is rather a story of the true birth of humanity, the story of our true Godlike nature, and the basis for our mandate in this world.

The Rabbis noticed several clues that something else was going on in this story. For example, the woman says that they have been forbidden to touch the fruit, when the man was only told not to eat it. The Rabbis figured that the man had exaggerated the command, in an attempt to shield the woman, who had not been around to hear it, from breaking the command. The serpent, the Rabbis conjectured, pushed the woman into the tree, and when she did not die, said, “See? You were misinformed. Now go ahead and eat – isn’t the fruit beautiful? How could anything so beautiful be bad?”

The problem with that interpretation is that the woman does break God’s commandment, and then goes on, traditionalists tell us, in serpent-like fashion to seduce the man into the same transgression, dragging him into a world of sin.

Or, perhaps there is another interpretation.

Take a minute to remember the infants you have known. They are sweet, lovable, and adaptable. Even when they are crying, they are crying because they are in need, and it triggers a powerful human instinct to try to quench that need. The personalities that they have are glimmers of the individuals that they will become, but just that: glimmers.

Then the “terrible twos” hit. Suddenly, for no apparent reason at all, they begin saying “No.” Vehemently, irrationally, as if the world depended upon it. And the sweet, cuddly packages of love are suddenly replaced for long periods by these terrors who want nothing more, it seems, than to be oppositional.

Finally, fifteen or sixteen years later, they emerge from this stage as maturing adults. It’s quite an arc, when you consider it: to begin as living beings that have no sense of the outside world, only pleasure and pain, to awakening persons who have the concept of someone to say “no” to, ending up as fully human beings capable of ethical decisions and actions. And to think, it only took Adam and Eve an afternoon!

Now, when God gave the command not to eat of the Tree, it was not, I believe, a command that the Eternal one expected, or even hoped, would be followed. Rather, it was the key to the door to the Garden, a Garden in which we could never be truly human. A Garden from which we had to escape in order to be said to be made in “God’s image.” A blissful prison in which there was no discomfort, no problems, no choices.

For it is after all choice that is the aspect of God that is most Divine. We learn this over and over throughout Torah: God makes a decree, someone argues effectively with God, and God makes a different choice. That is when we are closest to God, and when we are most like God: when we confront what we believe is wrong, no matter who the opponent, and say, “No. I will not do this. This must not happen. Things must change.”

Let’s go back to the man and the woman in the Garden, again, unnamed until they have eaten the Fruit. The Fruit, remember, that gives whoever eats it the knowledge of good and bad.

I have a trick question for you here. Remember the sequence: the woman eats it first, then gives it to the man. What happens when she eats it? She knows the difference between the right thing and the wrong thing. She has the power of choice. She is, in fact, at that moment the first human creation of God, for she is the first person to know what is right and what is wrong, and to have the power to choose between them.

Knowing full well the nature of what she is about to do, she offers the man the fruit. Now, here’s the question: was giving the man the fruit right or was it wrong? And here’s the trick: did God create beings whose primary urge was towards good, or towards evil?

For this was the first act of real humanity, the first opportunity for a person to act according to her design. You must decide whether the woman acted according to her best nature, or her worst. She knew what she was doing, she was fully aware of right and wrong; this was the birth of God’s newest creation.

If you say she did wrong, then I maintain you are adopting a view of humanity which is, at its heart, motivated towards evil. I maintain that you are promoting a dark vision in which women are inferior, and seduce men away from the good. This is a vision of people drawn to pain, greed and injustice, of caring only for themselves. A vision in which God’s creation is flawed, and we as people are the flaw.

Or, Eve did right. She knew what God wanted: partners in creation. Beings that can choose, that know what is right and what is wrong, and that aspire to the good. Beings that can see the pain, the injustice in the world, and act to correct it, despite the cost.

When we use this vision of humanity, we seek out the good in others, instead of dwelling on the bad. We recognize that there are choices to be made, sometimes difficult choices, sometimes frightening choices, but choices nonetheless. We see the opportunities that choices bring: opportunities to hasten the Messianic Age, when – by our own hands, “by the sweat of our brows” – we will create a world in which justice and compassion prevail.

The future we can see, the future we can achieve, depends on our vision. What do you see as Eve hands the man that fruit: the end of paradise, or the beginning of a grand adventure?

The choice is yours.

L’Shanah Tovah!

© 1999-2007 James F. Brulé