I was talking with some students in our Judaic Studies class recently about the Adam and Eve chapter of Genesis, when something struck me. This kids were not at all disappointed that Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden.
“But isn’t that a bummer,” I said, “that they couldn’t live in this perfect paradise and have the easy life?”
“No,” they said. “That wouldn’t be good for them. They didn’t even realize how good they had it.”
When these kids learned that the punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge was expulsion, these kids seemed actually relieved. The perfection the Garden of Eden was not appealing to them. In fact it was too much pressure. And they argued, if Adam and Eve didn’t know anything bad, they wouldn’t appreciate the good.
I was interested and impressed to hear the worldview of young people who are perfectly at ease with imperfection.
Indeed Adam and Eve don’t complain about their punishment, and although dialogue is sparse, I get the sense that Adam and Eve carry on with relative calmness after their punishment.
What is the Torah trying to teach us with the narrative?
Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard Professor of Humanities writes:
Hebrew Scriptures seems to be offering a powerful way to understand a fundamental set of questions about the way we humans live: Why do we have to work so hard? Why are women oppressed by men? Why do they continue to desire men who oppress them? Given that childbirth is necessary for procreation, why is it so painful? Why, in the end, do we return to the dust? While the story, as told in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), does not suggest Adam and Eve sinned, it does seem to suggest that the earliest human beings bear some responsibility for the way things are.
The Adam and Eve introduce the idea of human responsibility. Imagine if they hadn’t been expelled from the Garden. Imagine if God had simply said, “Oh well, you broke my only law, but no big deal. Let me fix that for you, let me give you another chance.”
My students in school would have been very disappointed in God I think! But more importantly, the potential for human beings to learn and grow would have been stunted right there at the beginning.
Very early on, our Torah sets up a dynamic between God and humanity that is two sided. In other ancient religions, the gods were arbitrary. Humans couldn’t influence when it would rain or when there would be enough food. Judaism starts from a different point: that human beings can and do influence our environment and our reality.
That is not to say we can control everything – surely the ability to let go and not control is a particular challenge for many of us. But the spiritual challenge of our time is to know the difference. When do exert our efforts and influence to make changes and when do we release and let life takes its course.
My sense is that we often confuse the two. We try to control the small things close to us – our family members, our professional lives, our public image, while we give up on the big things that seem uncontrollable – the environment, social injustices, politics.
Perhaps the Adam and Eve story is reminding us that we have more power than we think – work on the big things that God created us for: caretaking the earth and all its creatures. And give up some of the things that are driven by ego.
This year, my Torah column will focus on the Book of Genesis. Genesis is the first, and probably most familiar, book of the Torah. This book has many themes that still influence us today: being created in God’s image, a day of rest, creation and destruction, along with many issues related to family relationships.
In my view, Genesis is book about God and our early Jewish ancestors getting to know each other. They are creating something totally new and revolutionary. God is open to the influence of humankind and humankind is learning how to live in holiness rather than in simple everyday-ness.
Many of Genesis’ stories are familiar – Creation, Noah, Joseph and his coat – but these stories as child-like as some may appear, are the foundation of our religion and indeed many world religions.
Let’s talk about Creation.
Why does the Torah start with creation?
In our day and age, we believe in science and evolution. We know intellectually that Earth wasn’t created in 6 days. We know that God probably didn’t speak things into existence with commands like: Let there be light!
So what use is a creation narrative?
Rashi, the great Medieval commentator explains that we have the creation story so that all humanity can know that Earth is God’s property. Should any people or nation become too haughty and dominating, the Creation story reminds us that whatever we have is on loan from God. God is the landlord of Earth.
I value that interpretation but it’s not quite satisfying. We have commandments about letting the land rest in the 7th year and returning property to its owners in the Book of Leviticus. To me, Rashi doesn’t fully answer the question of why the Torah begins with Creation.
Dr. Carol Ochs, a professor at Hebrew Union College, shares a beautiful interpretation of the creation of light on the first day. We may think that light on the first day means the sun. But the sun, moon and stars were called into being until the fourth day. So what is the light of the first day?
Dr. Ochs teaches that Day One light is the light of consciousness.
It is the moment of awareness and awakeness that happens even before we physically see something.
Living in our world, we may think of sunrise, but that is not the light referred to in the Torah-the sun is not called into being until the fourth day. Rather, it is the light of consciousness, which appears to us just after waking but before we open our eyes to admit physical light.
If we understand this first form of light as consciousness, then we understand that from the beginning, creation is conscious and deliberate.
Our prayerbook also recognize this ability in our morning blessings when we say, Thank you God for giving us the ability to distinguish between day and night.
The blessing is not referring to our physical capacity to distinguish but to our spiritual consciousness, the ability to be aware of our universe.
This interpretation resonates with me because it answers the question of why start the Torah with Creation. Creation is not simply an itinerary of what happened when. It is a deep statement about the purpose of life. Consciousness, awareness, awakeness is the purpose.
Why does the Torah include the Creation story? To show us our purpose, not just when we were created, but why.
For we Jews, that awareness comes through mitzvot. By taking part in the holy activites Judaism invites us into, we develop a consciousness of time, environment, other people and perhaps God as well.
On Rosh Hashanah, coming soon, we sound the shofar. Its blasts are not an organized melody but their purpose harkens back to creation. Each shofar sound is meant to wake us up, to blast us into consciousness of the holiness around us.
From Creation through our holy days, Judaism gives us an opportunity for a higher consciousness and more meaningful interactions.
As we begin this new year together, may we gather strength from each other to be more awake and alert in our service of God and humanity.
Think & Discuss:
What is the spiritual message of our Jewish creation narrative to you?
How can we be more aware / awake in our environment today?
When are the moments when you feel more aware?