Shabbat Bereishit is a Sabbath of new beginnings, as we begin the cycle of Torah readings again and the work/school year really starts after the summer and holiday seasons. It is the time that Miki and Emmy have chosen to formally establish their home together. What can we learn from this week’s reading to get them started on their way?
In the Garden of Eden everything gets off to a lovely start but the beauty doesn’t last for long, maybe only a few hours. As the Torah tells the story, the reality in which we live is the outcome of eating the forbidden fruit, the subsequent curses and banishment from the Garden of Eden. What lessons, if any, might it teach us that are applicable to life outside the Garden.
When we read the story, one of the first questions that emerges is: “Why was it so easy for the snake to tempt the woman into eating the forbidden fruit? Part of the answer may be in the way the original instructions were transmitted. Before the woman appears on the scene as a separate being, God commands. “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.” (Genesis 2:16-17).
When the woman meets the snake, she reports: “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. It is only about 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’” (Gen 3:2-3).
There are several conspicuous differences between the command and the report. In particular: 1) The woman does not call the tree by its name rather, “the tree in the middle of the garden” and 2) she adds the prohibition against touching the tree. These gaps provide the snake with the openings to tempt her. Rather than examining the snake’s methodology, let us ask preliminary questions: Why doesn’t the woman know the name of the tree? Why does she add to the prohibition?
Rabbi Yehuda Henkin proposes an interesting answer. The woman does not know the name of the tree because the man (Heb. “Ha-adam”) did not tell her and he was the first to add the prohibition about touching (as the midrash reports in Avot D’Rabbi Natan). He related to her as a child to whom you do not tell all the details and reasons for a rule, and from whom you expect blind obedience. Henkin claims that the man (Heb. Ish) did not understand at first that the woman was an independent human being of equal worth. Rather he saw her as an extension of himself, “Then the man said, ‘This one at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman (Heb. Isha) for from man (Heb. Ish) was she taken’” (Genesis 2:23).
Henkin stresses that the man and woman were created equal. The man’s demeaning evaluation of the woman caused her to stumble. Then she caused him to stumble. One stumble leads to another, and together they lead to sin and damnation. To this very day, humanity is suffering the results of the Original Disrespect.
The result of the eating that forbidden fruit was not limited to the knowledge of good and evil, or even the introduction of human mortality. God decrees: “I will make your pangs in childbearing most severe” while the man is told, “All the days of your life: Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you… By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (Gen. 3:16-17). It is not childbirth that is the curse, but rather the pain; not work and effort, but rather the frustration and difficulty. According to this reading the travail, frustration and pain in this world are the result of the first man’s deprecating attitude towards the Other in his life.
Their descendants (that’s us) are yet to internalize the message. Deprecating attitudes between people, as individuals and groups (not only between men and women, but also between nations and ethnic groups, or even between adults and children, etc.) continue to cloud and taint our world. Indeed, we were propelled into an entangled thicket. Is there a way out? The last verses in the section hint at the way.
First: “The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.” The man understands his mistake and now relates to the woman as an independent being, and gives her a proper name, “Eve.” We would not have been surprised if he had been angry and separated from her. However, he takes a different course, not only giving her a name but expressing understanding for one of women’s roles in human history. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that only after this point is the man referred by the personal name Adam without the prefix “the” (Heb. Ha-), which makes “adam” a common noun. Only when the woman has a proper name, does the man receive one. Together, they confront the difficult situation they brought upon themselves, move forward to create a family and get to work.
Then, in the next verse we read, “And the Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). Again, it would have been reasonable for the God to be angry and break-off his relationship with the rebellious couple. Rather, S/He responds with kindness and provides them with better clothing for facing the coming challenges.
To all of us, my message is: There is no way back to Eden but we do have a way to improve our current reality: by relating to each other and to all Others with respect, giving and kindness.
To Miki and Emmy: One of the seven wedding blessings says, “May the loving couple be happy, just as You made Your creation happy in the garden of Eden, at the beginning of time.” However, as we have just seen, the first couple did not get chance to rejoice in the Garden of Eden for very long. Therefore, I hope that you will learn the lessons of mutual respect, cooperation and giving so that you can rejoice in your home together for many, many years.
Parashat Bereishit 5774, Hod veHadar