Paradise Lost


We begin the annual cycle of Torah reading with two versions of Creation, the first with a global view, and the second with the story of humanity and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Humanity had possession of Paradise, the place where we could experience true closeness to God, but we couldn’t even hold on to it for a single day. We had only one mitzvah, one commandment to observe, and every living human being failed that test.

Why did God create this garden for humanity then set them up to fail? Why create that tree in the first place? Why point it out?

Having created humanity just a moment before, God knew their nature was to eat the fruit. Perhaps the test was not in eating the fruit, but its aftermath. God knew we would sin. What was unknown was whether Adam and Eve would take responsibility for their actions.

But Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. As a consequence, they are expelled from Paradise.

The theme recurs in Torah and Tanakh. God will bring the Israelites out of Egypt, into the material desert of Sinai, but offer the phenomenal experience of Revelation and the spiritual treasure of the physical-yet-supernatural tablets inscribed by the finger of God.

But the people worship the golden calf before the tablets arrive into their midst. The tablets are shattered. Over uncertainty that lasts less than a day, we again lose Paradise, perfect connection to God. Aaron, the high priest, fails to take responsibility, blaming his people. Instead of the Israelites gaining communion with God, Moses has to convince God not to destroy them entirely.

King Saul will lose his kingdom, not because he catastrophically fails to carry out God’s command to wipe out the evil of Amalek, but because he also tries to pass the buck. “The people made me do it.” But Saul was the king, and the buck stops with the king.

King David, on the other hand, commits adultery and murder, but when confronted immediately takes responsibility, saying, “I have sinned before God.” David is forgiven and our tradition holds him dear to this day.

The Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, the Temples in Jerusalem, and ultimately the Holy Land itself are all meant to be spiritual focal points where we can have the deepest possible connection to the divine. Paradises that we have lost, over and over again.

God is compassionate, slow to anger and quick to forgive, but throughout the entire Tanakh (Bible) we see that God first wants us to take responsibility. Without acknowledging our inevitable sins and taking responsibility, we will never be able to grasp Paradise.

Rabbi Joanne Yocheved Heiligman is an artist working in Columbia.

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