The Beginning of Our Story

"The Compassionate and Just One planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and placed there the human being whom He had formed. And the Compassionate and Just One caused to sprout from the ground every tree that was delightful to the sight and good for food; also the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad." (Genesis 2:8,9)

Dear Friends,

We had a good life in our original home; in fact, we were living in Paradise. For example, we were surrounded by trees which were "delightful to the sight" and which were also "good for food." The Garden was therefore suited for our aesthetic needs, as well as our physical and nutritional needs. As beings created in the Divine image, we also have the spiritual need to give and serve; thus, the Garden was chosen to be our first arena of service:

"The Compassionate and Just One took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it." (Genesis 2:15)

The above verse is a reminder that the human being is not the owner and sovereign of the Garden. The following Divine mandate serves as another reminder:

"And the Compassionate and Just One commanded the human being, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you may not eat thereof; for on the day you eat it, you shall surely die." (Gen. 2:16,17)

A limitation is placed on our ability to gratify our physical desires. The fruit of all the other trees were permitted, and biblical commentators such as Radak and Meshech Chochmah explain that it was actually a Divine mandate to enjoy the fruits of all the other trees of the Garden. Nevertheless, the capacity for eternal life in the Garden depends upon the ability to discipline our physical desires, as in this way, we can dedicate body and soul to the life-giving purpose of our Creator. According to our tradition, this holistic unity is called "tov" good.

When all aspects of our being are not serving this uniform purpose, we find the beginning of "rah" the bad. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the Hebrew word "rah" is related to the Hebrew word "ra'ah - to break into pieces." Evil, explains Rabbi Hirsch, appears as something "broken" - a disturbance in harmony in which the whole is no longer ruled by one uniform purpose (Commentary to Genesis 2:9).

At the beginning of the human story, the Creator revealed the altruistic and unifying purpose which defines our role on earth, but the serpent in the Garden proposed another way to view our role. In order to strengthen the temptation of the forbidden fruit, the serpent stated: "You will surely not die; for God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and bad" (Ibid. 3:4).

We are tempted to become like God, and thereby decide for ourselves what is "good and bad." As the story in the Torah indicates, we saw that "the tree was good for food and tempting to the sight" (Genesis 3:6). We began to define "good" as whatever gratifies the desires of the body, and to define "bad" as whatever prevents us from the immediate and complete gratification of our desires. And when we perceived ourselves as God, we also perceived ourselves as the owners and sovereigns of the Garden. We then felt free to exploit the Garden for our own gratification. We were no longer serving the life-giving Divine purpose, and the true Owner and Sovereign of the Garden sent us out of Paradise:

"And He drove out the human being, and stationed the cherubim at the east of the Garden of Eden, with the flame of the ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life." (Genesis 3:24).

Rabbi Hirsch, in his commentary on the above verse, points out that the words "to guard the way to the Tree of Life" can mean, "to guard the way to the Tree of Life, so that this way should not be lost to the human being, and so that the human being should return to it someday."

If we are to find our way back to the Garden, then what is the purpose of "the flame of the ever-turning sword"? The Hebrew term for sword is "cherev" a term which also refers to ruin and destruction; thus, Rabbi Hirsch explains that the sword symbolizes the ever-recurring social affliction and ruin that human beings bring upon themselves when they abandon the higher purpose for which they were created. This suffering breaks the false pride of humankind by reminding us that we are not the owners and sovereigns of the world. The Prophet Isaiah referred to this idea when he conveyed the following Divine message concerning the period just before the dawn of the messianic age:

"Humankind's haughtiness will be humbled, and the arrogance of human beings will brought low; and the Compassionate One alone will be exalted on that day." (Isaiah 2:17)

The suffering represented by the "ever-turning cherev" therefore has the potential to cause a spiritual awakening which can lead human beings back to the Garden.

Rabbi Hirsch reminds us that when we were in the Garden, we were introduced to the ultimate objective of life on earth, and although we have lost the Garden, the awareness of this ultimate goal is still within our consciousness. Rabbi Hirsch writes:

"This objective is the state of complete bliss on earth, a paradise on earth, an inkling of which has been retained in the consciousness of every people." (Commentary to Genesis 3:23)

There is therefore a universal yearning for the Garden, and this yearning is expressed in the following verse from a song by Joni Mitchell about the Woodstock Music Festival of 1969:

"We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the Garden."

As we shall discuss in this series, long before Woodstock, a small but revolutionary people began a long and challenging journey back to the Garden - not just for their own sake, but for the sake of all humanity.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon - Our Universal Vision