We are back at the beginning again.
Some of you know that I love Parashat Bereshit, because it opens up all of the big questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Who is this God character, and where did he/she/it come from? How did all of Creation come into being? Why is humanity so complex?
Not that the Torah alone is equipped to answer such questions, of course, particularly for modern people. On the contrary: Bereshit offers partial answers to some of these questions, but leaves others more or less untouched, and some of those answers are not particularly helpful, given what we know today through scientific inquiry. As is usually the case when we dig into a meaty piece of ancient text, we might come away from the opening chapters of Genesis with even more questions. And particularly for contemporary people of faith, since science addresses the question of “how,” but often leaves off the answer to “why.” That is one reason that we absolutely need Torah.
It makes sense that the Torah starts in Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden; we want our beginnings to be pure. In Hebrew, the term “Gan Eden” is used to mean “paradise,”* but that English term brings with it associations that are not really found in the Torah’s text or Jewish interpretations. Gan Eden is not a place of the so-called “afterlife;” it is rather, you might say, a sort of womb for Creation, a protected, natural space in which God could raise the newly-created plants, animals, and humans. Gan Eden was God’s nursery: fresh and flowering and nurturing.
Our popular conceptions about Gan Eden comes to us from Christianity: that the first humans created there were without sin and immortal, and upon having eaten the apple, experienced a kind of spiritual fall, which made them fundamentally sinful and mortal.
But we, the Jews, read the story in a very different way. Humans were created to be mortal. And, by the way, the Torah never mentions an apple; the fruit is a non-specific fruit, although some Jewish sources suppose that it was a fig or a pomegranate.
More importantly, we do not have the concept of Original Sin, or the Fall. On the contrary, humans were created with the ability to transgress. And of course, they mess up very soon.
There is a wonderful midrash about the creation of human beings. Prior to doing so, God wisely consults with the angels to see how they feel about this new creature, which will be something like them, and they were not in agreement about humans. (As told in Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, JPS 2003, vol. 1, p. 51):
The Angel of Love favored the creation of humans, because they would be affectionate and loving; but the Angel of Truth opposed it, because humans would be full of lies. And while the Angel of Justice favored it, because humans would practice justice, the Angel of Peace opposed it, because humans would be quarrelsome.
To invalidate his protest, God cast the Angel of Truth down from heaven to Earth, and when the others cried out against such contemptuous treatment of their companion, God said, “Truth will spring back out of the Earth.”
After consulting with the angels, God’s response was effectively, “Thanks for your opinion. And don’t you worry about that Truth business: it will be with us for sure.” So God creates humans, and places them in this lovely Garden, knowing that they will fail. And they will lie. And they will soon be lying and killing and doing all sorts of mischief.
But God also knows that humans have the great potential to do good, to carry out justice, to love, to till and to tend the Earth respectfully. God knows that humanity is a mixed bag, and that, although people will be a source of much pain and grief, they will also pursue and hold up truth. We are not fundamentally sinful, nor can we possibly be exclusively good. Rather, we are somewhere in-between. We are exactly as God the Engineer designed us.
Gan Eden, in Jewish tradition, is not paradise. It is a point of departure, not a future destination. The beginning, not the end.
Nonetheless, the fantastical idea of achieving paradise meanders through human existence. Many cultures have such a concept in their mythologies. We do, however. have the concept of “Olam HaBa,” the world-to-come, and there are some Jews in the world who work hard at performing mitzvot, fulfilling the opportunities for holiness in Jewish law, so they can attain a place in Olam HaBa.
Opinions found on the Jewish bookshelf on what Olam HaBa is vary tremendously, from visions of a pleasurable place (like Gan Eden), to denial that there is anything at all after we die. One such vision (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 17a) sees no Earthly pleasures in Olam HaBa, but rather merely sitting, with crowns on our heads, in the splendor of the presence of God, which will vastly exceed any kind of physical enjoyment.
I have always subscribed to the idea that we perform mitzvot not for any future reward, but because that reward comes back to us in the present. And I have some good support here: there is a concept in Jewish life of Torah lishmah, learning Torah for its own sake. That is, we do not study our ancient texts and apply them to our lives so that we can get into Olam HaBa, but we do so because it is the right thing to do. The reward is the performance of the mitzvah itself. We read, for example, in Pirqei Avot, the second-century collection of Jewish wisdom(1:3):
אַנְטִיגְנוֹס אִישׁ סוֹכוֹ קִבֵּל מִשִּׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּהְיוּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, אֶלָּא הֱווּ כַעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְּשִׁין אֶת הָרַב שֶׁלֹּא עַל מְנָת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס, וִיהִי מוֹרָא שָׁמַיִם עֲלֵיכֶם
Antigonos of Sokho, received [Torah] from Shim’on the Righteous. He would say, “Do not be as servants who are serving the master in order to receive a reward; rather be as servants who are serving the master not in order to receive a reward; and may the fear of Heaven be upon you.”
Antigonos was onto something here, a more robust strategy for life. Since we cannot know what awaits us after we die, do good for the sake of doing good now and reap the rewards now. If it helps us in the Olam HaBa, harei zeh meshubaḥ! All the better.
Maimonides, writing in the 12th century, extends Antigonos of Sokho’s words:
The Sages meant to tell us by this that one should believe in truth for truth’s sake. And this is the sense they wish to convey by their expression, oved me-ahavah, “serving from motives of love.” (from Rambam’s Introduction to Pereq Ḥeleq)
We should “serve” our Master (i.e. God) and “fear Heaven” by speaking truth (remember Truth?) and pursuing justice and living according to the mitzvot not because we hope to get there after we die and hang around wearing crowns in God’s court, but rather because we do so out of an act of love for other people and the world. That is its own reward. Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake, is what we reap, and it is right here, right now.
Gan Eden, ladies and gentlemen, is not some mystical future destination for which we should strive. Neither is it an abstraction. It is, rather, what we can create for ourselves here on Earth, in the present moment.
We all have the potential to build Gan Eden, a place that is protective and nurturing, a place that is safe and innocent, green and pleasant and refreshing. All we have to do is make it happen by fulfilling the holy opportunities which have been given to us.
We create Gan Eden when we keep the Shabbat. Shabbat is a taste of the refreshment of Gan Eden, but only if you do it right – when you set aside your mundane stressors and focus on being there, being present with your family and friends, on gratitude and all that emanates from it, on the qedushah / holiness all around us.
We create Gan Eden when we reach out to others, when we work toward the common good, when we fulfill the mitzvot bein adam leḥavero, those mitzvot that maintain the qedushah between people: when we treat others with kindness, when we clothe the naked and comfort the mourner and feed the hungry.
We create Gan Eden when we gather in prayer, when we gather in joy and grief, when we fulfill the rituals of Jewish life which color our days with meaning.
One of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s most well-known songs is an ode to Woodstock, from their phenomenal 1970 album Deja Vu, although the song was written by Joni Mitchell (who was actually not at Woodstock because she had a gig on the Dick Cavett Show):
We are stardust
We are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.
But Joni got it wrong. We cannot get back to the Garden. There is no going back.
But we can make it here. All we have to do is act on the truth that is our spiritual heritage.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/22/2022.)
* Interesting etymological note: the Hebrew עֵדֶן / ‘eden means refreshment or pleasure, so Gan Eden might be literally translated as “garden of pleasure.” The word “paradise” seems to have arrived in the English language via Latin and Greek from the ancient Persian word pairidaeza, meaning a garden enclosure.