Drash on Parashat B'reishit
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism, East Kew, VIC
Return to the Garden of Eden
This week we commence a new cycle of reading the Torah. The Chatan or Kallat B’reishit, who commences the new cycle, is considered one of the greatest honours in the Jewish calendar. In Palestinian times, the Rabbis of Eretz Yisrael read through the Torah in three years. But as the Babylonian community developed and their great academies such as Sura and Pumbedita exerted increasing influence on shaping the post-biblical Jewish world, they introduced the idea of completing the Torah reading cycle in just one Jewish year (making the weekly reading three times as long). They superimposed the new festival of Simkhat Torah onto the biblical ‘Shmini Atzeret’, the eighth day of Assembly, on the day after the seven days of Sukkot.
Bereshit, together with the next portion, Noakh, gives us the foundation legends of our world: Creation, the Garden of Eden, the pains of childbirth, sibling rivalry and death. Noakh starts with corruption, flood and destruction, with the chance for redemption; drink and excess, the origins of different nations, different ways to worship, or even try to replace, the deities, with the ziggurats of Babylon (the ‘Tower of Babel’) leading to the different languages spoken.
After these two ‘scene-setting’ and universal portions, we start with the particular story of our people with Lekh L’kha. But that is to get ahead of ourselves, so let’s return to the childlike innocence of the Garden of Eden. There, there was no need for clothing or farming – the weather was balmy and the food grew on the trees and plants. Every seventh day was a day of rest. Elohim (we translate this as God but it clearly has aspects of plurality, even if we interpret it that the man and the woman each perceived the creator in their own way) spoke to the humans as well. There was, thus far, no death.
In the second chapter (from 2:4) we have a retelling of creation, perhaps a different tradition woven in to the rich tapestry of Torah. Here, God (literally something like ‘YaHVeH of the gods’) fashioned a man, and then animated him by breathing into him the breath of life. Rav Soloveitchik identifies the two stories as Adam I and Adam II, and whilst Adam I is ‘society’, Adam II is what Soloveitchik famously termed ‘the Lonely Man of Faith’. In this second story, the man has to work and to maintain the garden, and God tells him he can eat from any trees except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, for if he does, he will be doomed to die (become mortal).
God determines that it is not good for the man to be lonely, and ultimately, in this second version (perhaps the better-known one, at least in Christian-influenced circles), God creates Eve from Adam. Adam and Eve could converse with the animals. And the footed serpent (skink?) encouraged Eve to eat from the prohibited tree, assuring her that it would make them ‘like gods, knowing good and evil’. She and Adam ate from the tree – and it had, in a sense, two opposing effects. It seems to have awoken their sexualities, and they become mortal (if they had not always been!) – but before dying, they produced children, which made them ‘immortal’ – and here we still are today, repeating these patterns! Adam and Eve live on in us. And the pain of childbirth, explained as God’s punishment to Eve, remains too, notwithstanding epidurals and gas!
The first garden of Eden is the paradigm of paradise – warm, safe, plentiful food, community, no need to work, and no aging and death. Indeed the related Hebrew word pardes means ‘orchard’. It is ‘heavenly’ – our best vision of ‘the world to come’, and what we aspire to return to. We cannot stay perpetual children because we have to make our way in the world, produce the future generations etc, but the model of the safe, simple and endless days, the close and direct relationship with God, remains imprinted within us so that we aim to return to a ‘second childhood’. We are all bnai A-dam, but all seeking to be bnai Elohim!