Posted on October 21, 2022 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
According to our sacred story, human life began in an idyllic setting — in a garden called Eden that was a kind of paradise. I say a kind of paradise because it wasn’t perfect. It was a place where no one ever died because the Tree of Life bestowed immortality. But it was place where access to knowledge of good and evil was forbidden. Adam and Eve were like infants, ignorant and unaware.
Ultimately, as we know, the first humans began to experience desire and curiosity. Urged on by the serpent, they ate of the forbidden fruit and were banished from the garden to make their way in the world as mortal creatures.
Ever since, humanity has been obsessed with the desire to return to that primordial state — to defeat death and live forever. This is, of course, an illusion that the opening chapters of Genesis come to expose. There is no going back. We are finite beings, and so we will remain.
Some traditions understand the story of Adam and Eve as being about the fall of humanity, a chronicle of the original sin that caused us to fall from grace. I think that the simple reading of the text suggests just the opposite. I believe the story describes the rise of humanity to become “like God, knowing good and evil,” as we are told in Genesis 3:5; 3:22.
Life in the garden was static and meaningless. Adam and Eve had no agency, and therefore no purpose. Life outside the garden — in the real world — was — and is — filled with challenges and opportunities that can only be met by creatures who are empowered by knowledge, moral discernment, and free will. In heeding the call of conscience and rising to meet needs that are beyond our own desires, we find the kind of fulfillment that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
A modern midrash I first heard from my teacher Rabbi Norman Cohen reflects beautifully on this insight:
“The Garden of Eden had everything, but everything was always just the same. Nothing ever died in the garden, so, of course, nothing was ever born to replace it.
One day Adam and Eve came upon a crack in the big wall that surrounded the garden. Looking through the crack, they saw… a tomato plant… At first, they could hardly recognize it. In the garden, all the tomato plants were tall and full and green with many big red tomatoes on each stem. What they saw through the crack in the wall was a puny and shriveled-up little thing with just one tiny green tomato barely hanging on to one of the stems.
Every day, Adam and Eve would come to the crack and peep through to see how the [tomato plant] was doing. One day [they saw that it had] drooped and turned brown.
Adam looked at Eve and said, ‘It never looked good, but now it looks worse.’
Eve looked at Adam and said, ‘Whatever could have happened to it?’
They sat there for a long time, peeping through the crack in the wall at the little tomato plant that had drooped and turned brown.
After a long while, God spoke to them saying, ‘The tomato plant is dead.’ Adam and Eve cried. They asked God, ‘Why did it have to die? Nothing dies here in the garden.’ But God would not answer this question no matter how many times they asked.
So they became angry with God. They demanded that God let them out of the Garden of Eden so they could take care of the tomato plant. God said to them, ‘You can leave, but you can’t come back.’
Well, Adam and Eve got up and walked right out of the garden and right over to the little tomato plant that had drooped over and turned brown. Inside the garden nothing needed help… outside the garden everything needed help…
Adam picked up the tiny green tomato and Eve planted it in the brown dust. For many days they watered the ground, kept the weeds away, and waited.
Then it happened! A green shoot poked up through the dusty ground, [until] it became…a tomato plant! Full and green with many big red tomatoes on each stem! Adam and Eve rejoiced, seeing that they had made a difference.”
Like the story of the garden in Genesis, this is a fanciful story that conveys great truth. Humanity has been barking up the wrong tree. We are mortal creatures, and nothing is going to change that. But we have been endowed with the gifts of moral discernment and conscience that enable us to change much, and much for the better.
Our rabbis of old understood this and sought to guide us on the right path by teaching us that the Tree of Knowledge is in fact our Tree of Life, our never-failing source of wisdom — the Torah.
We will all pass on one day, but if we hold fast to the Tree of Life and eat of its fruits, we will find joy and fulfillment in this life. Our moral achievements will endure and make a lasting impact, and we will find the path to peace.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck