Last week we renewed our annual Torah reading cycle when at Simchat Torah we celebrated reaching the end of Deuteronomy and started again at Genesis.
After the news of last week culminating in the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice, it felt particularly good to have the ability to reset a story, to “forget” everything that happened up to this point and begin anew. We sometimes wish we had the ability to make it so things didn’t happen, that we could start over and have different outcomes.
That is, in a way, what we do with our Torah reading: we leave the Israelites at the shore of the Jordan river, about to enter into the land, and jump back in time to the Creation of the world.
The beginning of the Torah brings us quickly to the story of the origins of humanity and the famous narrative of Adam and Eve. In the story God creates humans and puts them in the Garden of Eden to tend to the plants and animals. The only rule is that the humans, while able to eat of any plant in the garden, are not allowed to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that are placed in the center of the Garden.
The snake comes, however, and offers the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to Eve, who, after believing the snake’s lies that it is OK to eat, has some of the fruit. She then gives some of it to Adam, who also eats. God then gets angry with the humans, and confronts them on what they have done. While Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake, they all get punished after confessing to the act.
After the snake has his legs taken away, and Eve is given labor pains of childbirth, Adam is told, “Cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life: Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field; By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground….”
Sounds harsh. But we need to ask, is this such a bad thing? One of the first commandments given to humans by God outside of not eating the forbidden fruit is to “be fruitful and multiply.” The basic meaning is to procreate and make babies, a deeper meaning is that the humans are required to increase their presence on the earth. And this could be done in many ways.
One teaching of Jewish tradition is that we are partners with God in Creation. We not only tend the world around us, we contribute to it. We are creative beings. The charge to humans to work the earth, and grow food, is essentially a charge to create, to be creative, to make something new. The “punishment” is really a reiteration of the charge to “be fruitful.” What is different is the change in circumstance. While before humanity was living a blissful and undisturbed life in the garden, now humanity has had its eyes opened to the realities of the world.
In other words, after awakening to knowledge of good and evil, a knowledge which results in a change of condition, the response is to go out and be creative. Humans are woken up from the complacency of the Garden and sent out into the world of struggle. The response to this challenge is to be creative.
Last week’s Supreme Court hearings were only the latest of the particular challenges we are facing as a nation. Previously buried issues–in this case around sexual assault–were brought to the surface in new and powerful ways. And this too is not a bad thing, as we are woken up from our complacency to some of the deep struggles that we are facing.
And as we learn from this opening story of Genesis, once we are woke we have no choice but to move forward. And embedded in the fabric of humanity is the ability–and necessity–to respond to challenge with creativity.