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Getting Back to Eden

Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8 )


All the wild shrubs did not yet exist on the earth, and all the wild plants had not yet sprouted. This was because God had not brought rain on the earth, and there was no man to work the ground… God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden – to work it and to protect it. (Genesis 2:5,7,15)

The Garden of Eden is the idealized state of mankind. God specifically did not bring rain upon the earth until man was in existence, because cultivating the world is the sole propriety of human beings: to work it and to protect it.

So what does it mean to "work the Garden?"

Imagine daily life for Adam and Eve. What "work" tasks did they perform?

Our answer is found in the Midrash: (Pirkei d'Rebbe Eliezer 12; Rabbeinu Bachya)

In the Garden of Eden, the ground brought forth ready-made pastry. If you planted a tree, it produced fruit on the first day. Children were conceived and born on the same day - born with the ability to walk and talk. Year-round, the climate was mild and spring-like.

So what "work" was involved in the Garden? Perhaps you will say: to prune the vines, plow the fields, and pile up the stalks. But did not the trees grow of their own accord? Perhaps you will say: There was other work to be done, such as watering the Garden. But did not a river flow through and water the Garden?

What then is the meaning of "to work and protect it"? To develop it by doing positive mitzvahs, and to protect it by avoiding negative mitzvahs."

Positive mitzvahs are God's way of directing our thoughts and actions toward building the world and humanity. Conversely, negative mitzvahs prevent us from destroying the world.

In the words of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch:

The phrase "to work and protect" denote all of man's moral conduct, his conscientious endeavor to do that which is expected of him, and refrain from doing that which is forbidden. For it is by virtue of man's moral conduct that nature itself receives the conditions necessary for its very survival.

As humanity goes, so goes the world. On the upside, we can infuse humanity with the values of kindness, discipline, joy and compassion.

On the downside, violence, disease and terror reflect a dysfunctional spiritual state of mankind and permeates all life. Indeed, in the days of Noah, corruption of humans naturally led to corruption of entire animal kingdom; they too were destroyed in the flood.

How did Adam & Eve fair in their important responsibility? The Torah reports:

God said to Adam: "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree (which I specifically said, 'Don't eat from it'), the ground will therefore be cursed because of you. You will derive food from it with anguish all the days of your life... By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread. Finally, you will return to the ground, for it was from [the ground] that you were taken. You are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:17, 19)

Adam and Eve eat from the fruit and are banished from the Garden. God tells Adam that as a consequence of his actions, a curse will befall humanity: By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread. While they were in the Garden, Adam and Eve had every need provided - the instantaneous fruit and ready-made pastries. Now the Torah is telling us that to go out and make a living is a curse!

Western society has a very non-Torah view of "career." Somehow we think that career is the essence of our existence, as if when all is said and done and we get to heaven, we will be able to boast that we made it to Corporate Vice-President. Though in handing out one's eternal reward, I'm not sure God will be so impressed.

Making a living is a curse, yet today people are voluntarily running after it! Consider the following scenario:

Let's say that I offer you an annual salary of $80,000 to quit your job and work on an assembly line screwing in a single piece. What do you say? Too boring? Okay, so I'll pay you $120,000 a year!

Now imagine you take the job. It's not the most satisfying work, but the money is good, so you make the best of it and enjoy your weekends. After a few months, you are shocked to discover that at the other end of the conveyor belt, someone is assigned to un-screw your piece!

You complain to the management that this is an absurd use of your time. So they agree to utilize the assembly line to manufacture automobiles. Satisfied, you go back to your place at the conveyor belt. But in a short time, you come to find out that the new cars are only being used to bring more parts to the factory. It's an absurd cycle!

You complain again, and the management agrees to give the cars to employees, to enable them to come to work easier to make more parts. This still sounds absurd, so you complain again. This time, they agree to give the cars to employees of oil companies, so they can to get to work, in order to produce gasoline so we can drive our cars to work to produce the automobiles.

This is the cycle of modern economic production. We're no longer "people," we're "consumers."Of course there's nothing wrong with free market economics. But there has to ultimately be a point to all this - beyond just "production and consumption."

Are we living to eat, or eating to live?!

When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they were immortal. They were to live forever. When they were banished, the inevitability of death fell upon every human being. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Returning to the Garden, therefore, means discovering the source of our immortality. We all yearn for immortality - yet how do we achieve that? To set the world record for the 100-meter dash? To build the tallest skyscraper in Manhattan?

Of course not.

Increasingly, the rich and famous are finding new pleasure in public pursuits, because their motives have changed. 'I've learned that when my work is ego-driven, it makes me lonely," says Dr. Dean Ornish. "When I approach it in a spirit of service, I'm much happier."

We must apply this to our own lives. Otherwise we are chasing a curse and we will never get back to the Garden.

Deep down in our soul, we all want to get back to the Garden. The first step is to realize that unnecessary over-involvement with materialism is a curse. Our purpose in life is to nurture our world, to work it and to protect it.

To get started, imagine this: Someone has nominated you for the Nobel Peace Prize for service to mankind. The award carries a prize of $10 million dollars. You are to present yourself to the awards committee and report what you plan to do with the money if you win. What will you tell them?

The Talmud asks: Why was Adam created alone (as opposed to Adam and Eve created simultaneously)? To teach that every person is obligated to say, "For my sake alone the world was created."

It's our world. That is both a great privilege and an enormous responsibility.

The Garden of Eden is not as much a place as it is a reality. It's an environment free of pain, disease, argument, jealousy. In Jewish terms, that is the definition of the Messianic era, a time when all of humanity will be restored to the original state of the Garden of Eden. May it come speedily in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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