Parshat Bereishit: When Heaven turns into Hell

Rabbi Nir Koren is a graduate of OTS’s Straus-Amiel Emissary Institute currently serving as the Rabbi of the Jewish community in Quito, Ecuador

Koren Family Ecuador 2
The Koren Family: Straus-Amiel shlichim in Quito, Ecuador

Adam and Eve were not only the first human beings in the world, but also, quite symbolically, the first humans to leave a life of comfort and go into a life of exile and constant yearning for the Paradise that was.

Who is to blame for the fact that we were expelled from the Garden of Eden?

Well, it depends on who you ask.

If you asked Adam, the answer would surely be:  “The woman whom You gave to be with me.”  The woman, in turn, blamed the snake, and the snake’s excuse is of no interest to anybody.

Why, then, were they expelled from the Garden of Eden?

It is commonly believed that the expulsion was a natural consequence of Adam’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge.  Indeed, this notion is easily supported by the verses of the Torah.  However, there may very well be another reason.

I would like to suggest that Adam’s ultimate test did not involve abstaining from the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge or the Tree of Life.  Rather, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden was symbolic even more than it was practical.

When a couple stands under the chuppah we wish them a happy life together.  We bless them with joy and glee and mirth and all things good.  In short – we wish upon them to live in a Paradise of sorts.  Indeed, married life can be the recipe for a blissful and heavenly experience.  Why then were Adam and Eve expelled from their Paradise?  What was the root of the problem when it came to the first couple in human history?

It seems to me that the answer lies in the question we initially asked: What was the test they had to undergo?  I wish to propose that the ultimate test was not whether they could resist eating from the forbidden fruit, but what their response would be to their sinful action.  As much as it is hard not to satisfy the physical desire aroused by the tempting fruit, and indulge the craving, it is harder still to resist the urge to blame the other, especially those closest to us.

When God asked Adam why he had eaten from the fruit, if he had only responded as King David did – “I have sinned” – there would have been no need for the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  In fact, Adam’s sin was his casting the blame on his own wife.  His response was an evasion of responsibility; a failure to protect his wife at the time she most needed his support; and, most of all, an expression of ingratitude. Where was Adams’ gratitude to the Almighty for saving him from the torment of loneliness?  “The woman whom You gave to be with me” denotes that all are to blame except for me: the woman is guilty; the snake is guilty; even God Himself is guilty for having created for Adam a woman who would be a perfect match…

How differently would things have played out if Adam were not just a Man but also a mentsch!  If he had only said: “You know what, God?  I take full responsibility.  Indeed, you commanded me not to eat from the tree, but I conveyed the message to my wife inaccurately.  I also told her not to touch the tree because I did not trust her judgment.  And because I did not trust my woman and didn’t pass on the instructions as I had received them, I am the guilty party.  I am the one who has sinned.  If somebody has to be punished, it is me, and not my wife.”

When it comes to fulfilling any type of shlichut, a crucial factor is the resilience of the family circle.  In other words, to what extent are we able to stand firm and strong and protect our most dear ones – our children, our wives, our husbands – from the evil snakes lurking outside.

I am convinced that had Adam conveyed this message to God instead of casting blame on “the woman whom you gave to be with me”, he would not have been expelled from the Garden of Eden for the simple reason that his life would have continued to be a Paradise. His marriage would have been a happy one; his wife would have shown him infinite gratitude for protecting her during the time she needed him most at her side.

On my mother’s sixtieth birthday we went on a family cruise: my father and mother, my brother and my sisters and their families.  We will forever remember this vacation as heavenly – a floating Paradise, as it were.  We were all together, and there was no greater pleasure.  The strong smells that came from deep inside the ship did not bother us; we did not complain about the tiny rooms, which were so small that had they been prison cells somebody would surely have sued the prison for violating human rights… We didn’t even complain about the fact that to go to the bathroom, the beds had to be lifted.  Nor did we say a word about the endless sways and surges of the ship, not to mention the noise….

Truth be told, there really was much to complain about because, in actual fact, we were in a type of floating prison.  However, for us – this was a true Paradise, a Garden of Eden.  Paradise is not any specific place; it is an experience created by the people one is with.  One can be in the most beautiful spot on the face of the earth, but feel like one is in hell if the company is bad.  Alternatively, one can be somewhere awful, and yet have loving friends as company, and the dreadful place will feel like a true Paradise.

Man was not expelled from the Garden of Eden because he ate from the Tree of Knowledge.  Rather, the expulsion was a natural consequence of his actions.  What kind of marriage could Adam and Eve have expected after what had transpired?  The idyllic existence, the Paradise that was, was transformed into a hell by one action.  As expressed so aptly by our Sages in their commentary on the words in Bereshit referring to the Woman -“ezer kenegdo” (“a helper suitable for him”): If he merits – she is his helper; if he does not merit – she becomes his adversary (kenegdo).

Marriage can be a true Paradise, or – a hell.  God knows we are mere mortals, and although we aspire to never fail or sin, Kohelet, the wise king, said: “For there is not a righteous man upon earth that does good, and sins not.”  Man is bound to sin at some point in his lifetime, so the question is not whether he will sin or not, but how he will deal with his sin.

Same goes for marriage.  Even the best marriages have their low points, and the question one should be asking is not how to avoid such moments, but how to learn from them, how to overcome the difficulties without blaming all others except myself.

Let me conclude with the words of Ilan Goldshirsch: “It makes no difference where we go; it makes no difference what we do.  The main thing is that we do it together.

The Jewish community of Quito is a small one, numbering about 500 people.  The community was founded in the 1930s by Jews from Germany and other European countries, much like other communities across South America, following the Nazis’ rise to power.  Ecuador was one of two countries that gave visas to Jews during World War II, which explains the fact that in the 1950s the community numbered more than 5,000 people. 

In the past decade, in wake of the arrival of Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel emissaries, the community’s affiliation has been Modern-Orthodox.There is only one synagogue in Quito, making it a place of worship which must cater to a broad spectrum of Jews (Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox – i.e., the entire mosaic of the Jewish People), with all the complexity this entails.

In 2001, the community moved to its current premises – a synagogue boasting a most exquisite architectural structure. 

Shabbat Shalom!


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