Sunday, October 15, 2017

Eve of Destruction

First, please excuse the potential misogyny of the title. It actually fits with my message but I can see how some might find it offensive. I happen to like the pun.

Second, I find that as I age, more of my posts are quasi-serious musings or Torah based thoughts. As a younger man, I was inspired more by the ridiculous but now I find that reality has co-opted the ridiculous so all I can to distinguish myself from an uncomfortable reality is to wrap myself in more serious thoughts. I apologize to anyone who reads this expecting the silly on a consistent basis and who feels cheated or that he signed up under false pretenses. Refunds are not forthcoming. Force majeure and all that.

On to the Torah thought.

As we begin the yearly cycle of reading the Torah again, I realize that the biggest challenge that Modern Orthodox Jews have is Simchat Torah, the day of celebrating the Torah. It shouldn't be tough -- we love us some Torah. But it is the 9th day of a holiday which comes after 2 days of Rosh Hashana, 2 fasts, and a month of liturgical changes before that. Enough, we want to scream. And then, just when you think that we can have a big blow out celebrating that we are finally finished: finished with the holidays and their demands on our time and spiritual energies, we don't. We have to get up there and sing and dance (if you are so inclined. I'm usually so inclined that I can neither sing nor dance) to celebrate the BEGINNING! That's the challenge. Not just finding the energy and will to be joyous on the holiday, but to be sincerely joyous about starting the whole thing over again.

But I'm not here to talk to you today about new beginnings. My goal is to discuss ends.

The first reading of the year, the opening chapters of Genesis is about that (re)birth; it is about creation and the potential that lies within the starting of any new project, year or endeavor. But in the same way that we clothe the beginning amidst a celebration of beginning, we learn of ends as soon as we start learning about the start of things.

Adam and Chava are in the garden. Things are going swimmingly for an hour or so -- Adam is convalescing, post-surgery and Eve is wandering around, feng shui-ing the live stock. They have been given the run of the place with only one caveat, Genesis 2:17 (text and translation lifted fro the site)

וּמֵעֵ֗ץ הַדַּ֙עַת֙ ט֣וֹב וָרָ֔ע לֹ֥א תֹאכַ֖ל מִמֶּ֑נּוּ כִּ֗י בְּי֛וֹם אֲכָלְךָ֥ מִמֶּ֖נּוּ מ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת׃
but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.”

The strange Hebrew phrase is at the end of the verse, "Mot tamut" rendered here as "you shall die" and elsewhere as "you shall surely die." The doubling of the root for "death" causes no dearth of consternation to commentators. Some say it is an emphatic doubling (hence the "surely") and cite other instances where words are doubled to indicate importance. Others understandings include

1. You shall be liable to a death penalty for the sin (evidenced by similar language in later Books of Moses when the text discusses the death penalty)
2. You shall suffer 2 deaths (and commentators discuss what those 2 deaths might be)
3. Your nature shall change so the order of things will now lead to a death, as opposed to immortality
3a. Your nature will change so the order of things will lead to an earlier death than was intended

Some, like the HaK'tav V'HaKabala point out explicitly that this "death" is not a punishment as dying is not listed as any of the curses leveled against the players after God's discovery of their actions.

I'm not going to say that they are wrong -- these are great thinkers whose shoulders I do not even merit to stand on, but the wording actually leads me to a subtly different understanding. In 2:17, God tells Adam this doubled language. Then He creates Eve. But I don't see, textually, where anyone warns Eve! Clearly, someone does, because in 3:3, she tells the Nachash,

וּמִפְּרִ֣י הָעֵץ֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּתוֹךְ־הַגָּן֒ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים לֹ֤א תֹֽאכְלוּ֙ מִמֶּ֔נּוּ וְלֹ֥א תִגְּע֖וּ בּ֑וֹ פֶּן־תְּמֻתֽוּן׃
It is only about [Lit, "and from"] fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.’

Commentators (like the HaK'Tav V'Hakabala) point to Adam as her source of information and wonder why he relayed the injunction in a way which included touching, with one answer being " הוסיף לה אדם הראשון סייג לדבר " the first man added a fence around God's words, as per the advice of the Ethics of Our Fathers 1:1. But the real change here is in the end result, "pen t'mutun" translated here as "lest you die." The double language is gone! So all the interpretations of what it might mean are likewise gone!

The Nachash replies. Now, remember, the Nachash is referred to as "Arum" (cunning) in 3:1. But we know that arum also alludes to naked (as shown in 3:7, 10 and 11). The Nachash showed Eve the naked truth -- he is not deceptive! In fact, he lays things bare when he says,

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הַנָּחָ֖שׁ אֶל־הָֽאִשָּׁ֑ה לֹֽא־מ֖וֹת תְּמֻתֽוּן׃
And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die,

Hold on, you say, that isn't honest because she IS going to die! But if you look closely at his language, you might come to the conclusion I came to -- the translation is wrong. He says, "lo-mot t'mutun," which is "no, you will surely die." Now that doesn't seem much better until you remember that he is reintroducing the doubled language. He isn't saying "you will not..." but is saying "No, the consequence was this doubled concept." He is quoting God more closely than she is -- he is not hiding God's command behind a fence or in equivocated language, as Adam had done when he conveyed this information to her. Instead he says "What God said was that if you eat this, then your general nature will change and you will be susceptible to a process called 'death'" of which she otherwise KNEW NOTHING!

The Nachash exploited two things: one, Eve's ignorance of what death is, and two, the human urge to celebrate the now and not care about the long term. So what, Eve figures. So what if my nature will change and somewhere, long into the future, I will cease to be. I want that food and its special status, now.

What changes though isn't just that we, as humans, eventually die, but that we know it. And how does that awareness (which turns living into one long and ticking time bomb) begin? Usually when we encounter death through the passing of someone else. This is the double language: You will experience death and you will realize your own mortality. This is the true curse and punishment, this realization that our time is limited and we are in a race against an unbeatable foe. Eve brought on to all of us a knowledge of our own fate - and in an extended sense, this is the pain of childbirth (3:16): a mother's knowledge that she and eventually the generations after her will die.

So what is the cure? How do we get back to the garden?

We focus on the spiritual and the immortal soul. If we can remember that there is a part of us that transcends this body and world, then we can reattain the pre-fall status, and live forever. Eating fruit won't do it. Following the mitzvot and celebrating even the body's end will help us see that there is a greater promise. In our beginning, there is a built in end. But in that end, there is a new beginning (a "Dawn of Correction" one might say).


  1. Did you really mean "tarting" (paragraph 4) in an essay which you claim is not misogynistic?

    1. Fixed -- thank you. Typos are the least of my problems, but they are still problems.


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