There are many ways to understand Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden following their eating of the forbidden fruit. Clearly this is a defining moment in human drama, but is it a fall? For me, the Torah’s first story about human beings holds a subtle and powerful lesson: free will is coterminous with mortality.
All religions share a belief that the freedom of choice that we enjoy in this life is no longer available in a next life. Life-after-death, the continued survival of the soul, obtains in a world-to-come inhospitable to human initiative and invention. The instant Adam and Eve choose freely for the first time, they exit Eden and enter mortality – beginning to age, procreate, grow old, and eventually die. God’s statement to Adam, “on that day you eat from the tree you shall die,” is less an immediate consequence than a reality-altering necessity. Free choice is to ‘this world’ as the air we breathe is to our respiratory system.
When God’s voice is felt “walking through the garden,” (mithalech bagan) the implications for Adam, Eve, and the Serpent extend from the personal responsibility implicit with free will. Far from condemning the human condition, the open chapters of the Torah establish the core ingredient “free will” that, can produce violence as it will in the next story (Cain and Abel), but that can also enable us to be God’s partner in repair, healing, aiding, and restoration.
The next time genetics, economics, political forces, or power structures try and tell you that ‘you have no choice,’ remind them they are mistaken. With the season of Teshuva fading, consider how your Jewish tradition does more than gift you an identity, a history, and a destiny. The opening words of the Torah resonate with the message that has reverberated from the shofar’s call to Neilah’s close – free choice is a gift (not a given.) May we embrace it with passion and personal responsibility in this New Year.
A sweet Shabbat to you.
Rabbi William Hamilton