United Hebrew Congregation, 13788 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO 63141 | 314-469-0700

October 16, 2020 – Breishit

Shabbat Message from Rabbi Adam Bellows

The second shlish of Parashat Breishit is Genesis 2:4-4:26

People often ask me whether I believe humanity has free will or not. If I choose, for instance, not to go on a lunch date, did I actually make that choice? Or was it already made for me? If I choose to become a rabbi, or a dentist, or a retailer, did I actually choose that path, or was it determined for me?

We are beginning the Torah again. And this time, we are focusing on the second shlish, or the second third of each Torah portion. Last year, we focused on the very beginnings of Creation. This year, we are focusing on the beginnings of humanity.

For those in my “LGBTQ+ and Judaism Course,” we spent about a month combing through the second and third chapters of Genesis. They are full of amazing imagery, and they are often used to justify the social structure of various Christian and Jewish societies throughout the many millennia. Women, for instance, have been blamed for Eve’s temptation to eat the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In my course, I have spent time attempting to show that the text does not actually mean for Adam to be a man and for Eve to be a woman; thus, women are not truly to blame for humanity’s expulsion from paradise. For more on this subject, feel free to email me for a copy of my rabbinical school paper on the subject.

The question arises, though, of why we were expelled from paradise in the first place. Believe it or not, the answer does not solely come from our own sacred texts. It is also found in an extra-biblical source from Mesopotamia called “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” In this long story, there are many features that resemble Genesis. For example, the gods send a flood to destroy humanity yet are thwarted when Gilgamesh builds a boat.

There are also spots in the Epic of Gilgamesh that hint toward God’s motivation for expelling us in Genesis. In the Epic, for instance, one god turns to a human named Enkidu and says, “You are wise, Enkidu, and now you have become like a god.” This implies there was the ancient understanding that knowledge was god-like. Yet knowledge alone does not a deity make. Later in the Epic, we learn, “When the gods created mankind, They appointed death for mankind, Kept eternal life in their own hands.” Thus, we learn that to be a god in the Ancient Near East, one must be both immortal AND have knowledge and wisdom.

In the Garden of Eden, God had placed two trees that combined would make one like God: The Tree of Life (i.e., immortality), and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As we saw in the Epic of Gilgamesh, both qualities make one god-like. The humans were told not to eat from these trees. However, once they eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they essentially gain free will. They can choose their fate. God, then, had no choice but to banish them. As God says, “Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” (Genesis 3:22)

If indeed, Adam and Eve achieved Knowledge of Good and Evil AND immortality, they would have been considered god-like. They would have fit the definition of a deity, not only for others in the Ancient Near East, but according to God’s own definition.

In the end, Adam and Eve kept their knowledge of good and evil. They kept their free will, their ability to choose their own fate. However, they were forced to do so as immortals on Earth. No longer could they enjoy the “womb” (Thank you to Talia Vogel and Holly Bezinoch for this metaphor) of Eden. It was time for them to be born into mortality.

All this means that our ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad, is what makes us human most of all. Our free will to choose a path is what distinguishes us from other creatures. If it had been the other way around, if we had been given immortality but not wisdom and free will, I do not know whether life would have the same meaning it does now. We can choose our path, and we know that one day our story will come to an end. It is the trade-off we took to live a rich meaningful life.

So go out there and carpe diem, “seize the day,” because God gave us the opportunity to do so while we are here.

This Shabbat, we will have the usual virtual nosh meeting at 5:45 pm, followed by Kabbalat Shabbat services at 6:45 pm. Saturday morning, join us for Torah Study via Zoom, followed by our Live-streamed Shabbat services. If you are in the Adult B’not Mitzvah class, please join us at 2 pm. And our “Next Week Now” segment will go live at 7:30 pm.

Shabbat Shalom!