What is Megillat Eicha Really About?
The Meaning of Lamentations and Its Link to Eden
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
What does Eicha have to do with the garden of Eden? At first glance, not much. But if we look closer, it turns out that the Megillah is actually echoing language first used in the beginning of Genesis. Could it be that the exile from Jerusalem is somehow connected to the exile from the Garden of Eden? Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores the Garden of Eden story and its reverberations in Megillat Eicha -- and never think about Tisha B’Av the same way again.
The Book of Eicha (Lamentations) Explained
Eicha is the great lament of Tisha B'Av. It is a word chosen by the prophet Jeremiah, to open the classic Book of Lamentations.
The word derives from the word ‘eich’, Hebrew for how. It is a word that drips with a sense of missed opportunity: How could it be? Eicha yashva badad… Look how she, Jerusalem, sits in solitude. How could it be?
But here’s the thing: Eicha – this word that so powerfully leaves its imprint on the end of Biblical history – it seems like it evokes another word from the very beginning of Biblical History, the word ‘ayekah’ – it’s also spelled the same way.
Eicha and AyekahAleph, Yud, Chaf, Hei… Ayekah, Eichah’s twin, takes us all the way back to the Story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The first humans, they eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and then God calls out to them: Ayekah, Where are you? It might be a coincidence. But might not be a coincidence… Might it be, instead, that Jeremiah is suggesting that the loss of the Temple… is somehow linked with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden? If you think about it, such a link wouldn’t be crazy, right? Because what is Jeremiah’s story in Megillat Eicha, really about?
Understanding Megillat EichaIt is about this great, tragic exile: The People of Israel are driven out of God’s special place; Israel, His Temple. But.. something like that happened before, right? The very first exile that ever happened, occurred back in Eden, when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden – God’s original special place.
Well, as it turns out, the idea of a linkage between these two events – one from the beginning of Biblical history and one from the end – that idea didn’t really start with you and me in this video. The Sages of the Midrash, long ago, suggested such a connection.
Here’s what they said: מָה אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן הִכְנַסְתִּיו לְתוֹךְ גַּן עֵדֶן וְקוֹנַנְתִּי עָלָיו אֵיכָה…. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אַיֶכָּה, אֵיכָה כְּתִיב. אַף בָּנָיו הִכְנַסְתִּים לְאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְקוֹנַנְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם אֵיכָה. Adam – I brought him into the Garden of Eden, and then I lamented him with the words, "Ayekah." … as it is stated: And God said unto him, “where are you [Ayekah].” So too, his sons, I brought into Israel and I lamented them [with the very same word], Eicha.
Okay, so the midrash seems to confirm that the garden story is connected with the exile story, but it also does something more, it suggests a new wrinkle in the connection between these two events: and that wrinkle has to do with lament.
What I’m saying here, is that the words Eicha and Ayekah mean different things, to be sure – one means ‘where are you’, the other means ‘how could it be’ – but the Sages here, they seem to be putting their finger on a fundamental truth about each: They are both, really, words of lament.
Jeremiah, he laments the loneliness of Jerusalem by saying ‘how could it be’ … but can’t you hear almost the same lament in God’s plaintive question towards Adam and Eve? Ayekah… Where are you…? It’s not really a question, as the Sages understand it, so much as a mournful cry: Where did you go? I was looking for you here in the Garden, and you, you’re hiding from Me instead? Where did you go!
Long before we, the people of Israel, lamented God leaving us behind, with the word ‘Eicha,’ God actually lamented our leaving Him behind with Ayekah. You see, exile is all about mourning, we all know that – but wouldn’t it be absolutely startling if, on some fundamental level, exile is more about God mourning the loss of us, than it is about us mourning the loss of God?
To really understand the point the sages are making here about our mourning, and God’s mourning, and to really understand the fundamental connection they seem to be suggesting between the events of Tisha B’Av and the events of the Garden, we need to go back and examine that story of the Garden more closely.
We’re going to revisit the story of Adam, Eve and the Tree of Knowledge – one of the most familiar stories in the Torah. And, despite our familiarity with it, we’re going to try to see it with fresh eyes.
We’ll spend a lot of time exploring that story, but the rewards of truly understanding what was happening in Eden will pay great dividends to understanding the depths of Tisha b’Av, too. Let’s dive in.
From Eicha... Back to AyekahOnce upon a time, God creates Adam and Eve, these first humans, and puts them in a special garden. Things were great there, but there was one special tree that the newly made people were not supposed to be eating from. It was called the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
So let’s just stop right there. A basic question kind of screams out right now, and it’s this: Why? If you’re God, why put that tree in the garden, if you really don’t want people to eat from it? Just don’t create it in the first place. What’s the point of a tree that’s not supposed to be eaten from?
And just to amplify that question, think about the name of the tree, this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What a weird name for a tree – especially a tree that is supposed to be off-limits. Because, if you were God, wouldn't you want these new humans to have an understanding of Good and Evil, Right and Wrong?
Most of us would assume that knowing the difference between good and evil is a positive thing. Because, think of the alternative: Imagine someone intelligent, just like us, creative, just like us, who can do everything that you and I can do – be a banker, drive a car, live in a house in some suburban development. But the only thing they can’t do is distinguish the difference between Good and Evil. How excited would you be to live next door to that guy? Not very, right? ‘Cause they could kill you tomorrow the same way they mow the grass on Sunday. Not their fault; they just doesn't understand the difference between Right and Wrong.
Presumably, God doesn’t want us to be like that. So why ask Adam and Eve to stay away from a tree of knowing Good and Evil?
All right, so let’s just deposit that question in our little question collection box, and let’s get back to our story. Adam and Eve, they go and eat from the tree, and God punishes them for doing so. But I think you have to ask: why these punishments, of all things? They seem kind of random: You know, Adam, he works the field, so… I know, I’ll make that hard for him: you know, from now on you will have to make your own bread! And Eve, what do you do? You give birth to children? Fine. Pain in childbirth for you. And… you both like living in the garden? Tough! Vamoose! Out of the garden for the both of you! Is that what's going on here? Or is there some rhyme and reason to all this? Is there some rational way in which somehow these punishments fit Adam and Eve’s crime? Hard to see how that’s true.. But might it be so?
Okay, so, sounds like the story is over, right? But is it? It’s not the last we hear of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve, they get banished from Eden, and then Eve bears a child, by the name of Cain, followed by Abel. And we all know what happens next – disaster, the world’s first bloodshed, when Cain kills his brother, Abel. So here’s my question for you. Is the story of Cain and Abel a whole new story? Or is it somehow a continuation of the last one? Do the events that took place in Paradise somehow lead to, or maybe prefigure, humanity’s first murder? Alright, we’ve got a bunch of questions in our collection box. How are we going to deal with them?
I want to suggest to you that a key may lie in a figure who we have, to this point, overlooked. Our not-so-friendly villain, the snake: The Torah describes the snake as crafty, more deceptive than all the beasts of the field. In what, exactly, lies his great craftiness? Does he really seem so smart to you?
If you were a really smart snake and you wanted to tempt Eve into eating fruit that she wasn’t supposed to eat, what would be the first thing you would say? I might say, look at this very delicious fruit, it’s so tasty, don’t you want it? I might tell you some outright lie about the mysterious powers this tree will give you. But listen to the very first thing the snake actually says to Eve. He says: Af ki amar Elokim lo tochlu mikol etz hagan… What if God actually said, don’t eat from all the trees of the garden?
So you’re Eve, how tempted do you feel now? I’m listening to the snake and saying to myself, that’s ridiculous. God said I can eat from any of the trees of the garden, there’s just one tree I can’t eat from. Which, by the way, is exactly what Eve says back to the serpent. So Eve wins the point, doesn’t she?
So how incredibly manipulative is this serpent? He completely fails in his first attempt to tempt her, right? No, he doesn’t. He’s actually done something brilliant. He’s distracted her from perceiving his deepest, most insidious lie.
I want to suggest his deepest lie comes in his very first words, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱלֹהִים. Look how he speaks about God. He calls God Elokim. Now why’s that such a big deal? To understand this name of God, we have to go back to the very beginning of the Torah, back to the very first Six Days of Creation. There, in Chapter 1 of the Book of Genesis, God is referred to by the name Elokim. That name is traditionally understood by the Sages to denote God as king, or God as judge. God’s midat hadin, as it were.
Now, when the Sages talk about the name Elokim expressing midat hadin, or God as Judge, I believe that they weren’t simply pulling that idea out of a hat, or transmitting some dogma to us, but that their understanding of this name emerged from a close reading of the Torah itself.
The indications that God is acting as a king or a judge in that story are manifold, and I won’t go through all of them now, but to give you a flavor for where the Sages are coming from, just look at what God is doing in those Primal Six Days. He is acting as a kind of ‘judge.’ You see this in the declaration that God makes after just about each day of creation: and God saw that it was good.
What was that about, and God saw that it was good? He was looking at the things He made, and assessing – judging, if you will – that everything was just as He wanted it. But that is not the only way in which God relates to the world.
And you see it in the Torah itself. Because later, in Chapter Two, the part of the Torah we are looking at now – the part of the Torah that describes God placing man in paradisiacal Eden with all those trees, and Adam and Eve’s experience in the Garden – there, the Torah refers to God as YHVH Elokim. The new name, YHVH – or Hashem, as we sometimes call this name – that name expresses, according to the Sages, another way of looking at God.
What way? Well, I’ll give you a hint. God doesn’t do any judging in Chapters 2 and 3. The days of creation in which God is evaluating everything He made are absent. In its place, God is a provider: He makes all the trees.
And listen to how the trees are described: they’re נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה, וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל – a delight for the eye, and delicious to the palette. This God cares about the richness of our experience as human beings in His world. He bestows to you these trees. He loves you, provides for you, and is compassionate towards you. God as YHVH is not just the King who created all, and is its Master – He is also a Parent.
As the Sages put it, this is God as our source of compassion. God’s midat harachamim as it were. So again, in Eden, the Torah uses a composite name for God: HaShem Elokim. God is still Elokim, a king; but he is also the God who loves you. He is the God who relates to man not just objectively, as a something to be judged, but subjectively, as someone to love.
So… now let’s talk about that command regarding the Forbidden Fruit. When God first tells man to avoid that fruit, what is God called? Well, this is all part of the Eden story, where God is consistently, every time, called YHVH Elokim or HaShem Elokim. Meaning, God, who is both your King and your Parent; that God, that’s the one who says: Don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge. And to explain a bit: it is God your King who is telling you to stay away from the tree, because He is issuing a command that He expects to be obeyed, But God is also your Parent, in telling you this. It isn’t good for you to be partaking from that tree. It is not in your best interest. A loving God is asking you to stay away from it.
And that brings us to the great deception of the snake.
What Was the Snake's Great Deception?Af ki amar Elokim lo tochlu mikol etz hagan… ‘Even if Elokim said don’t eat from the tree...’ One second: Who told you not to eat from the tree? God as judge? Elokim? That’s it? What about God as parent? No… the snake, ever so subtly, drops the word YHVH and leaves only Elokim – and that, perhaps is his most basic, most brazen lie: God isn’t your parent, the snake is whispering: He’s just the big judge in the Sky. The reason you worship Him isn’t because He loves you and you love Him. It's because He’s got all this power. So… don’t you want some of that power, too?
The really deep problem here is that if you only relate to God that way, if God is just the Powerful One, but I’m not convinced that He loves Me, then it's only a hop skip and a jump away from that for me to begin to get suspicious. Paranoid, even. Maybe God is in this for Himself. And by the way, the snake says as much: Ki yodea elokim, because God, Elokim, told you not to eat because He knows that when you eat from it, venifkechu eineichem vihiyitem ke’elokim… your eyes will be opened and you’ll be just like Elokim. You know, you can’t trust God; maybe He just wants to hoard all the power around here. Yeah, it starts with just one restriction, on that tree – but who knows what tomorrow brings? How long are any of these trees going to be available to you before He puts them off limits too?
In a world in which God is just Elokim – it is very hard to really serve God. Who am I serving? A God I worship merely because He’s powerful? Power is the great ultimate value in the universe. If God doesn’t love Me, if God is just powerful – well then, take that to its extreme and He could just be a tyrant in the sky.
I will eventually want to rebel rather than submit. I’ll say that I, myself, am God if I have to – as ridiculous as that sounds – I’ll do anything to avoid submitting to the tyrant, even if overthrowing Him is actually impossible. I’ll lie to myself and say I can. Which is exactly what the snake suggests to Adam and Eve they can do, if they eat from this tree: Eat from God’s very own tree, and be just like God… Impossible? Well just believe it anyway. POOF. It’ll happen.
The sad thing is, all of this is a terrible, if subtle corruption of the truth. Because yes, God did put a tree off limits. But He didn’t do that to hoard His power. He did it out of love. And here’s why.
I started out our question collection by asking you: If you’re God, why bother putting the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden, if You don’t want Adam and Eve to eat from it? If you really don’t want them to eat from it, don’t put it there in the first place! I think we’re now in a position to answer that question.
Think of it this way: God didn’t want Adam and Eve to play God. He didn’t want that, because it wasn’t good for us. In other words, YHVH Elokim, this loving God who is also a king, He started His relationship off with humanity by issuing a command (as kings or judges sometimes do) – but it was a command that had love at the heart of it. And you see it, by the way, right there in the command itself.
Because God didn’t just say: “don’t eat from this one tree.” No. The command actually had two parts. And the first, and perhaps the most emphasized part was: Mikol Etz Hagan achol tochel, eat, yes eat, from all these wonderful trees. I want you to enjoy them; that’s what they’re there for. They’re for you! It’s just: U’m’eitz Hadaa’as tov v’ra, lo tochal mimenu. Please stay away from that one special tree over there. Why? Why does God want us to eat from all the trees, but stay away from that one tree?
I think an analogy might make it clear. Imagine that once upon a time, there was a boy by the name of Bobby. One day, Bobby’s Grandpa comes to visit, and he gives Bobby a gift he brought him: a great big Lego Battleship. So stop and think: You are Grandpa. What would you like to see happen now? Well, there actually a couple of things that you might like. You’d certainly love to see Bobby playing with, and enjoying, his new toy. And, you probably would like Bobby to say thank you. But if you think about it, you don’t even really need those words, ‘thank you.’ There’s nothing really magical or sacred about those particular words. What you really want is: When Bobby plays with the battleship, he should understand it was a gift from you. It came from Grandpa. Bobby should understand, Grandpa loves me, and he got me that gift. My room didn’t just magically come with battleships in it.
So that’s kind of what was happening in Eden.
You know, when we think about God's commands in the garden, we tend to focus on the Restriction upon eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We tend to forget the fact that this restriction was prefaced by another command, a positive command, to eat from all the other trees in the garden, the trees that were earlier described as wonderful to behold and delicious to eat. Achol tochel mikol etz hagan, From all the trees of the garden, you should eat, yes, eat. God, like our mythical Grandpa with Bobby, He also wants two things in the garden… but those two things, they are really just one, big, thing; one big command: Enjoy all the trees while understanding they are gifts.
How would you do that?
Well, you just eat from all the trees, and refraining from eating from that one tree, that’s how. When you comply with that rule, you acknowledge that you know you are a guest in the garden; that there is a Master beyond you. You acknowledge that there is a God who gave me these trees, and wants me to understand that they are gifts of love from Him. With that one act – eating of the trees, while avoiding the one Tree of of the Master – I accept the gifts of God in a loving, respectful, way.
The trick is to see the two commands – eat from all the trees, and avoid the one – together. When we focus just on the restriction, when we unnaturally cut the commands apart from each other, that’s when the snake wins. That’s when we see God only as Elokim, that mean ol’ rulemaker, without the context of the loving parent, the parent who gives the gifts. But that’s not the truth. God is not just Elokim, someone worth worshipping because He is powerful. He is HaShem Elokim, a Master, who is also YHVH, the compassionate God who loves me.
Okay, so there has to be a Godly tree that is off limits. But why would it be a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? It could be the red spotted and speckled, polka dotted tree of Godly Godliness? To understand this, we need to explore what, exactly, these words ‘good and evil’ really mean. And that seems really complicated, right? You know, we can philosophize all night and all day about what good and evil might mean. But I want to suggest that to figure it out here, the Torah doesn’t actually require you to be a philosopher. All you have to do is be is a careful reader of the story that you’re now immersed in…
You need to see how these words are being used in the context of Torah’s story. So here you are, you’re reading the Torah, you’re cruising along, you’re up to chapter 3. The story is great so far, you know, you’ve been through Six Days of Creation, Shabbat, the making of this spectacular garden… and now you get up to this strange tree, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And you feel stuck. You don't know what good means. You don’t know what evil means. What are you going to do? But wait a minute: You do kind of know.
That word, ‘good’? You’ve had that word over and over again. It’s the word God keeps on saying, all through creation, after He makes things: And God saw “ki tov,” that it was Good. And that word ‘bad,’ ‘evil,’ – we’re introduced to it in just a few chapters from here, just before the Great Flood.
The Torah tells us that God looked and saw: Ki ...Rabbah Ra’at Ha’adam Ba’aretz… that the evil of man was great in the world... And then, He went out and destroyed the world. So, we can draw some inferences here, right? Apparently, when God looks at something and sees that it is “bad,” or ‘evil,’ He gets rid of it. That’s what He did with the Flood. And when He looks at something and says it is good, He keeps it around. That’s what happens each day in the Six Days of Creation. “God saw it was good.”
So, what are these words, ‘tov’ and ‘ra’, then? Well, in the early chapters of Genesis, they’re the grades that God assigns to things He creates, after He’s made them – when He’s deciding whether or not to keep them around. They’re the words God uses to judge, so to speak, His World. So... if there is a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden, it would seem that this tree has something to do with the way God judges or evaluates His Creations.
God's Judgment of Good and EvilSo, God puts this tree off-limits. Why does He do that? Well, it seems God is saying, in effect, that these ultimate judgements of good or bad is His province, not ours. Looking at everything in Creation and judging it either good or bad; deciding whether that's the way it should be – you need to understand, people, this is My job, not yours. You guys, Adam and Eve, stay true to who you are, don’t confuse yourselves into thinking you are Me.
In other words: Adam and Eve, there are certain decisions you get to make as a created-being in this world – but one of them isn't, this is the way the created things should be.
Only the Creator, the maker of the system, should be deciding that. He’s the one with the responsibility to decide – and He’s also the one who can be trusted to decide, because, as Maker of the system, He’s not in the system; he has no self-interest that he might be serving. He’s not a player in the game, He’s the Maker of the game. And a game, really, is a helpful analogy here.
Take Monopoly, for example: Little hat, little shoe. As they go around the board, what decisions do they get to make? Well, they get to decide whether to build a house on Park Place or Tennessee Avenue. But they most certainly do not get to decide whether Park Place should be on this side of the board or on that side of the board, or what happens when you roll doubles on the dice.
They can’t decide that effectively because they’ve got a horse in the race; they can’t be trusted to make objective decisions about the rules of the game. Only Parker Brothers – the inventor of the game – gets to decide that. You’ve got to be outside the system, you’ve got to be the Creator of the system, to decide those things – ultimate good and evil. All of which, explains, I think, why eating from the tree is so terribly disastrous.
Reaching for this tree is Adam and Eve’s way of saying, “I’m not okay feeling like I’m a guest in the Garden, receiving these fruits as gifts from you. I want to feel like I control the refrigerator, like I’m Master of the Garden.” And, indeed, when you eat from that tree, that Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, it gives you the feeling that you see things as a creator does. That you, too, can make these ultimate judgments, that this is the way the world should be and this is the way it shouldn't be. You feel like you have the power to pronounce Tov and Ra in some ultimate sense, as the creator does.
It feels like you have this great ultimate power in the universe. And that’s a dangerous way to feel, if you are a human being. Because, as human beings, we do have interests, and they get in the way of our seeing things objectively. As human beings, it is very easy to become confused; to mistake the Tov and Ra of our desires, the way we want things to be, with the way things should objectively be in the world.
In fact, no greater example of this confusion exists than the moment that Eve reaches for the tree itself. Listen to the words of the verse; Vatereh ha'isha ki tov ha'eitz lema'achal – and the woman saw that the tree was good to eat. What kind of good? Well, the tree looks appealing, so we obviously mean the desire kind of good, right?
But listen to the Hebrew words again, carefully: Vatereh ha'isha ki tov. Well, those words… we’ve heard them before. They are just the feminine form of "Vayar ki tov" – the words God, acting as Ultimate Judge in the Universe, spoke after He created everything in those six days: And God saw that it was good. When we ate of the fruit, that’s the moment we started to think: Maybe we could be the ultimate judges in the universe.
But again, we’re not so objective; we have our desires to contend with. And once I start thinking I can be the judge, well, now I can rationalize anything. In that kind of world, the world in which I think I have knowledge of good and evil.... I'm never wrong.
You know, one of the really maddening things about living in the post-tree world? It’s that nobody ever thinks they're wrong anymore. No one ever thinks they're evil. You can meet the most evil guy in the world, they don't think they're evil; they think they're doing the world a favor. Hitler himself kills six million Jews and he thinks he’s a good guy; he thinks that's the way the world should be.
Objective vs Subjective JudgmentDesire, ‘subjective good’, it hides behind a smokescreen; it dresses up all high and mighty, as the just and moral and true kind of good. And that is the great distortion of the post-tree world. Unfortunately, you don’t have to be Hitler or Stalin to be vulnerable to this distortion.
Even regular people – basically fine people like you and me, just trying to do the right thing in life – we too, are vulnerable to mistaking one kind of ‘good’ for another. And if that tendency isn’t contained, it is liable to wreck our interpersonal relationships, day in and day out.
I get into an argument with you, why is it so hard to get out of that argument? Why is it so hard to reach some sort of compromise? Well you know, if I understand quite clearly that I'm just a human being, a creature – that I am little hat and I have one perspective, and that you're little shoe, another creature, and that you’ve got another, different, perspective – if I understand that, we can compromise.
But… if I think I’m not little hat but Parker, then I think I have the way of looking at things. So… how can I compromise? I mean, the truth is with me, right? There’s a principle here I have to uphold. I should disrespect the truth? Why? Just to get along with you? I can’t do that.
We dress up our own self-interest, our own desires, in the noble robes of justice and truth and righteousness – and pretty soon I can’t compromise, as a matter of principle. It’s a very poisonous thing. But I think I am the objective judge. So it is all okay.
So let’s just take a step back and see what we have here. We have a terrible cascade of events, that began with the snake’s temptation. Once I buy the lie that God is only Elokim, and not HaShem Elokim, the end result of that, surprisingly, is that my relationships with everyone around me begin to disintegrate. Once I believe that what makes God worthy of worship is solely His Mastery over creation, his ability to declare what is good and should stay, and what is evil and should go, then I want to displace God and become Him. And what does it mean to become Him?
Well, if it is power that makes God special, then, by gum, I, too, want to be powerful. I, too, want to declare Good and Evil. Once I see myself as Elokim, the Great Judge of all That Matters…. Well, my relationships really do begin to unravel. It’s most obvious, maybe with Adam: After God confronts him about eating from that Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, what does Adam do?
Rather than come clean and admit what he's done, and, you know, maybe apologize, he says this: הָֽאִשָּׁה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָתַ֣תָּה עִמָּדִ֔י הִ֛וא נָֽתְנָה־לִּ֥י מִן־הָעֵ֖ץ וָאֹכֵֽל, the woman that you gave to me, she gave to me, from the tree, and I ate it. Think about what he just did there. He’s throwing Eve under the bus. But he’s not just doing that; he’s throwing God under the bus, too.
In essence, he’s blaming God for his, Adam’s, failure: You were the One who gave me this woman. So isn't it really your fault, God, that she handed me that fruit? In what Universe would that excuse fly? To an outsider, his words come across as utterly preposterous. But to Adam, the words somehow made sense… Bottom line: It was the intellectual poison of the Tree of Knowledge, doing its insidious work.
This is the way it seems to me, and therefore this is good. Absolutely and objectively. And... maybe it’s not only Adam whose perspective gets warped, almost unconsciously, by the tree. It happens to Eve, too. The snake suggested to Eve that she could eat from the tree and have God’s power, the power to declare tov and ra. So, when Eve offers Adam that fruit, she is in effect conveying the same message to him: Adam, don’t you want some of this power? Why be content to be human when you can be… superhuman?
Now, that might seem might nice, on some level: Here, this will make you even better, more powerful. And, you know, he’s attracted to her, wants to win her love; so he’ll take what she offers him, and she’ll succeed, right? But... there’s a darker side to this.
She’s his mate, the one who is supposed to love him. In the best of worlds, a mate loves you for who you are. Maybe even for all you can be. But not… for all you can’t be.
A human can’t be superhuman. Simply feeling like you can declare tov and ra doesn’t actually make you godly; it just means you’ve put on your cape and you’re pretending to be Superman.
What Eve’s offer to eat the fruit really says is: Be more than you could ever be. A gift from one mate to another is usually a gift of love. But when that gift includes a subtle element of manipulation, that’s the beginning of a corruption of that love. It’s the poison of the tree one more time.
So, something interesting is happening here. A sin that began with something we might see as exclusively a matter between man and God, it doesn’t end between man and God. No; the sin migrates. It begins to to corrupt interpersonal relationships – in this case, the relationship between the only two human beings who exist in the world, Adam and Eve.
What are we witnessing between Adam and Eve right now, in what might be called ‘the great Original Sin’? – It’s actually the first-ever marital fight. I mean, she holds out the fruit to him and asks him to be more than he could possibly be and then maybe implicitly she would love him – and he, he throws her under the bus in a desperate attempt to escape responsibility.
Each seems, to him or herself, justified. But the bottom line is, it is discord, not love, that begins to rule their relationship now. What began as a power play in my relationship with God – an attempt to supplant His place in the Garden – ends up as a power play in my relationship with the other human beings in my life.
The Danger of Power in RelationshipsUnfortunately, a power-centered view of the world can’t be easily contained to my relationship with only certain others. It ultimately infects all my relationships – and ultimately, the nascent relationship between Adam and Eve’s relationship is affected by this poison as well. And this brings us straight to the punishments that God deigns for Adam and Eve – less punishments, really, than consequences.
God tells man that, from here on in, he’s going to have to work, to sweat for his bread. But that makes sense, now, right? You spurned the trees I gave you? You wanted control over the refrigerator, you wanted to be the ultimate owner of your food? So then at least be real about it: Go out and make bread. Take the wheat that I, God, made, the water that I made, go and process those ingredients; make them into something that can, at some level, be called genuinely, yours. Grind the wheat, bake it and make bread.
Look, it is painful and difficult to do; you’ll earn that bread by the sweat of your brow. But at least it’s gonna be yours, as you so want it to be. And as for Eve – she gets difficulty in childbirth. But in Hebrew, the language for difficulty, or labor in childbirth, is etzev – which literally, translates as “sadness”: In sadness will you bear children. But what does that mean? What’s so sad?
Well, we may now have our answer. Maybe, just like with Adam, there is less a punishment here than a consequence; a mournful prediction of the dangerous ramifications of her handing that fruit to her husband: בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ – in sadness will you bear children; you will be attracted to your husband, yet he will rule over you.
Yes, God is saying, your husband, he’s attracted to you, likely to take what you offer him; and you can, if you want, hold out that forbidden fruit to him, asking him to be more than he can possibly be. You can manipulate him in that way. But if you bring power and manipulation into your relationship, where do you think that’s going to end? וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ: After all, attraction is a two way street: You are attracted to him, too.
But, וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ – power is also a two way street. He is also physically stronger than you. “He can rule over you.” Which means yes, you may still have intimacy together. And yes, you are still physically capable of bearing children from that union. But … בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים, you will bear those children in sadness…
When power replaces love, that’s the worst. Instead of the joy that should accompany the arrival of children, God is saying, the process of bearing them may well be accompanied by tears and sadness instead. Man and Woman – they were created to complete each other, in love, and to dwell with God in the garden, but in the midst of this marital fight, God banishes them. And, it might seem that God pulled away from humanity at that moment.
But the truth is, there was an earlier moment of separation between us and God – and back then, it was really us who pulled away from God. Because go back to the moment we ate from the tree. After that, the text tells us, Adam and Eve hid from among God in the trees of the Garden. They hid when they heard “kol hashem elokim mithalech bagan leruach hayom”, ‘the voice of YHVH HaShem Elokim strolling in the Garden in the afternoon.’
Ponder that image the text gives us for a just a moment. God, where does He really live? He lives in His own realm, beyond space in time – but there was this garden that He invited man into in this world, God’s special place, where His Voice strolls in the afternoon. You know who strolls in a garden in the afternoon? The Garden’s owner does, seeking to enjoy its beauty. And who else is in the Garden? Mankind, the guest of the Divine in the garden.
So God, turning to mankind, asks: Ayekah. Where are you? What was the nature of that question? Think about it. God wanted to just stroll together with us on the garden. Which God? Hashem Elokim. That God!
The God who is not just the greatest power in the universe, but the God who is my Parent, who loves me so deeply. There is no more intimate, loving act than just walking around, just enjoying each other's company. Where you go, I will go. Our destinies are intertwined. Everything we experience, we’ll experience together. That’s what happens when you walk together with someone. Parents and children, they walk together in life.
You go through things together, from beginning to end. God was inviting man to walk with Him, to join Him on that great journey. But man was nowhere to be found. So God cries out: Ayekah. It is not a question – God is all knowing, He obviously knows where man is. It is a mournful cry, as if a parent has somehow lost a child. Where did you go? I wanted to walk with you and you aren’t here! I’m not just your King. I love you. I wanted to walk with you. Why are you hiding from Me?
We pulled away from God, cowering behind a bush. Va’ira ki erom anochi va’echavei … Just when God reached out in love, we hid because we were afraid. We spurned the chance for a dizzying dance of love with the most powerful Being in the world, a Being who is not just Master of Creation but also our Father in Heaven, a God who is both HaShem and Elokim… and exchanged it for mere fear, all while buying the snake’s illusion that God is merely Elokim.
Then, we began to blame each other, to try to gain the upper hand over one another. And at that point, God said: Stop. You need to leave now. It’s time for you to go…
You know, there’s a lot of differences between a Father and a King, but one of them has to do with where you live. If I’m a father, you live with me together in the same house, we stroll together in the garden. If I’m a king, then I live in the palace and you, the subject, you live outside. God says, you’ve chosen to relate to me only as a King. So if that’s all you think I am, it’s time for you to go…
Punishments or Consequences?So these punishments? They’re not arbitrary at all; they emerge naturally. They’re consequences of seeing the world through the Elokim lens, through the lens of power only: Adam wants power over his food? Then he will suffer in making his man-made bread. Eve wants to bring power into her relationships? He is physically stronger than her and he can dominate her. And if you see God as King and Ruler, only, then...the Garden is not the place for mankind. It is a place for a Father and His children – and so they have to leave.
After the banishment, the tragedy actually isn’t over. It continues, and bleeds into the next story. The very next words in the text are: V'ha'Adam yadah et Chava ishto – and man knew his wife Chava. Now, “knowing her” of course is a euphemism for intimacy, but listen to how their love is characterized – Vha’adam yadah et chavah ishto… man knew his wife. That verb Yada, knowing… is it me, or is that word just a little bit ominous?
Think back to the last story – what was its main feature? It was… a Tree of ‘Knowing” good and evil. It's almost as if in this first act of intimacy, we’re hearing the dark echoes of that tree. You know, when Eve was first created, the Torah had said: V'davak b'ishto vehayu l'basar echad... man is meant to embrace woman and they will become one flesh.
THEY become ONE flesh: Listen to how mutual that is. There are notes of togetherness, of equality, of partnership in that description. That’s the way it should have been. But now? Instead, we have: “And man knew Eve.” Very unilateral, wouldn't you say? He’s active; she’s being acted upon.
And pay attention, also, to that little Hebrew word, ‘et’: V'ha'Adam yadah et Chava ishto. Et is a connector in Hebrew – a connector between a verb and a direct object. Is Adam treating her like an object, like something to be acted upon? And that word ‘knowing’, with its echoes of the tree… it's almost as if the Torah is saying, his intimacy with her is overshadowed by that tree. And that would kind of make sense, right?
If eating from the tree gives you the illusion that you are the ultimate decider, the great Declarer of the Way Things Should Be… well, if that’s who I am, then who are you? You're less than my full partner. There’s something objectifying about this partnership, when I’m really just supposed to be loving you. But if Adam’s acts minimize her in some way, the pendulum will soon swing back in the other direction, too. Because what happens next? Eve becomes pregnant from her union with Adam, and when she bears a child – a child she names Kayin, Cain – she says something remarkable at his birth: Kaniti ish et Hashem – I have acquired this man with God.
You can imagine Eve there, overcome with the wonder of childbirth, and she says: There's this little man that's come from me, it's the most miraculous, crazy thing in the world. Me and God, we did this together. Kaniti ish et Hashem, I’ve acquired this man with God. And that sounds wonderful, right? But look more carefully at the language and you’ll notice some disquieting things.
Kaniti ish et Hashem. Yeah, there’s that ‘et’ again. It is not just I’ve acquired a man with God, but somehow, I am the one who has done it and God… he was like in that direct object position. God helped; he was almost like my tool; someone that I used to create this little man with. In her declaration, is Eve positioning herself somehow as the real doer, in creating this child, and labeling God, in effect, the junior partner? And Eve, she minimizes not just the role of God, who contributed all that wondrous biochemistry to the magic of childbirth.
She left somebody else out of the picture, too: Adam. Where is he in Kaniti ish et Hashem? He is nowhere to be found. Kaniti ish et Hashem – it's about me. Maybe God too. Adam? Not so much…
If we are right about these subtleties in Eve’s language, what we are seeing here is a perfect tit for tat. In his intimacy with her, man had not fully reckoned with her significance, and now, in her eyes, he is not fully significant either. The bitter aftertaste of the forbidden fruit continues to linger, and do its awful work. Sadly, this poison seeps into the next generation.
Cain – his name means acquisition, that suspicious, slightly over-possessive word used by Eve to describe her creating him – and Cain, he ends up murdering his brother. And, while murder might seem horrifying to you and me on the outside, in his own eyes, to Cain… it might have seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
But then again, acting on your desire of the moment always seems like the right thing to do at the time – certainly when I feel like I’m standing in a God-like role vis a vis everything else. So stand back and look at this picture, this series of events that starts with eating from that tree and ends in murder. There’s a domino chain here.
As I said before, it starts with a sin between man and God. We might even call it a kind of idolatry, that choice to reach for the forbidden fruit. It was a way of setting up a false god; pretending that you are God. But that act of idolatry, as it were, doesn’t stay there. It morphs into pain and anguish in relationships between a husband and wife, and ends, finally, in murder.
I think, at long last, we’re in a position to understand that midrash we opened with. It’s the Midrash that connects Eicha to Ayekah, that sees the root of Tisha B’Av as residing in the very first lament ever uttered in the Bible – the Ayekah of God: Where are you?
What does it mean to see Tisha B’Av in light of the Garden?
Understanding the Meaning of Tisha B'av Through EdenYou see, Tisha b’Av is difficult for many of us to connect to. It’s a day, seemingly about sin and its consequences. We sit on the floor, many of us, trying to introspect, trying maybe to do a mental tabulation of all of our sins, maybe feeling guilty about not feeling guilty enough; thinking of all the ways we are perpetuating the exile we still find ourselves in. And it feels like there is plenty of guilt to go around: Every generation in which the Beit Hamikdash is not rebuilt, it is as if it was destroyed in its time. Destroyed because of YOU. Because of YOUR sins. But the Midrash paints a different picture.
It suggests that if we are in mourning in despair and terror for an Elokim who meted out the consequences of our sins, that’s only half the picture, just like Adam and Eve saw only half the picture. Because while we’re mourning, God is mourning too. He isn’t leaning back on his throne cackling at the punishments his rebellious subjects are suffering. He isn’t only an Elokim; power isn’t the magic elixir He imbibes. No, He uses power in service of something. He is Hashem. He is a father. And when a father’s children have strayed, He mourns too. What does His mourning sound like? It is the great cry of Ayekah. Where have my children gone? Why have they left me?
Our God isn’t the rule-maker in the sky, cross Him and die. His rules are good. Good for us. Hashem Elokim is our great parent in the Sky. And if the path to Tisha b’Av started in the Garden, then on Tisha b’Av, mourning our loss isn’t enough; we must somehow get in touch with God’s loss of us, too.
Tisha b’Av should be a day where we remember that we aren’t merely the subjects of God, but the children of God. What if we don’t relate to God as Father? It’s not just that your Tisha b’Av is a little less rich, a little less meaningful.
The consequences of seeing only half the picture really impacts us. If we think of God exclusively as King, with absolute power to declare the way things should be, where exactly does that leave us? It leaves us pretty close to envisioning God as a being who is worshipped because He is feared, and that’s it. And then, what’s to stop us from imagining Him as sitting atop a heavenly throne, with a white beard, hurling javelins at the unsuspecting mortals below? We might bow in submission before such a god, but not without traces of resentment and chagrin.
And… if that’s the God we think we are worshiping… how do we deal with pain and hurt in our lives? When your little two-year-old lies in the hospital and you feel lost and helpless... and you think about God – and it is the God of javelins and white beards that you think about – how easy is it to pray, to open your heart, to such a God? It’s not so easy. There’s a part of you that’s bitter, that’s hurting; you ask, why me? And then, what do you do with the pain that you feel? Talk to the one upstairs with the javelins about it? No, that’s too dangerous. And anyway, He’s a king, He’s not accessible. So what do you do with that hurt instead? Maybe you take it out on your husband, the doctor, your kids. All your relationships begin to wobble. Just when you most need them not to wobble. But the tragedy in that is it’s not true. And we have to remember it’s not true.
God is not just Elokim, He is HaShem Elokim. The God who is king – who is Master of the system – is the same God who tenderly loves us. If that is who God is, then maybe… maybe we can let our guard down a little. Even if I don’t understand Him, I can still trust that He cares about me, that He loves me. And, sitting there in that hospital room, that can make all the difference in the world.
What I’m saying here, really, isn’t all that revolutionary. The truth is, you say it every day. You say it in just six words, words that are the basic credo of our faith. These words, they respond to the very question we raised above: Who is God, this Master that we worship? Shma Yisrael, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad Hear O Israel: Hashem, the God of Compassion, is your Master! But it doesn’t make sense, you protest: How could God be both King and the one who loves me so deeply and so personally?
You may not understand it, but it is true. This God, HaShem, incorporates all of this. He is One. Hashem Echad. This Tisha B’av, let's remember the Garden, and let us not cower behind that bush in fear.
What we need to do is gather the strength, the courage, and the love to say in response to a God who wants to walk with us: I don’t want to hide. I’m ready to go walking with you…
Have a meaningful Tisha B’av.