Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Garden Story--Part 3: Taking the Fruit (Yom Kippur Eve)

Our first Yom Kippur began in the garden and ended in the outside world.

Over the course of that very long day, we ate and opened our eyes and hid and forever left our childhood home.

My children, on Rosh Hashanah, Adam and I shared our story of young love; today we recall our first tentative steps toward maturity—how we struck out into uncharted territory, both knowingly and entirely without a clue.  It’s a tale of defiance and destiny, mortality, fear and courage.   And of making one mistake after another.  In other words, our Yom Kippur story is about growing up—a task in which we both failed and succeeded—just like you.

Tonight I’d like to reclaim and retell this tale because, over the ages, many who purport to honor our legacy have warped it beyond recognition.  They refer to our exile from Eden as the Fall, and portray our choices there as the root of all subsequent sin and suffering.  Mostly, awash in centuries of misogyny, they blame me.  So let me be clear from the outset: Adam took the fruit of his own free will, and given the opportunity to revisit that fateful day, both of us would eat it again, without a moment’s hesitation.  In the aftermath of our decision, we failed badly.  We panicked and diminished ourselves.  But we didn’t fall, or condemn our descendants to repeat our failures.  There is no one original sin; everyone makes their own mistakes and must take responsibility for them.  We are all obliged to learn from our own misdeeds.

Our critics also misconstrue the serpent’s role.  They demonize him as a satanic tempter.   But I wasn’t seduced—I knew I’d eat from the Tree the moment I saw it, long before I met him ambling through the grass. I didn’t need the snake to pique my hunger for the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  My appetite was fueled by the innate yearnings Yah created in me.  I learned that we humans are creatures of desire, longing to shape the world through our own choices. 

After the drama of our first day together, life soon grew dull for Adam and me.  In the beginning, the garden seemed so immense—wild and alive, inexhaustible by day and by night, terrifying.  But now, nine days later, it was starting to feel a little small.  The verdant lawns and orchards never changed; even the rivers’ flow, like the always-perfect weather, remained remarkably, flatly constant.  Our calling—to work and watch over the place—became tame and tedious.  We did our duty—exploring the terrain, tending the plants, playing with the animals—but with each passing day, the exercise rang more and more hollow.  That time was like an all-expenses-paid vacation, where you relax on a white-sand beach with exquisite food and drinks and not a care in the world—until, after a week or two, you wake up and realize you are eager to get back to work.   For while we all like to visit Paradise, you can’t really live there.
In the perpetual safety and security of garden life, I was losing my sense of curiosity and wonder.  I surmised that if we didn’t do something soon, I might never again experience the kind of freedom I desired so dearly.  I was learning that a meaningful life requires risk—that human liberty is impossible in a changeless world, and change always entails living with loss. I wanted my freedom.  I longed, above all, to grow up.

As young as I was that first Yom Kippur, I knew there must be something more, beyond the gates of Eden, and the only way toward it was to eat the fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil—even if that meant that one day we would die. And though, like any child, I did not fully understand, I sensed that to create that kind of meaningful life, I needed the dark hug of time. 

So when the serpent came to me, under the shade of that forbidden tree, I took comfort in his presence.  He truly was the most cunning of all of Yah’s creatures—more than that, I realized, he was Yah’s special agent on the ground.  His voice was Yah’s—expressing the wild, chaotic side of Yah that did not obey the ostensible rules.  As he spoke, it dawned on me that the whole drama playing out before my eyes was a set up.  Yah wanted us to take the fruit—that’s why it was sitting so prominently in the center of the garden.  For as every parent knows, if the intention is to keep the kids out of the cookie jar, you hide it; you certainly don’t put it in the middle of the room and point it out repeatedly before leaving the house.  Yah couldn’t wait for us to disobey, knowing that was the only way we could launch our journey to adulthood. 

Indeed, I think that on that fateful morning, Yah was also ready for a change.

They say that Yah created us, humankind, because Yah loves stories.  Well, in a world without good and evil, devoid of both ethics and mortality, the plot quickly runs thin.  How wearying it must have been for Yah those first few days, watching for a show of chutzpah, waiting for the one decisive act to set in motion the whole messy, tragic, comic and endlessly interesting human future.

And so I reached for the fruit—for Yah and for us.  I was not na├»ve.  I—who had so adamantly resisted Adam’s naming everything in the garden because it needlessly separated and divided one thing from another—I willingly brought on the most irrevocable divide of all.  My choice, duly considered and freely made, imposed an unbreachable divide between childhood in Paradise and maturity in the mortal world. 

Yes, my children, I ate—as aware of the consequences as I could be.  It wasn’t an apple, as legend would have it.  Nor was it a grape or a fig or a giant sheaf of wheat, as some of the Rabbis would later suggest.  It was a fruit like no other, unique in the world—at the same time sweet and bitter, delicious and disgusting, sickening and healing, evil and good—which is to say it tasted like everything and like nothing else—like life itself. 
I held it out for Adam.  He hesitated, understandably afraid of losing everything he’d so carefully considered and named.  Contrary to the rumors you may have heard, I did not tempt or cajole him.  I respected his reticence.  I simply placed the fruit in the palm of his hand and affirmed that the choice was his.  He nodded his thanks.  And then, like me—with me—he made the complex, difficult choice.  He chose adulthood.  He raised the forbidden fruit to his lips and bit off love and discord, exile and death and desire.  Our eyes opened to freedom, with its dazzling array of pitfalls and possibilities.   We smiled at one another and stood tall, side by side.

Then Yah knew that we had eaten. . . and saw that it was good, lamenting and rejoicing at our disobedience.  And so, my children, it has been in every generation since.  We disobey.   We suffer loss.  We diverge from our parents’ paths to seek our own—and in so doing, recreate ourselves.  It’s heartbreaking and essential, this expulsion from childhood’s garden.     We don’t want to depart, but know we must.  We leave home.  We weep.  We celebrate. 

Yah leaves and weeps and celebrates with us. 

Oh, my children, if only our Yom Kippur story ended there. . .  Up to that point, we’d done everything this sacred day demands.  We’d wrestled with our consciences, weighed our choices, nurtured one another, listened for Yah’s voice.  We dared to be vulnerable together, mustered the courage to confront and ultimately accept our mortality.  We embraced the terrible beauty of time and love and loss.  But alas, before day’s end, we did one more very human thing that almost undermined it all.  My children, you know the experience or you wouldn’t be here this Yom Kippur. 

We surrendered to shame.

We cowered from ourselves and Yah.

We hid.

We blamed.

We spoke mistruths.

We failed—dismally.

Alas, it wouldn’t be the last time.

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