Return to the Garden of Eden

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

Paashat Shlach Lecha. Originally published in "The People and the Book", Jerusalem Report, June 15 1995.

The unfinished story of the Garden of Eden flows almost imperceptibly into the narrative of the children of Israel's first foray into (he Promised Land. The condition of exile, which has defined man since his expulsion from Eden. is about to be erased for the people of Israel. as they enter the land"flowing with milk and honey," a "land with everything in it"


The prohibition on eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is reversed as well--turned into a positive charge to eat a different fruit. At G-d's command, Moses sends spies--"to see what the land is, and what the people dwelling on it are--whether they are strong or weak, many or few. Does it have a tree or not? Ay you should take courage, and take from the fruity of the land" (Numbers 13:18-20) According to the Zohar, the commandment to "take from the fruit of the land" was a charge to the spies to bring back from the Garden with he Holy Land, fruit from the Tree of Life--that is, communion with the Infinite Source of life which can lift us out of subjectivity, ambivalence and mortality.


The spies failed. They returned with the knowledge of their distance from God. "The fruit they brought back was from the Tree of Knowledge," the Zohar says. In the Jewish mystical tradition, the Tree of Knowledge represents the realm of human subjectivity, the beginning of man's consciousness of himself as separate from God. Gaining the "knowledge" that this tree offers gives mans his sense of self-hood and identity, but also brings him into a shadowland of unclarity, doubt--and mortality.


The spies are commanded to take the fruit of the Tree of Life--but in order to do so, they must first traverse the territory--psychic territory--associated with Adam and Eve's fall. Adam and Eve find the presence of God so threatening to their newfound sense of self that they hide among the trees of the garden. Adam and Eve, created as giants, shrank in size, the Midrash tells us in Bereshit Rabbah, after the sin.


What for Adam and Eve seems to be a response to the the sinbecomes, for the spies in the Holy Land, the essence of the sin itself. When they return to the people of Israel, they describe their loss of faith in God's promise of the land as an identity crisis. They see the inhabitants of the land as giants. "In our eyes we weere as grasshoppers, and so we were in theirs" the spies recount (Numbers 13:33) The midrash tells us in Bamidbar Rabbah that the spies "hid in the vineyards"--like Adam and Eve among the trees of the Garden, and hear the giants comment on "the grasshoppers among the vines."


On returning to their desert encampment, they describe Canaan as a "land that devours its inhabitants (13:32) a psychologically accurate description of the experience of feeling one's identity swallowed up by something much, much larger than oneself. The Torah incorporates this loss of identity into the text. Before the spies leave on their mission, each is mentioned by name and by tribe. After they return, their names are not mentioned again, even when their divinely ordained death penalty is rescinded.


The story of the spies, as interpreted by the Zohar, offers insight into the mysterious episode of the Garden of Eden. It points to what Kafka intuited in his parable on Eden: Why do we lament over the fall of man? we were not driven out of paradise because of it, but because of the Tree of Life, that we might not eat it." We are sinful, not just because we have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, but because we have not eaten from the Tree of Life." The story of the Garden of Eden waits for us to bring it to closure. God wants us to sneak past the angels with their swords of fire and reach the Tree of Life.


The story of the spies teaches us too that the Tree of Life remains beyond reach because of fear. If through the Tree of Knowledge man gained a sense of self-hood and identity, the story of the spies teaches us that it is not this sense of selfhood, but the crippling fear of losing it that keeps us from the Tree of Life.

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