November 18, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Bereshit

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

“He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.” –Genesis 3:24

Rabbi and Cantor Eva Robbins
Co-spiritual leader, N’vay Shalom,

Adam and Eve, after exerting their free will and not taking responsibility for it, must leave their first home. Their eyes have been opened, knowing the possibilities life holds — good and evil. God warned that if they ate from the Tree of Good and Evil they would die. Yet they live. They receive a reprieve, a theme from the High Holy Day literature, “… Ma-avirin et roah hag’zeirah,” “… Avert the severity of the decree.” They will eventually die but they now have an opportunity to go out into the world, engaging in both the light and the dark side of life and do teshuvah. 

What really stands out for me is the foreshadowing of things to come. The cherubim will sit on the ark in the Holy of Holies, the flame will burn on the altar, and the root in the word stationed, yashkein, shin/chaf/nun, is the same as in the words Mishkan and Shekhinah. I believe these are all symbolic of the place wo/man will come to meet God again outside of Eden, in the Mishkan (sanctuary) with its altar for offerings and its ark, carrying the new and broken tablets. And most poignantly, the Etz Chayyim, protected by whirling swords, will morph into the greatest emanation of God in the world, the Torah, becoming our sacred center after the destruction of the Holy Temple. 

Adam and Eve may never be able to go back to their first home but they will create a new one which all of us will inherit. 

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein
AJRCA professor of Hebrew 

The description of the beings guarding the way to the Tree of Life is a striking one. It is striking not only in the stark threat suggested by “the blade of the revolving sword,” but also in that the guardians tasked to keep mankind from the Tree of Life are called “cherubim,” the same beings depicted on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. Although the cherubim in this verse are described by Rashi as “angels of destruction,” the cherubim on the ark were a temporal locus for God’s revelation to mankind. God is described as speaking to Moses from between the two cherubim. 

How do we reconcile these two types of cherubim? One type seems to keep mankind from getting too close to divinity, whereas the other is a channel for divine revelation. The Ramban and the Or Ha-Chayim (Exodus 25:21) point out that what made the cherubim of the ark special were the tablets of God’s law that were in the ark. It was the divine word within the ark that facilitated the divine word that manifested outside of the ark. 

Despite the seeming disparity, what the cherubim in both verses have in common is that they are guardians of the Tree of Life, as the Torah found in the ark is likened to a “tree of life” (Proverbs 3:18). By enforcing mankind’s banishment from Eden, the cherubim pointed us to an alternate path to the Tree of Life, that of embracing the Torah and its precepts.

Yoni Troy
Lieutenant, Israel Defense Forces

How can a sword, something that is meant to kill, guard life? The fact that the sword guards the way of life symbolizes life’s boundaries. Just as we face physical restrictions, so too do we need ethical restraints. Ironically, when we respect our limits, our lives becomes more meaningful, not less. 

Every day we live the tension between din v’chesed, law versus lovingkindness. Our feel-good modern world tends to over-idealize lovingkindness, often leaving the law behind. However, God is saying that law is as defining as lovingkindness, at times even more. Sometimes God trusts us, gracing us mercifully, and sometimes God wields the sword. Using the sword does not make God tyrannical but just. This is because boundaries are what move us forward. 

As an IDF officer, I often have to impose the law. I get no enjoyment out of punishing soldiers who get out of line. One never feels good causing pain or discomfort. But my duty requires me to uphold the army’s standards and educate my soldiers, so that if and when we are called upon to protect our country, we will be ready. 

Eventually, when we reach a high enough moral and spiritual level, we no longer will need the sword to keep us in line and we will enter the Garden of Eden freely. May we all reach that stage soon. As we just asked God on Yom Kippur: “May You cleanse with Your abundant mercy, but not through suffering or serious illness.”

Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
Assistant rabbi, Temple Beth Am

Windows and doors tightly shut keep out the odor of California wildfires although miles away, we still smell and see the fire damage on our world. Should I draw nearer in curiosity and maybe helpfulness or stay out of the way? Here we are, at the beginning of our Torah and the first human creations made a mistake and are now in eternal “time out.” They are kept from returning to the scene of intrigue by a revolving, fiery sword, which is a barrier to keep us away from the Tree of Life. Why put something before us and then separate us from it in such a spectacular way? 

The burning bush, a pillar of fire, our Torah written with “black fire on white fire.” Shabbat candles burn and a Havdalah candle is extinguished each time we encounter a move from the mundane to holy, and back again. God speaks to Moses, protects our people, and we connect to holy words all through fire. How can fire keep us away or bring us close? The turning flaming sword keeps us off the path toward the Tree of Life and guides us toward the path of spiritual relationship. In questioning this form of protection, I am doing exactly what our fires are put there to do: intrigue, question and recall the ways God keeps drawing us in with embers of curiosity, warmth and passion to care. I pray to know which fire to turn away from and which to turn toward.

Ilan Reiner
Architect and author of “Israel History Maps”

Seems harsh. The ultimate punishment, as perceived by many, was being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Or was it? This verse raises many questions. If this is a punishment, why isn’t it included with the other punishments God gave to the serpent, woman and man? The previous verse says that God sent the humans out of the Garden to work the land. Why does it now say they were expelled? And why did God need to protect the Tree of Life? Why not remove the garden from existence? 

I believe that the key words to understanding this, are “expel”/“drove out” (va’y’garesh) and “reside”/“stationed” (va’yashken). “Expel” is harsher than “sent away” and used to describe more permanent situations of driving out in anger. Also “reside” is used for a permanent description (as opposed to “dwell”). The Torah is describing a permanent outcome: Humankind no longer has access to the Garden of Eden. So why keep it? 

Perhaps the Torah is telling us that because we no longer have access to the “original” garden, it can be an allegory to any place we’ve been expelled from and strive to return to. A verse in Psalms uses the same verbs describing the Israelite people settling in the land: “He expelled nations from before them … and He caused … Israel to reside in their tents.” For the Jewish people, Israel is the metaphorical “Garden of Eden,” and we should certainly strive to return there, where we are welcomed and embraced.