Geula and the Three Curses in Gan Eden

Author: Eli Ehrman, Iyyar 5770/April 2010

Why does the story of Gan Eden appear at the beginning of the Torah? The simple answer to this question is chronological. The story of Gan Eden occurred earlier than all other stories in the Torah. While, of course, this answer is correct, it is not sufficient. God revealed himself in the form He did to Moshe Rabbeinu only once in human history. The Torah of Moshe is the only time God has provided a text to humanity whose words are verifiably Divine. It is the one opportunity for us to understand why we are here and what is required of us. Obviously, the text of the Torah, its structure and order are carefully designed. We are being challenged to understand a set of concepts and purposes that are beyond the Earthly. Clearly the opening has great significance. It defines the framework for the text as a whole.

I have elsewhere argued that Gan Eden represents, with one exception, the goal of humanity: the Geulah. The Torah starts with the story (after the initial statement that the Universe in its entirety is the Creation of God) because in that way the text sets up the purpose of the Torah itself: to guide us as to how to achieve the Geulah. The exception I just mentioned is that the denizens of Gan Eden, while having Bechirah Chofshit (Free Will) do not know "Good and Evil" and there are only two of them. Again, elsewhere, I have argued that these two points are not only strongly connected but they amount to the same thing.

Adam and Chava (Eve) are thrown out of Gan Eden because they chose to know Good and Evil (actually, Chava chose and she persuaded Adam). The way back is barred by the "sword that turns itself upside down" or the "sword that rotates". However, once thrown out, our goal is to find the way back to the Geulah. The difference is that this time we return with a full knowledge of both Good and Evil and, this time, there are some six billion different minds, opinions, colors and goals.

What does the sword that turns upside down represent? What is it a symbol of? What turns upside down? What is it that goes around and comes around? What is it that kills us all through its periodicity? It is Time. Time is the rotation of the seasons, the eternal replacement of day by night and back again. It is birth followed by death followed by birth. The way back to Gan Eden is blocked by time.

Where on Earth is Gan Eden? Go to Google Earth. Our satellites can show us every spot on the planet down to the resolution of individual trees. However, it is not some-where on Earth. It is some-when on Earth. It is in the future of Earth. It is the future of humanity. That is the symbol of the sword: that since we choose to have knowledge of Good and Evil – since we choose birth, childhood, multiplicity and variety we cannot stay in Gan Eden but we can return there – after the passage of time. That passage of time is not arbitrary. It is there for us to achieve whatever it takes for us to be able to return there.

There are exactly three curses imposed on those responsible for the expulsion from Gan Eden. They seem to be curses but perhaps they are necessary consequences. Perhaps they define three evils that need to be overcome if access to Gan Eden is to be regained. Perhaps they are the definition of what it means not to be in Gan Eden. Not that, if we were able to eliminate these three curses, we would subsequently be awarded the keys to Gan Eden, but rather, eliminating these curses is what it means to be in Gan Eden.

First of all, what is not in the curses? Mortality itself is not. It is part of the reason why they must immediately be expelled but it is neither a punishment nor a curse. Birth itself is also not a curse, even if the pain involved in the birth or perhaps rearing is. Birth is not a punishment or curse for the same reason that knowledge of "good and evil" is part of the choice rather than part of the consequences.

Let us take the curses in reverse order. What are they and what do they represent?

Man is told that "by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread". Food was not an issue in Gan Eden. The most delightful food was available and plentiful. It required no time, effort, planning or attention to acquire it.

For at least 5,620 of the last 5,770 years, the vast majority of humanity spent almost every minute that they were not sleeping or eating, working "by the sweat of their brow" in order to put food in their mouths. They did not have the opportunity to become educated or to invest in their intellectual, esthetic or spiritual development. You might say the same about most people today even though our culture has made sure that whatever time we no longer need to invest into our basic livelihood has been replaced with hours of media consumption or long hours of work that earns money little needed to provide for our basic needs. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that we have experienced in the last few decades a true revolution in that today a very tiny percentage of total human labor in the developed world actually goes into providing needs that we could call basic. We are seeing the slow but sure ending of this Gan Eden curse. Notwithstanding, I do not underestimate our failure to translate that technological progress into real human quality of life.

I do not want to go further into detail regarding this curse and the technological reality of today and the future. I have discussed it at length elsewhere. I would rather spend a little time on the other two curses and what they mean.

The second curse is the "punishment" given to womankind: "He will rule you". Man will rule and woman will be ruled. The story of humanity actually opens with a lead actress rather than a lead actor. However, with that curse, there are very few further examples of women taking the lead. We could take this curse literally, we could take note that this curse, too, is something we see going away in the last few decades. We could note with satisfaction a second sign that the Geulah is approaching and leave it at that.

However, doing so would leave the curse as too narrow. Let us take the position that the gender issue is only one example of a whole class of evil in the structure of our society. The ability of man to enforce his will over a woman is a symbol of all exploitation of the weak by the strong. It is the story of the restriction of the personal freedom of one individual by some other individual who has more power, organization, military might or social standing. "He will rule you" is the symbol of injustice everywhere. The choice of gender injustice is a good one because it is so close and intimate. The woman is born into the same family with the same culture and the same genes. So many of the spurious arguments put forward to justify injustice fail to get off the ground in the context of the relationship between man and woman. The only verifiable and indisputable difference between man and woman is one of strength – which is exactly the point. Another reason why gender provides an excellent example is that the biases are so built into the very structure of our thinking that it represents the rule of prejudice over rationality at its most paradigmatic.

The third curse, given first, is the curse of "he will strike at your head and you shall strike at his heel" given to the serpent. I would like to take this curse symbolically too. It represents violence and warfare everywhere. There are two options: either one side strikes at the head or the other strikes at the heel; often both. Adam and the snake are symbols of armies, terrorists, rioting crowds, pogroms, storm troops or any other of the violent entities of history.

Why is one of the protagonists a snake? Why aren't both protagonists human? The choice of a snake expands the symbol of violence into a far wider realm than intra-human wars. In this way the third curse symbolizes all violence that human beings do to animals, to plants, the ground, the seas, the air and the totality of our environment. We, as a species, are at war with everything. We strike at the head of the whole of Creation and ultimately it will strike at our heels. Have we seen progress here? We are certainly aware, nowadays, of the harm incurred.

Why is Gan Eden presented as a reality that exists before the reality of the world as we know it? The answer is that a nation that assimilates the Torah including the order of its content will, over the generations develop an attitude that the world as it is today is not the world as it always was or a world as it has to be. We are a morally and intellectually restless people. Throughout the generations of Jewish nationhood we have believed that the world as we know it is destined to be replaced by a different and vastly different world – the world of the Geulah. This results in an inability to accept the facts of the world as inevitable. It makes us misfits in the world. We just can't accept that what we see is just the way the world happens to be and that there is nothing we can do about it.

This is the distilled essence of stubbornness. It prevents acceptance or "going with the flow". It creates a never-ending struggle to impose change or at any rate, a different reality. This stubbornness is deeply cultural and subliminal. It is not recognized as such and therefore never the explicit target of rebellion. One generation may rebel against the Torah of previous generations, but the deepest cultural and moral structures at the base of the human personality remain with the Jew who may think that he has left his heritage behind. Anyway, how can one rebel against rebelliousness?

Incidentally, this stubbornness is also one of the key components of creativity and innovation both scientific and generally intellectual. If you cannot assimilate and accept the rules of the intellectual endeavors as transmitted, you will look for alternatives. If, on the other hand, your personality is culturally conditioned to accept the rules of the game, scientific or esthetic, you will work within those rules – never seeking to replace the rules, to upend them or to make new rules that will not contradict the vision you wanted to implement all along. Creativity is born of stubbornness. It is born of the deep cultural perspective that the world as given is contingent; it doesn't have to be that way, its reign is fragile and it is always on the verge of being replaced by something better. With the story of Gan Eden, the Torah directs us to the means of making it so.