To start this morning by mixing a few cultures, I’ve felt a little like Medusa.
My garden and other parts of our yard is thoroughly overgrown, as usual this time of year. When I walk out there in my sandals I’m periodically aware that one of the many snakes (which supposedly like the area) might attack me. But, since I’ve never seen a snake in my garden, I’m never quite concerned enough. Snakes have been big this past year. Everyone knows, of course about the summer “blockbuster” turned flop “Snakes on a Plane”. An article in the NYTimes from this past May reporting on the close relationship between snakes and primates, that “Monkeys are known to have specific alarm calls for different predators… [including a special one] for snakes.”
Then, in the beginning of September, a study by Lynne Isbell appeared in the Journal of Human Evolution which suggested that human evolution (in particular our eyesight which she suggests was designed to see those snakes I never see in my yard) closely parallels the development of poisonous snakes. All these have caused me to have snakes runnin’ on round my brain.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve offered technical support to a colleague who wrote the book Judaism for Dummies. More recently I had the opportunity to offer support to a biblical scholar who has written a highly detailed work about the Garden of Eden. Now, you might not find his word-by-word analysis of the text particularly engaging, I however (after being given permission), read the (unpublished) book with delight. And then Avigail suggested that I finally read the Michael Pollan book “The Botany of Desire” which suggests that we look at our gardens from the point of view of the plants.
These thoughts of snakes and gardens drew me back to that original garden and what happened there. The story is appropriate now because events in The Garden represent the first moment in our human experience when we did something wrong. Since today is the special day set aside for atonement for our wrongdoing, I thought we’d take a closer look at what our tradition says about some of the ideas which have shaped our understanding of the world that have emerged from the Garden Story.
We American Jews have had our appreciation of Judaism deeply informed by the English language and one of the core texts of that language is the King James Bible. The KJB (not to be confused with the KGB [or the KBH]) used a variety of words that are commonly used in English, but have different meanings in Christian and Jewish contexts. The KJB took our holy writings and re-interpreted them in English with a Christian slant. So, it’s not surprising that many of our understandings of the words that we use in English are colored by this Christian overlay. Though it bothers me, I can’t stop the Christians from misinterpreting our holy writings, but, it’s a shame for us Jews to misconstrue them the way they do… rather than understand them the way we Jews have accepted them for millennia.
So, for example, the story of the Garden of Eden is used in Christianity to explain the existence and the meaning of “original sin”. But, no word “sin” appears in the story! Adam and Eve misbehaved. So, what’s going on here? Why should we be tarnished by their actions if we “Ain’t Misbehavin’”
A number of years ago, before the Ben Aderet family moved into their current house, we (Congregation Etz Chaim of Ramona) would meet at their home, not only for Sukkot, but also, in the late spring for L’aG b’Omer. Yigal would prepare a bonfire and set up an archery field with a target. Anyone who wanted could pick up the bow, take careful aim, loose the arrow… and most often we would experience ḥeṭ. One after another congregants took turns. The arrows dug into the earth in front of the target, they flew high over it sailing almost out of the field. Some arrows swung over to the right or the left. And, a few actually hit the haystack to which the target was attached. But, nearly every single arrow was in error. We all experienced ḥeṭ.
Were we all sinful people because we were enjoying ourselves on L’aG b’Omer with a traditional activity of shooting arrows? Of course not. The core meaning of the word ḥeṭ is “to miss the mark”, and using a bow and arrow with a target is a perfect example of how we Jews misunderstand our tradition when we use the word “sin” instead. Nobody at the Ben Aderet house that night went home in a state of sinfulness because they had missed the mark. Definitely not. We went home warmed by the fire and the good food and the pleasure of being in each other’s company. We also, perhaps went home with slightly sore arms for using muscles that we did not frequently use. And, it’s possible that we returned to our own homes with a somewhat better aim and a better vision of how to focus on the target ahead of us. For, once those arrows had missed their mark, our task was to go out into the field, collect the spent arrows, return to the shooting line, re-aim and release the arrows once again. The more we returned, the less likely we were to experience ḥeṭ the next time we released the arrow.
The vast majority of our inappropriate actions are of this kind, an unintentional error. Often times, the biggest problem with this kind of behavior is that we don’t recognize it as an error - and use the opportunity to refocus. We simply pick up the next arrow, put it in the bow, pull the string and release… over and over again, missing the mark each time. We keep taking the easy way, until, the feel of the the bow and arrow in our arms comes to seem natural that way. And then it becomes hard to rearrange the muscles to aim better.
This is similar to when we see a path of trampled grass across the public green and take it, instead of walking on the paved walk-way along the perimeter. The more we and others walk across the grass, the more it gets trampled, a real path develops and, when the rains fall… a muddy line appears across the field. Then some dry day another person is likely to use the line with a wheelbarrow. Back and forth they’ll go and when they want to get off that path… it’s very hard to do. This kind of habitual behavior that grows from not paying close enough attention makes it seem as though we are sinful people, but, we’re truly “stuck in a rut”. The possibility of change is always available. The gates of repentance are always open. I’ve learned that it is even possible to teach an old dog new tricks.
But, what of those other behaviors?
Ḥeṭ has a way of working its way up to the next level of wrongdoing when we’re not careful. That trampled grass? We know it’s not the right thing to add our feet to the path. We don’t walk that way in order to trample the grass because we don’t care about the lawn. No, we seem to be drawn to the easy way across by some seemingly uncontrollable emotion, most often a feeling of laziness and carelessness. Someone else has already “paved the way” and we simply follow along, cutting corners.
This type of error, in which we all get caught, we call in Hebrew “Avon”. That’s spelled in English a-v-o-n… like the craving some people have for cosmetics. In my case, now and then, I get an uncontrollable urge to eat a full bag of potato chips. I do what I can to find “healthy” chips… lots of potato a little oil and almost no salt. but still…. I don’t do it often, perhaps a few times during the year. I know it’s not the right thing to do… but this desire, craving, lust, is hard for me to control. I know of other people with similar appetites. There are those, like me, the “salty people” and the “sweet people”. We often call these our secret, private vices, as we usually indulge ourselves in them while alone.
Some of these behaviors are true acts of commission. Others are acts of omission. How can we tell the difference? Cutting the corners where someone else has already paved the way is and act of omission. We fail to act in the appropriate manner, by walking the full distance. This is akin to short-changing someone (not at the cash register, but) by not expending our best effort. On the other hand, when we stuff ourselves with unhealthy food, or spend our hard-earned funds on tchatchkes, we are actively behaving in ways we know are destructive. These are acts of commission.
We know full well that what we’re doing is not good. The cravings are not good for us. The slothful following in the destructive pathways that others have initiated are not good for the world. Nonetheless, we do not begin these acts out of conscious rebelliousness. We have done wrong. But, we are not bad, or “sinful” people. We can, with awareness of what we’ve done, in addition to effort and encouragement (often from others), change our course.
Ah, but, who was that “snake in the grass” who was the first to cut across the lawn? Or perhaps there was someone who egged us on. That person knew that the paved road was for walking and the lawn was for sitting and playing on, not crossing. The Ken Lays, Jeffrey Skillings and Andrew Fastows of the world intentionally put their feet on the fresh public space right there where the sign “keep off the grass” is clearly visible. They led the way, deliberately defying the common understanding of what was right and what was wrong. In so doing they caused others to make the situation worse. This is the third level of wrong behavior. In Hebrew, this kind of act we call Pesha or Mered “rebelliousness”.
When we get caught in this kind of behavior we sully the essence of who we are as humans, created with the ability to choose between right and wrong. Consciously choosing inappropriate conduct causes our hearts to become callous. And much as Pharaoh “hardened” his heart we begin to change into different beings, no longer aware of and sensitive to the needs, concerns and problems of others. Our world centers around ourselves and all we perceive are our own needs and desires, every caprice must be consummated, every urge fulfilled.
We have not become transformed into some theological concept of “sinful soul”. In fact, as we repeat daily:
the soul (the very “I-ness” of who I am) is pure.
Regardless of what I may have done. No matter that I have acquitted myself in ways that make me an unpleasant person to be with I am (we all are) still, of infinite value.
Since the time of the first garden, we humans have been designated as Ziony Zevit at the University of Judaism describes us as the “agriculturalists-in-residence”. Soon we will finish harvesting our gardens. The time will then come for us to turn over the soil the new year ahead progresses. So also with us. The time has come to turn over, but more than a new leaf or a little soil. Or perhaps we should turn around, but not in the manner of our puppies that chase their tails running around in circles as they distract us in our garden. Nor in the manner of the snakes in our garden, the ourobors… the snake with its tail in its mouth, forming a never ending circle. No, the snake simply loses its skin, but it remains essentially the same.
We need to reach farther than the beauty that is skin-deep. Sometimes the pipes that lay beneath our gardens develop cracks. Roots find their way in and clog the flow of irrigating waters. There are times when it becomes so serious that we need to call for help and the company comes that snakes through the piping, routing out the accumulated debris. So it is with us. We need to reach into our hearts and turn them, cleanse them, open them to freshness, enable them to flow freely with the fluids that bring fresh life.
Awake, o north-wind; and come, thou south;
Blow upon our garden that the spices thereof may flow out.
Let these simple humans come into their garden and eat of its precious fruits.Song of Songs 4:16