“A river issues forth from Eden to water the garden,
and from there it is divided and becomes four headwaters.” (Genesis 2:10)
Volume VII of The Melton Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora’s series in Jewish Education explores the origins of Jewish educational institutions. It is instructive to know how things begin and often surprising to see how they change over time. This week’s parasha (portion) is a good example.
Parashat B’reishit begins the annual cycle of Torah reading by describing the origins of the world. It opens with the six days of creation, declaring God’s sovereignty over the entire universe. Humanity is created on the sixth day. Adam and Eve are assigned to live in Gan Eiden, the Garden of Eden, and it all goes downhill from there.
The Biblical Gan Eiden is not the “Paradise” we think of nowadays; it is a physical place where Adam and Eve live, and a place they must care for (Gen. 2:10-15). Only during the early rabbinic period (70-500 CE) does it become the Gan Eiden of the El Malei Rachamim prayer of Yizkor, the memorial service: a place of spiritual perfection and the place where the righteous are rewarded with eternal afterlife. It stands in opposition to Gehinom, a place of punishment for the wicked (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 28b). The path to Gan Eiden remains unclear: righteous souls might go directly after death or they might go at some time in the future. In other rabbinic sources, Gan Eiden is only for the resurrected dead at the end of time.
Joni Mitchell’s lyric, “And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden” conveys a contemporary sentiment: a nostalgic longing for a mythical past (Gan Eiden) that most likely never was. Our understanding of Gan Eiden may change over time but our need to believe in Gan Eiden remains constant.
Gut Yontif/Chag Sameach
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom