The Torah in this week’s opening reading begins with a description of the generations of human beings – the narrative of human life and civilization. It points out that originally there was a choice of whether to live in paradise in the Garden of Eden, or to attempt to reach for hoped-for human greatness and accomplishment through knowledge, intellect, and the human spirit.
That choice, which was made for us and for all the succeeding generations of human beings -the untold billions that have inhabited this planet for millennia, led to our expulsion from Paradise and the Garden of Eden, into a very dangerous and challenging world.
The epic poem of English literature by John Milton who entitled his work “Paradise Lost”, shows that since the beginning of time humankind has attempted, somehow, to regain its foothold in that original paradise, but all to no avail. We can well imagine the fright and trauma of our biological ancestors, forced into the world of wild animals, great and fearsome reptiles, and an unforgiving earth that produced thorns and weeds, from which, somehow, by enormous effort, ingenuity and the sweat of their brows, food would have to be toiled for, produced, and then gathered.
The story of humankind until this day is the never-ending quest to be able to feed and sustain itself in all types of harsh environments and demanding situations. It may not be an exaggeration to view all the conflicts and wars that have marked human history until today, as the attempts to gain more land and territory to secure sustenance.
The Germans slaughtered tens of millions of innocent people, to achieve what they call ‘lebenstraum’ – room to live and find sustenance. However, such attempts to gain for oneself by destroying others is not only morally reprehensible but is also self-defeating in practice as well as counterproductive.
But this is only part of the human struggle. The other part, equally important and even more difficult to achieve, is to somehow find the way back to that Paradise, from which the human race was expelled. This search lies at the root of all our dissatisfaction, depression, and emotional turmoil. We know instinctively that we are not in our real homes and that we should be in a better and more spiritual place.
Judaism posits that through the Torah and the fulfillment of its value system, we can gain a foothold on the road that leads us back to paradise and eternity. This road is also strewn with thorns and obstacles. Paradise is not gained by the fainthearted, or by those who seek only leisure and comfort in their lives. In fact, the difficulties that all of us encounter in life are themselves the very tools that will help us regain our footing and direction towards paradise.
This week’s reading emphasizes that we were born to struggle, to suffer discomfort and constant challenge, and to live in a tense and dangerous world. Nevertheless, the road to paradise does exist, and each of us is tasked with finding it and negotiating with it to its eternal end.
Rabbi Berel Wein