This evening we are in the midst of Sukkot, and right around the corner is Simchat Torah, where we will start the Torah reading over, chanting V’Zot Habracha, the last parsha in Deuteronomy, and the Bereshit, the first parsha in Genesis. As your Rabbi, I spent this past week rolling each of our torah’s back to the beginning. With each flick of my wrist, I was reminded of the words from the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot. Yochanan Ben Bag Bag used to say, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” Now, if you’ve never rolled a torah from Deuteronomy back to Bereshit, let me reassure you, it takes a long time and though it is simple, relatively easy work, the nature of the repetitive motion, the sound of parchment rustling against wood, leads one to do a great deal of meditation. With the words of Pirkei Avot running through my mind, I began to reflect.
Simchat Torah is a time of transition, a time to look differently at the Torah that we read year after year. It is a time to find new perspectives, new interesting little insights we never noticed before. The name of the holiday, Simchat Torah–rejoicing in the Torah–is supposed to be self-evident: we are supposed to rejoice in God’s gift to us, and therefore rejoice in God. But for so many of us, that is difficult. As we battle the many endless challenges that life throws at us personally, to say nothing of the hardship, cruelty, and inhumanity we witness globally, it can be difficult to believe in God, let alone rejoice in him. To be honest, as I rolled those torahs in our sacred sanctuary, I found myself at a loss. How do I rejoice, how do I move our congregation to rejoice, when I know that so many of you are struggling, are hurting. And how, in the face of some of the most flagrantly racist, xenophobic, and downright unacceptable reactions to world problems, do we as a community rejoice?
In moments like these, moments when I find myself unsure of how to proceed, I often turn to the books in my office. There, I can find great Jewish minds discussing politics, poetry, pastoral care. There is historical scholarship, biblical criticism, and modern responses to to Jewish ideas. This week, feeling the need for a real spiritual powerhouse, I turned to one of the great spiritual teachers of Judaism, Lawrence Kushner. His books line my shelves. Many are dog-eared and frayed, having been read again and again. Others sit there, waiting for a lull in my schedule so that I can experience them for the first time. This particular week, I found myself drawn to one of his most famous works, God was in the Place and I Did Not Know It, And so, I opened it up to a random page to try and get some inspiration.
Coincidentally, I opened it up to Kushner’s understanding of the Genesis story, though not the one we’ll read on Monday evening. Instead, it was the second Genesis story, about Adam and Eve. The name of the section in Kushner’s book is called “The Snake Works for Me.” Allow me, if you will, to share a little bit from it.
I can just hear Adam and Eve now:
“You mean it was OK all along to eat the fruit?”
“I knew you would,” says God. “Why do you think I put it right in the middle and then made such a big deal about not eating it. I made you. You think I didn’t know what you happen. It was a setup. That forbidden fig has had your name on it since before I began the creation.”
“What about the snake?”
“Sammy? Sammy, the snake! That snake has been working for me from day one! Sammy come out here and meet the folks…”
(Snake enters from offstage, removes his skin, revealing a handsome, young man wearing a white suit. Takes a bow. The stunned crowd rises to its feet in applause.)
“Then that means getting chased out of the garden wasn’t a punishment?”
“Of course not. The day you left home, you became truly human. For on that day you had to begin working for a living and working to bring forth life. Trying to convince your progeny to do what you want, and then realizing that if you succeed you would only produce mindless infantile extensions of yourself instead of autonomous men and women who could step forward in the noonday sun and call you a louse because you were behaving like one. You can make them do just what you want for the rest of their lives, or you can teach them everything you know and then hide in the corner with your hands over your eyes while they learn how to drive the damn thing. If I can do it with you, then you can do it with your children.”
“But sometimes,” whispered Adam and Eve, “we just miss you and want to be close to you, like when we would walk together in the Garden when we were little.”
“I am truly sorry,” said God, “but as every adult knows, no matter how graceful, every growing up necessitates life-long pain. And that hurt at the core of our soul is what renders normal people, on rare occasions, capable of great evil. People hurt others because they were hurt. And they were hurt because that is the price of adulthood. There is no other way.”
It’s interesting. In all my studies, in all the time I have spent thinking about God and reflecting on the Adam and Eve story, this interpretation of the forbidden fruit aspect of the narrative never made its way across my desk. But this week, here it was, and I must say, for me, it made sense. It lived up to what Simchat Torah is about. It was a new perspective, and a perspective that could not seem more timely. This is, of course, the beauty of reading and re-reading the Torah each year, and re-reading commentary on it. I had never really thought about how the whole Adam/Eve/Snake story could be interpreted as a setup. To be honest, my mind can get a bit cluttered with scholarship from time to time, and lately I’ve been more concerned with how the snake talks in the Garden of Eden, but no other animal does. But things start to make sense to me when I remember that the only other time in the Torah that an animal speaks is the story of Balak riding his donkey, who stops in the middle of the road, and starts talking. In that story, the Torah states that God “opened the mouth” of the donkey so that he could speak. One can infer, therefore, that perhaps God “opened the mouth” of the snake, and therefore was behind the whole thing from the beginning! It was a setup, and as Kusher offers, it was a setup to teach individuality, and the pain of adulthood. Quite the long-con if you ask me, but I do like the idea.
It is important to note, however, that though we were set up to fail in the beginning, it was only a momentary failure. We disobeyed an order. We failed. But that was a necessary step to progress. We see this with our own children. When Barrie and I would stand Asher up to have him walk to us and he would immediately fall, it was a failure. But we set him up for that. We knew, especially early on, that he wouldn’t be successful. But we did it again and again anyway, knowing that one day, he would take a step. And then another. And then another. And next thing we knew Barrie was chasing him all over the sanctuary during Shabbat. Yes, we set him up to fail, but ultimately the joke was on us.
This interpretation of the Adam and Eve story, and the way it portrays God, makes me wonder if God, whomever or whatever he or she or ze is, is also seeing that humanity is the final punchline. God set us up to fail and fail we did. And then we succeeded. And succeeded. And succeeded some more. But oh the failures. There have been some real whoppers. And they continue today. Aleppo. Haiti. Mosul. In the face of so many failures, it can feel lonely. And if God intentionally made it lonely, if God set us up so that we could be alone, then I agree with Kusher, who says that such an interpretation does come with some psychological damage. It’s not a great feeling to know you’ve been set up to fail, no matter what the life lesson is, or how much you’ve grown because of it. What does this say about the trust of God? What else is just a con, a setup? Are we being set up now? It’s just not very nice.
But then I remind myself that one day we will kick Asher out of the house. And that before that day comes, he’ll probably try to leave, kicking and screaming. Because that is the way of the world. We all want to be adults. We all want agency. Until we don’t. And it’s in those “until we don’t” moments that we really get to decide whether the failures that got us there were momentary failures on a path to success, or permanent failures that will derail us, and humanity, permanently. From a spiritual standpoint, when we reach those “until we don’t” moments, we are supposed to turn to the torah for guidance. “Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it,” Pirkei Avot says. For some of us, that may be true. There may be great comfort and guidance in the pages of our torah. For others of us, stories written thousands of years ago may not be enough. And to those of us, Kusher’s interpretation of God reminds me that no matter what you believe, sometimes life is hard. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s unfair. And while those words aren’t particularly comforting in a moment of distress, they should serve as a reminder that we must fail–and fail repeatedly–if we are to succeed. Because that is how life works, from the very moment we are born. So in the coming days, let us rejoice in this time when we get to start anew, when we get to reinterpret not only our Torah, but the events in our lives that define us, and that present us with the opportunity to remain complacent in failure, or to move forward towards success.