Category Archives: BIble

Lech Lecha – Abraham and the Journey towards Eden

garden of eden

There is a Hebrew root word that binds together the first thirteen chapters of the book of Breishit (Genesis), serving to highlight both the descent of man away from the source of spirituality in the world as well as the significance of Abraham as rectifier of this free fall.

This root word is “kedem” (as well as the variation of this word, “mi’kedem”), which can be translated as a reference to something that is “East”.

Use of “kedem” in the Book of Genesis

The word kedem first appears in the Bible at the outset of the description of the Garden of Eden. In fact, the term “Garden of Eden” is somewhat misleading. The verse states that God planted a “gan b’eden mi’kedem” (a “garden in Eden to the east”) (Genesis 2:8). Thus, the habitat of man is not Eden itself, but an area to the “east” – which can be understood either as “east of Eden” (and therefore completely separate from it) or “in the eastern part of Eden”.

Either way, the garden does not represent “Eden” itself. “Eden” is rather the source of spirituality in our world; man can approach it but can never be in it entirely.

After Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, they are exiled from this garden. According to the verse, the cherubs and the rotating flaming sword were placed by God “mi’kedem l’gan eden” (“to the East of the Garden of Eden”) (Genesis 3:24). This was done to prevent man from re-accessing the garden, thereby relegating him to an area “east” of the garden, which is one more step “east” of “Eden”.

Similarly, after Cain kills his brother Abel and receives his punishment from God, it is stated that Cain sojourned in the land of Nod, which was “kidmat Eden” (“East of Eden”) (Genesis 4:16). As mankind had already been banished to the east of Eden as a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, Cain’s new predicament must be understood as one in which he is forced to wander in an area even further removed from “Eden”.

Finally, the people of the Generation of the Dispersion travelled mi’kedem (“from the East”) before settling down to build the infamous Tower of Babel. Many commentators struggle with the use of the word mi’kedem in this instance, because it is unclear where the people are travelling from and what possible relevance can be found in the fact that they travelled from the nameless east. In my opinion, the reference to the “east” in this context is to “the area east of Eden that Cain had travelled to” (as explained above).

However, the commentary of the renowned Biblical commentator, Rashi, in this week’s parsha implies that the word mi’kedem may not even relate to the physical world at all. Rather, the word should be understood as a code word of sorts for something that distanced from God and spirituality. When Lot takes his leave of Abraham, the verse states that he traveled  “m’ikedem” (“from the East”) (Genesis 13:11). Yet, the trek taken by Lot from Beit-El, where Abraham was stationed, to the plains of the Jordan River (where Sodom and Gemorroh were located), should have been towards the east, not from the east. Because of this difficulty, Rashi posits a second interpretation of the word mi’kedem: “He [Lot] distanced himself from the Ancient One (mi’kadmono) of the world. He said, “I care neither for Abram nor for his God.”

According to this interpretation, the movement “to the East” by mankind throughout the first part of the Book of Genesis is not to be understood literally. “Mi’kedem” simply means – away from God, or, as explained above, away from “Eden”.

The human condition

An important question thus arises: What is special about the above stories (eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the killing of Abel and the building of the Tower of Babel) in that they are singled out to reflect man’s fall away from “Eden”?

The answer may be that each of these stories are meant to be a reflection of the three dimensions of man in the world (man vs. himself, man vs. man, man vs. God) and the challenges that man must overcome in order to get as close as possible to “Eden”.

The consequence of Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge has been labeled many things throughout the ages, including “reason”, “self-consciousness” and “samsara”. The various interpretations all seem to point to the fact that a fundamental barrier to experiencing the totality of Being (i.e. “Eden”) was injected into man as a result of his sin. Consequently, the banishment “to the East” of the garden is a metaphor for the division within man caused by the introduction of “knowledge of good and evil” into his makeup.

The story of Cain’s murder of Abel (including the reasons for the murder) depicts a basic flaw in man’s relationship with his fellow men, successfully summarized by the words of Kohelet – “I saw that all labor and every kind of skilled work is the result of a man’s rivalry with his neighbor; this too is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:4). Indeed, to shape our ambitions in terms of something other than the achievement of our fellow men is a necessary step before we can approach “Eden”.

Finally, the people of the Generation of the Dispersion strove to make a name for themselves, to the exclusion of the all-powerful Being at the root of the universe. When we set up a construct between ourselves and God, this will be an obstacle on our path to “Eden”.

Avraham was the first individual to comprehend these three fundamental pitfalls in man’s search for “Eden”. Therefore, it could be said that Lot was choosing the path leading away from “Eden” when he decided to part from Abraham, the one man in the world who could teach him how to transcend the predicament of the human condition. Expanding somewhat on the commentary of Rashi quoted above, this is perhaps the reason why the verse states that Lot travelled mi’kedem.

Nostalgia: Friend or Foe?

footsteps in sand

Driving on the highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem the other day, I was overcome by one of those moments that we all relish and spend a fair chunk of our lives trying to recreate. The sun was setting, spreading a reddish-brown net over the road, fields and trees. Blue Rodeo’s Lost Together, a song from my teenage years, played on the car stereo.

The “moment” occurred just as I passed the outer edge of a large field, where the grass merged with the first layer of the upcoming forest. I was transported back to any of the multiple times in my youth when I stepped entered the brush in the idyllic Laurentian mountain region north of Montreal where I spent my summers, the web of watchful branches suddenly above my head protecting me, the sturdy trunks blocking off the outside world.

It was not any one specific memory that overwhelmed me. It was rather an indescribable sensation of fervor and expectation, the subtle inspiration that is wasted on the young, who don’t have the experience or wisdom to fully appreciate what is bestowed upon them.

I have always thought that the past, like the future, is a dangerous creature, because anything other than the present moment ultimately exists only in our heads. We tend to piece together facts and details of past and future however we like, in many respects converting them into an escape, an excuse not to do the most difficult and rewarding thing any of us will ever do — to live fully in the moment, to experience things as they are.

Yet, on this recent summer evening, I was inspired enough by the past to question my mistrust of memory. My sense of nostalgia seemed to have a rightful place in my heart and in my world. Was it better to cast it off like a jellyfish clinging to my arm as I came up from the surf or hold on to it for as long as possible (which is what I did)?

The concept of nostalgia appears in the Bible in different contexts. We find it infiltrate the mindset of the children of Israel shortly after God took them out of Egypt, when the “rabble”, filled with lust, recalled better times (Numbers 11:5): “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.” This complaint unmasks the danger of nostalgia, where one piece of a picture is plucked out and set on a pedestal, skewing the past to the point of absurdity: While it may be true that the children of Israel received free cucumbers in Egypt, they, at the same time, provided the Egyptians with free hard labor.

However, another verse relates to nostalgia differently. In one of the sole islands of optimism in the opening chapters of the book of Jeremiah, the prophet, speaking in the name of God, proclaims to the people of Israel (Jeremiah 2:2): “I remember the affection of your youth, your love as a bride; how you followed Me into the wilderness, into an unsown land.” This nostalgic declaration of God is a beloved Biblical verse that features prominently in Jewish liturgy. Yet, at first glance, this verse, which refers to the relationship between God and the children of Israel as they wandered out of Egypt into the desert, appears to be problematic: Has God forgotten the squabbles which epitomized Israel’s sojourn in the desert, the bickering and the hesitance, the rebellions and defiance? Can this really be an accurate picture of what transpired?

The answer to this question is that Jeremiah is not attempting to describe reality. Rather, the verse represents the unearthing of a profound sentiment that is rooted in past events, something that can always be real if brought back up into the light. In Jeremiah’s prophecy, the initial bond that the children of Israel formed with God by way of their affection, love and trust serves as a saving grace when God contemplates their destruction. This is not an attempt to resuscitate the past, which is impossible, but a way of reliving a kernel of that past in the form of deep-seated emotion.

Such a spell of nostalgia, which more often than not graces the present moment with warmth and joy, is one that I will always crave and welcome.

The Book of Koheleth: A Biblical theory of human happiness

Happiness as a human goal

If you were to ask a random person you would meet on the street what his or her goal in life would be, chances are the answer would be: happiness (or an offshoot of happiness such as contentment, joy or gladness; for the sake of simplicity, I use the term ‘happiness’  as a catch-all term).

That happiness is the greatest good and the end to which all our actions ultimately aim is assumed by one of the most important philosophical works of all time, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which set out to explain the essence of happiness. 

In modern times, happiness is as elusive as ever, often a mere concept to which we pay lip service, a role that we play. While a friend or family member may say to you that everything is great, the truth may be that unhappiness has taken hold of them, infiltrating their thoughts and actions on a daily basis, causing anxiety and depression.

The current festival of Succoth is considered the time of our happiness (‘zman simchateinu’) in the Jewish calendar, making this an apt time to consider where the pursuit of happiness fits in according to the Bible.

Continue reading this post at the Times of Israel by clicking here

Walter White and the Book of Job: Why it’s so difficult to rejoice at the downfall of the wicked

walter white

Along with millions of other viewers, I have been mesmerized by the ingenious screenwriting and directing that has crystallized into this fifth and final season of Breaking Bad.

In the most recently aired episode, Ozymandias (warning: spoilers ahead), viewers bore witness to the sudden and thorough collapse of the world of the chemistry teacher turned villain, Walter White, a character developed as masterfully as any other on screen in recent years. In fact, what perhaps compelled me most about this episode was how apt a depiction it was of the fall of the wicked man discussed throughout the book of Job.

Walt’s unceasing stream of dastardly deeds throughout the series, which includes chronic mental abuse, pathological lies and multiple homicides, represents an impressive resume of evil. And therefore, to see the valiant response of the writers of Breaking Bad to Job’s plea to God: “is it good to You that You should oppress and despise the work of Your hands and shine upon the counsel of the wicked? (Job 10:3)” should have infused me with at least some semblance of satisfaction. Having just watched the materialization of Eliphaz the Temanite’s declaration that “[the wicked] meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope at noon as in the night (Job 5:14)”, I should have smiled, nodded my head and gone to sleep light of heart.

And yet.

My sentiments while watching the downfall of Mr. White, which was brilliantly enhanced by juxtaposing the sequence of his demise to the flashback of the still innocent schoolteacher in his first foray into the world of drugs, were exactly the opposite.

Continue reading this post at the Times of Israel by clicking here