Welcome everyone. Your decision to come here today is a radically alternative, if not revolutionary, act. Here’s some data on what’s happening every minute in this era of isocial media and non-stop flow of information in which we live. Every minute, 700,000 Facebook connections are made, 3 million Youtube videos are viewed, 2.4 million searches are made or questions asked on Google, 150 million emails are sent, 200,000 dollars are spent at Amazon, 350,000 tweets are sent on Twitter, 38,000 new pictures appear on Instagram, 20 million whatsapp announcements are delivered (half of them from my sisters-in-law). Anyway, you get the picture . . .
In the midst of this flood of information and minute by minute updates, it is clear that without focusing on quality, as opposed to quantity – which, in the Information Age, is virtually without limit – we quickly lose our way. We are flooded with information, yet we absorb so little of it that we do not even know what we are missing. We will always be on the losing end of keeping up even if we don’t really know with what we should be keeping up – or the value of that – in the first place.
And your coming here today is a moving tribute to your determination to hear a story that is familiar, yet endlessly deep. Despite all the new information that has been published since I started to speak only a few moments ago, you have opted to forego all of it – text messages, updates, and cyber chat – in order to return to these simple words:
בראשית ברא אלוקים את השמיים ואת הארץ
In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
We are “the people of the book.” Even in the age of Facebook, we return to the words of this book each year. This week we begin from the beginning, from Genesis. Or, better yet, we continue from the beginning. It is truly beautiful how, every year, once again, we finish reading the Torah and – without even asking what comes next – immediately begin reading it all over again. Still, every year, we hope to reach a higher level of understanding than before and thus derive new and elevated insights from the weekly portion.
Our approach to Torah stories, of course, is that they speak about us and to us directly, here and now. The Torah is not concerned with what was – for that, there are history books – but with what its message is to us today. The word Torah, after all, is derived from the word for teaching (הוראה).
Bereishit, the first Torah portion, is so fundamental and fascinating that we can hardly even begin to encompass it. Today, we will address neither the creation of the universe and of man, nor Cain and Abel and the first murder, nor the whole story of Noah and the flood. Instead, we will focus on a single subject: the first sin, and us. Sin and the Tree of Knowledge.
Let’s ask a simple question: What is the sin and how do we make amends for it?
It’s a little unpleasant to ask since it is obvious enough but, even so, we will ask ourselves today, “What, in essence, is the first sin, and how do we exercise caution to prevent it?” We will bring two answers. We will begin with the first answer that explains the sin and carries this headline: Boundaries. Restraint. Restrictions.
In place of all the sophisticated, philosophical explanations, there is something here that’s very simple: you were told not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge; why did you eat? In life, there is the permitted and the forbidden, there is proper, divinely ordered conduct (a mitzvah) and improper conduct (an averah). There are boundaries, laws and rules. This sounds basic but it is almost revolutionary today to say something is forbidden. And here the first Torah portion is trying to teach us this, at the very beginning of everything.
Let’s read the passages:
ויקח ה’ אלקים את האדם וינחהו בגן עדן לעבדה ולשמרה
And the Lord G-d took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work in it and to guard it. (Genesis 2:15)
ויצו ה’ אלקים על האדם לאמר מכל עץ הגן אכל תאכל. ומעץ הדעת טוב ורע לא תאכל ממנו כי ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות
And the Lord G-d commanded Adam, saying: “From every tree of the garden you are free to eat, but from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you must not eat, for as soon as you it from it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
Immediately after the “no” comes the “yes” in the following passage:
ויאמר ה’ אלקים לא טוב היות האדם לבדו אעשה לו עזר כנגדו
And the Lord G-d said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” (Genesis 2:18)
Adam was given a restriction, but he was given a much greater and wonderful gift, that of intimate partnership. In any event, both Adam and Eve now need to contend with the single prohibition placed upon them, and they fail:
ותרא האשה כי טוב העץ למאכל וכי תאוה הוא לעיניים ונחמד העץ להשכיל ותקח מפריו ותאכל ותתן גם לאישה עמה ויאכל
And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, and she took from its fruit and ate and she also gave some to her husband and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)
What happened to Eve? Why did she eat? Avraham Saba, in his book “Tzror HaMor,” writes that this is our first exposure to an eternal dilemma: what is evil is not always ugly and what is good is not always beautiful. This is confusing. The terrible, threatening, and forbidden tree is beautiful, good to eat, pleasant and desirable. And so he writes: “She saw that the tree was good to eat, and something that kills – in the words of HaShem – should certainly contain a deadly drug or should kill or blind a person just from looking at it, or it should have a bad smell or a similar characteristic. But I see that everything is described in opposite terms, ‘that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes'”.
From that day until now, whatever glitters just confuses us.
It’s true that there is enormous depth here to consider, and “Tzror HaMor” himself writes: “The sin of Adam is a very, very deep matter; who can fathom it?”. And yet, in spite of this, it appears that on the most basic and primary level, this sin reminds us that there is forbidden and there is permissible. We learn, moreover, that it is the restriction (not to eat forbidden fruit) of “no” that precedes the gift (a helpmate for life) of “yes.” Limitation is the prerequisite for freedom. Restrictions on momentary pleasure precede the embrace of a lifetime partner, a commitment that grants us the freedom to develop and express the best part of ourselves.
Rav Dubi Zinger says: All we need is love (לאו). People also need “no” in their lives.
Pay attention that nearly everything negative we hear in the news occurs from a lack of ability to control ourselves. This is the root of many things that turn into scandals, stormy affairs, and headlines. Let’s just take a look at some of the lack of self-control and inability of people to set limits that we see in the headlines during a typical week: people in business who have no limits when it comes to making money; people who do not understand the limits in relationships between him and her; people who drive without limits on how much they drink or how fast they go – everything begins with a lack of ability to distinguish between what is forbidden and what is permissible.
And here Rav Saba in “Tzror HaMor” makes a fascinating parallel: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: ‘I created man and placed him in the Garden of Eden and commanded him; he violated the commandment and I banished him and I lamented what he had done (don’t read איכה where are you? but rather how could you [have done this]?), and so, too, the Holy One, Blessed be He, did this to his (Adam’s) descendants later on: he brought them to Eretz Yisrael (which is the Garden of Eden), commanded them, banished them, and lamented, as it says: ‘How (is it that) she (Jerusalem/Eretz Yisrael) dwells alone?'”.
That is, the Garden of Eden is Eretz Yisrael, but we need to observe the rules regarding this place . . . We are here and we need to treat this Garden of Eden appropriately and abide by its rules.
Exactly one year ago, during the week of Parashat Bereishit, Walter Mischel, at the age of 88, passed away. You don’t know his name but perhaps you know his famous experiment: “The Marshmallow Test.”
Mischel was born in 1930, in Vienna, to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Poland. His father, Solomon, was a business man, and his mother’s name was Leah. The family fled from the Nazis in 1938, and immigrated to Brooklyn in 1940. As a child, he was close to his maternal grandmother, who taught him Yiddish words and Jewish legends.
When he grew up he chose not to join his uncle’s umbrella business and not to fulfill the family’s hope that he would study medicine. In 1956, he finished his doctorate in psychology at Ohio State University and, later on, did research and taught at Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia University, and became one of the most influential psychologists of his generation.
When Professor Walter Mischel was a boy, his yekke grandmother spoke to him about the importance of “sitzfleisch,” a word that describes the ability to persevere and to reach your goal despite obstacles along the way. (I went to the dictionary for a translation of this word and found “endurance, staying power, perseverance, investment, deaf to distractions, diligence.”) Decades later, as a psychologist, he developed a series of experiments under the title “Rejecting Immediate Self-Satisfaction in Kindergardeners in Favor of a Paradigm of Delayed but Coveted Prizes.” A more popular title, “The Marshmallow Test,” brought worldwide acclaim to Mischel. Those who participated in the experiments — that were carried out from the end of the 1960’s to the beginning of the ‘70’s – were children from his own daughters’ kindergarden.
The professor sat the children in an experimental laboratory that was called “Surprise Room” and presented them with a dilemma: enjoy one sweet right now or wait a short time and enjoy two of them later.
And so the children were tested as to their capacity to delay immediate, if minimal gratification, in order to merit a larger prize later on. Two-thirds of the children did not succeed in overcoming their immediate urge and grabbed the single marshmallow. A third of them, however, succeeded in exercising self-restraint for 20 minutes in order to win the double treat.
Mischel observed how one third of the children managed not to surrender to their immediate desire. What they had in common was an ability to divert their attention from the treat. Some of them covered their eyes. Others whispered encouragement to themselves while still others pushed the treat aside. “These children are doing what Adam and Eve did not succeed in doing in the Garden of Eden,” he concluded.
Mischel continued to monitor these children throughout their lives and discovered that those who succeeded in delaying gratification as children had greater success as adults. They earned higher grades on tests and were better at reaching their goals since they did not give in to harmful adult temptations either. They also saved more money for their retirement.
Since Mischel’s first experiments, many similar experiments have been conducted and the result is always the same, conveying a message that is astonishing in its simplicity: delayed gratification is the key to success in all areas of life.
Mischel, who maintained that he personally would have failed “The Marshmallow Test,” developed a positive theory, according to which self-control was an acquired skill so that even someone who failed “The Marshmallow Test” as a child could pass it as an adult. Mischel sought to make a distinction between two networks that operate in the brain: one is primitive, impulsive, automatic and “hot,” in which we surrender to our urges and react immediately to stimuli, causing us to grab the marshmallow. The second network is more mature, rational, circumspect and “cold,” providing us with self-control that is critical to attaining long range goals. The first network, which led to the failure of most of the children in Mischel’s experiment, is the network which is responsible for adults continuing to smoke despite the dangers. Yet Mischel proved that adult individuals are, in fact, capable of exercising control over this network.
Walter, son of Leah, passed away. Yes, he was Jewish, although I have not found any references to Judaism in his work. And yet, his conclusions are very Jewish and relate perfectly to Parashat Bereishit and to the Tree of Knowledge, just as they relate to the cell phone that, like a marshmallow, powerfully attracts our attention.
Walter Mischel, of blessed memory, says what our sages say and what Parashat Bereishit says as well: “Who is strong? Whoever subdues his evil inclination.” And pay attention, “subdues” is in the present tense. Not “subdued,” rather “subdues” every day of his life, because this is the goal of a lifetime when various Trees of Knowledge are encountered. To know how to say “no.”
And by the way, after all, what is most important when it comes to teaching children? What is the most important core curriculum? Restraint. Self-control. Patience. Delayed gratification.
So, according to one commentary, sin primarily concerns the inability to wait patiently, to restrain oneself.
But let’s now focus on a second commentary, according to which the problem is not sin itself but our reaction to it. It’s not about eating the fruit, but what was demonstrated in its wake, namely, lack of gratitude, as illustrated in the following passage:
וישמעו את קול ה’ אלקים מתהלך בגן לרוח היום ויתחבא האדם ואשתו מפני ה’ אלקים בתוך עץ הגן. ויקרא ה’ אלקים אל האדם ויאמר לו איכה…המן העץ אשר ציויתיך לבלתי אכל ממנו אכלת? ויאמר האדם: האשה אשר נתתה עמדי היא נתנה לי מן העץ ואכל
And they heard the voice of the Lord G-d going in the garden in the direction of the sun, and the man and his wife hid from before the Lord G-d in the midst of the trees of the garden. And the Lord G-d called to man, and He said to him, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8-9)
. . . “Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” And the man said, “The woman whom you gave (to be) with me she gave me of the tree; so I ate.” (Genesis 3:11-12)
Rashi illuminates this last passage with very powerful words: “Here he (Adam) showed his ingratitude.”
The answer of Adam to his Creator arouses astonishment. Adam is asked a direct question: “Did you eat from the forbidden fruit?” And his answer is: “The woman that you gave to be with me – she gave it to me.” What’s the meaning of this answer? Since Adam is an “archetype” of his descendants, his answer represents an authentic voice that echoes throughout human history. What is the bigger sin, eating the fruit or avoiding the responsibility for eating it? Let’s imagine that Adam would have said: I ate, I erred, I’m sorry. What would have happened then? We don’t know. But the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is deeply connected to ingratitude. It’s not only in the words Adam spoke to G-d after the sin but, even before that, Adam had not shown sufficient gratitude for G-d’s kindness in creating a woman or for G-d’s kindness as a whole. This inability to communicate gratitude to G-d was what led to the sin associated with the Tree of Knowledge. If Adam had been truly grateful for everything he had been given, he would not have felt the need to eat what was off limits.
Today, “positive psychology” encourages development of a “grateful lifestyle” and emphasizes the need to create a daily routine with “grateful focus.” But how do we do this? All we have to do is look into Halacha, the Torah guide to daily living, which provides a wealth of tools for creating a routine of gratitude, from the moment we wake up until the moment we fall asleep. A day of Jewish living is replete with instructions on how to live a life based on gratitude.
It begins with the first words, an expression of thanks, that a Jew is supposed to say every morning upon rising. Here is the explanation behind this instruction, taken from Kitzur Shulchan Aruch: “as soon as you awaken you should remember the kindnesses of Hashem, Blessed be His Name, that were granted to you; that He returned your soul to you. You committed it to Him faint and weary and it was returned to you new and refreshed, enabling you to worship Hashem, Blessed be His Name, with all of your capacity . . . every morning a person becomes a new creation, and he should give thanks with all his heart to Hashem, Blessed be His Name, for this (good fortune). While still in bed you should recite: “I give thanks to You, living and everlasting King, for You have restored my soul with mercy. Great is Your faithfulness.”
In other words, even if you thought that you had nothing to do with the Tree of Knowledge or temptation, every morning, during your first waking moments, you repair what happened in the Garden of Eden, and prevent something like it from happening to you, by expressing gratitude – a major deterrent to sin. And afterwards as well, the morning blessings are a sequence of thanks for all those things that we take for granted (sight, the ability to move, clothing to wear, capacity for action, a life of freedom), and more blessings are recited throughout the day, whenever we eat, drink, or stop to admire nature. We are thankful not only for others or for G-d, but for whatever might have protected ourselves, too, expressed by Moses when he did not strike the Nile River (to bring on the plagues of blood and frogs) since the Nile had protected him when he was cast into it.
A commitment to continuous blessing and giving thanks is a form of self-education that leads to soul refinement. People much wiser than I have written that the individual must find ways to practice gratitude – to write letters of gratitude, to pay visits to others where we express our gratefulness to them, to give presents that show our thanks. In the same vein, we must be diligent in identifying ingratitude within ourselves, to find the weak link in us that prevents us from showing gratitude.
Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl has created a list of expressions that we should avoid since they display ingratitude, such as: “yes, this person helped me a great deal but received money for doing so; it’s true that he helped me but it didn’t require much effort; he tried to help me but it was not of much benefit and I would have managed just fine without him; it’s true that he helped me but without my effort it would not have mattered; he acted for himself and only helped me since I just happened to be there, even though he did help me a great deal; what he did for me is nothing compared to what I did for him”.
The difficulty of being grateful comes mainly from feeling that we already have everything. In an affluent society that is full of houses, highways, untold products of convenience and, on top of everything else, a land flowing with milk and honey, it’s difficult to remember to be grateful. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about this state of affairs as follows:
“The real test of a nation is not if it can survive a crisis, but if it can survive the lack of a crisis. Can it stay strong during times of ease and plenty, power, and prestige?”
So we have spoken today about just two matters: restraint and gratitude. But the deeper we look into them, the more we discover that living by them presents challenges unlike any others that we face.
What can give us the direction that we seek? How can we begin to live lives with more boundaries and more gratitude? Parashat Bereishit is not only the parasha in which the world is created, but the parasha in which Shabbat is created, too. And Shabbat is how we find our way. A Midrash tells us that Adam was regretful and repented, and that Shabbat (whose letters are the same as those of Shabbat, only in a different order) was the day he did teshuva and rectified his sin. The Midrash says: “Adam saw the power of Shabbat and began to sing: A Psalm, a song for the Sabbath day.” Shabbat is a day of restraint (where “no” creates a most desirable “yes”) and a day of gratitude where we stop running after things and appreciate everything that we have – family, community, a home, Torah. Shabbat is a taste of the world to come, a piece of the Garden of Eden since when we rectify the first sin, we make the Garden of Eden our home.