Eden Defines the Truth About Responsibility (D’var Torah)


What could have possibly have been so bad about taking just one bite from a piece of fruit? But in Parashat B’reishit, the fruit Eve served to Adam was not just any fruit; it was fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and bad. Adam ate and did not ask any questions about where that delectable morsel came from. Consequently, that feast turned out to be Adam and Eve’s last supper, their last free meal, because they were expelled from the Garden of Eden immediately following dessert.

Not being just any plain garden variety of fruit, the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and bad resulted in the loss of innocence in much the way a teenager leaves the innocence of childhood behind when acquiring adult interests in money, sex, and power. But was eating the forbidden fruit the sin that earned them God’s scorn and a lifetime of sweat and toil, a punishment also passed onto succeeding generations?

Adam and Eve could not plead ignorance of the law; clearly, they had been warned, “You may eat all you like of every tree in the garden — but of the Tree of All Knowledge you may not eat, for the moment you eat of it you shall be doomed to die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Were they testing God’s warning? Did boredom lead them to seek a cheap thrill by disobeying God or was it something else?

The beguiling snake mocked God by planting doubt in Eve’s mind: “Did God really say, ‘You may not eat of any tree in the Garden?’…You most certainly will not die! … (for) God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like the gods, knowing all things” (Genesis 3:1, 4-5). Loss of innocence, failure to heed God’s word, and mistrust of God’s edict all should have been cause enough to have earned Adam and Eve a one-way ticket from Eden, but according to Rabbinic tradition, the sin that led to expulsion was different.

The paramount sin of the Garden of Eden was lack of accountability. When Adam was questioned by God about eating the fruit, he passed the responsibility to Eve: “The woman whom You gave me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, so I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Eve did not own up to her deed as well: “The serpent tricked me into eating it” (Genesis 3:13). Neither was willing to take responsibility for the misdeed, and so they were cast out of the Garden forever.

Jewish tradition is resolute in insisting that individuals take responsibility for their actions as the Mishnah instructs: “An individual is always responsible, whether the act is intentional or inadvertent, whether awake or asleep” (Mishnah, Bava Kama 2.6).

More than ever, this age, like so many others, is one in which people shrink from personal responsibility for action or inaction; all too many in the public and private sectors look for something or someone else to blame for their own objectionable behavior. Thus, the loss of personal accountability defines our age. This malaise fills our government and our courtrooms: “Don’t blame me. I’m not responsible. I’m a victim.” Some people successfully exploit loopholes in the law or launch false ad hominem attacks against others to deflect from their own misdeeds. The more this kind of behavior persists, the more it becomes accepted as “normal.”

Blame, elaborating grievances, and refining excuses are so much more convenient than is taking personal responsibility for one’s action. We’ve become a nation of whiners, always accusing someone else or some circumstance to explain away unsuitable behavior. Looking around makes one wonder if humankind has made any real progress since Eden. The fact that it hasn’t is the reason no one has ever been able to return to Eden, because only when people stand tall and take responsibility for their actions can there ever be a return to the tree of life at the center of the garden.

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, PhD is senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College. He is the author of Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy and other articles, poems, and books.

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