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The Avodah Blog

Lamenting Exile with a Question: Where Are You? A Devar Torah for Parashat Bereishit, 5781

oil painting of the Garden of Eden by artist Jan Arkesteijn.
Oil painting of the Garden of Eden by artist Jan Arkesteijn.

By Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, Avodah’s National Educator

This week’s Torah portion births the first of everything in our mythical memory. In the second of our two, deliciously irreconcilable creation stories, the two original humans are placed in a utopian garden in which material needs are all met and met with lush pleasure (Genesis/Bereishit 2:8-9): the ultimate bread and roses. The name of the utopian home of this garden, ‘Eden/עדן, means “pleasure.” But no sooner is humanity located in this condition than the hoarding impulse and the scarcity mindset sprout: being convinced that they needed something they didn’t need produces original shame and feelings of nakedness, emptiness, where they had previously felt sufficient (ibid., 3:1-7), followed by deception and a finger-pointing breakdown in solidarity (ibid., 11-13). The man blames the woman for tempting him to eat the fruit, the woman blames the snake, no one owns their missteps, and they turn on each other. From here, exile is born: “So YHWH, God, banished them from the Garden of ‘Eden to serve the soil from which they were taken, exiling the human, and stationing east of the Garden of ‘Eden the cherubs and the fiery, rotating-sword, to guard the way to the tree of life” (ibid., 3:23-24). 

Exile is not imposed immediately as a consequence of human error, but in response to the missed opportunity to own up, to re-embrace the abundance mentality. Echoing through the story is God’s question to our universal ancestor: “Where are you?” (ibid., 3:9). What is the meaning of this question? Is it even a question? Rashi and other medieval commentators say that God knew perfectly well where Adam was, but wanted to draw him into conversation gently and with a chance to own up. A question still hovers, though, since God does not know how the human being will respond. How are you going to respond? Who do you want to be? What are you about? In the Hebrew, this (non-) question is one word: Ayekka/איכה. The Rabbis notice that this unusual word, serving an ambiguous rhetorical function, shares identical spelling with another, more common, haunting Biblical word, Eikha/איכה, the anguished cry — “Alas!” or “How could it be?!” which opens the Biblical book of Lamentations: “How could it be?! Lonely sits the city that was full of people” (Lamentations 1:1). The only difference is the vowels, which are not written in Hebrew, and have to be filled in by the interpretive reader. According to this midrash, then, God’s question, “Where are you?” is already a lament: How could you do this?! 

“Said the Holy Blessed One: I brought the Primordial Human into the Garden of ‘Eden, I commanded them, they violated my commandment, I sentenced them to banishment and exile, and I lamented over them, Eikha!….as is said, ‘And [God] said to them, Ayekka’: it’s written ‘Eikha’. So, too, their descendants, I brought them into the Land of Israel….I commanded them…they violated my commandments…I sentenced them to banishment and exile…and I lamented over them, Eikha: ‘How could it be?! Lonely sits the city that was full of people’” (Midrash Eikha Rabbah, Introduction: 4). 

I want to consider a few important implications of this midrash:

  1. Jewish history must be understood in a universal context. Our personal, communal, and religious pain are manifestations of an existential human condition. Exile is foundational to the human experience. The destruction of Jerusalem is an echo of Adam and Eve’s banishment from ‘Eden;
  2. Lament is a central emotional response not just to privation, loneliness, and exile, but also to human stubbornness, evasion of responsibility, greed, and lack of solidarity;
  3. If the question is always already a lament, then the lament always already bears a question, as well. Lurking in the letters of our weeping and grief is the question we are always, continuously being asked: Where are you? Who are you going to be? What are you going to do in this lamentable destruction? In between crime and punishment, we are asked: Where do you locate yourself in this?

As a climate catastrophe made by human hoarding, scarcity mentality, and rejection of solidarity undoes the work of God’s creation in our parasha, we are called to hear the Divine lament which always carries with it the opening for reversal: Where are we?

Shabbat shalom.

 

For further consideration, explore Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Yom Kippur, 1984.

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