We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden (Joni Mitchell, Woodstock)[*]
Ours is a unique time to live in. The curses of Adam and Eve—the thorn and the thistle, the sweat of the brow, the anguish of childbirth, and man’s domination over women—have declined over the years. Air-conditioned offices have taken the place of the cursed land, new technologies have replaced the sweat upon our brows, and male dominion over women has been greatly restrained. Even the pain of childbirth is not as it once was. Figures like Yuval Noah Harari allow themselves to fantasize about defeating death.
It is understandable that many, especially those in the Tikkun Olam movements seeking to nullify the amalgam of good and evil that continues to plague us, wish to orchestrate a return to the Garden of Eden—even if their desire is not articulated in such terms
It seems that many today wish to initiate a return to the Garden of Eden. Writing and singing in 1969, Joni Mitchell imagined the Woodstock festival as a return to the natural freedom and release of the primordial garden. Others claim to find the lost Garden in the abolition of private property, in veganism and vegetarianism, or in various Tikkun Olam movements and their respective focuses—environmental issues, family reforms, and much besides.
These imaginations and yearnings are understandable given the special circumstances of life today. Yet, based on a close reading of the sin of Adam and Eve and its consequences, I will argue that such longings are false hopes that can cause profound harm. The way to mend the world is not by changing or ignoring the complexity of our earthly reality but by finding and strengthening the goodness within it. In other words, as I will explain below, the route back to the Garden does not pass through Woodstock but through the Land of Israel.
You Shall Be as God
The Rambam opens his great philosophical work with a “wondrous question” that a wise man asked him concerning the eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: “For God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened and you will be as God, knowing good and evil” (Bereishis 3:5). The question relates to the benefit that Adam ostensibly gained from his sin: “When he disobeyed, his disobedience procured him as its necessary consequence the great perfection peculiar to man, namely his being endowed with the capacity that exists in us to make this distinction. […] It is a thing to be wondered at that man’s punishment for his disobedience should consist in his being granted a perfection he did not possess before, namely, the intellect.”
The Rambam reconciles this difficulty by distinguishing between intellectual cognitions—objective truths independent of social constructs (muskalot)—and matters that depend on social convention (mefursamot). Before sin, man’s exclusive occupation with matters of truth—logical and scientific conclusions independent of human decisions and uninfluenced by social conventions. After the sin, man’s stature fell, and his primary occupation became social, matters contingent on the changing situation of human society and dependant on time and place. From truth and falsehood, sin lowered human occupation to the level of the proper and the improper, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad.
However, the plain sense of the text makes this interpretation highly strained. First, the Torah does not hint at any human descent from a previous, higher spiritual level on account of the sin; it only mentions achieving the quality of “knowing good and evil.” Later, God confirms the knowledge acquired in eating from the forbidden fruit: “Hashem Elokim said, Adam has hereby become as one of us to know good and evil” (Bereishis 3:22). In other words, knowing good and evil is indeed a divine quality (“as one of us”), which Adam and Eve gained by eating, true to its name, from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Following the sin, the Pasuk mentions that “the eyes of the two were opened and they knew that they were naked” (Bereishis 3:8). Based on a plain and direct reading, this refers to the acquisition of new insight, exactly as the serpent had promised (“For God knows that on the day you eat from it and your eyes will open and you will be as God, knowing Good and evil”), rather than a fall from grace.
The cynical-realistic perspective is not wrong; God certainly knows good and evil. But as opposed to the omnipotent God, this perspective requires human beings to always be in a state of awareness, fear, and suspicion
It seems, then, that Adam and Eve did acquire a unique quality by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This virtue is the possession of a complex consciousness rather than a simplistic, innocent understanding of the world. Knowing good and evil, in this context, refers to gaining a new perspective, one characterized by what we might call cynicism or hard-headed realism, as others would put it. A person with such a consciousness recognizes that there is goodness in the world, but he knows the world is far from imperfect, containing a fair proportion of evil, self-interest, honor, and ego. The cynical-realistic perspective is not wrong; God certainly knows good and evil. But as opposed to the omnipotent God, this perspective requires human beings to always be in a state of awareness, fear, and suspicion. Love can turn to hate on a dime in anyone; one must never put all the cards on the table.
Knowing good and evil, while a Godly quality, thus exacted a heavy price in another sphere of human activity: the ability to maintain a complete relationship with others.
Between Nakedness and Naked Cunning
The transition Adam and Eve experienced from childlike innocence to a sober and even cynical adult view is highlighted in the Gan Eden story by clothing.
Before the sin, the Torah notes that Adam and Eve felt no need for clothing: “And they were both naked, Adam and his wife, and they were not ashamed” (Bereishis 2:28). Their comfort in a state of nakedness indicates childlike innocence and a sense of complete trust in their surroundings. This is true not on the physical level alone but even metaphorically: they were able to “be themselves” in the fullest sense of the word, without the need for hiding emotions and feelings under the garb present that every human society demands—what we call social conventions, or simple manners. Yet, immediately following their sin, Adam and Eve felt the need to cover up: “And the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed a fig leaf and made themselves belts” (3:7). In other words, eating from the Tree of Knowledge made them fully absorb the vulnerability of their naked state. They could no longer act entirely innocently for fear of being manipulated and exploited.
Following this verse marking the innocent, shame-free nakedness of Adam and Eve, the Torah presents us with the serpent: “And the serpent was more cunning than all the animals of the field that God made” (3:1). The use of the same Hebrew root (a-r-m) for man’s nakedness and the snake’s cunning is not mere wordplay but a study in opposites. As we find for other words in Hebrew that indicate a concept and its uprooting, the cunning of the serpent intended to uproot the innocent nakedness of Adam and Eve, tempting them to switch their condition of purity for a consciousness of suspicion and doubt and cunning. He made them question whether the story of God, the benevolent and perfect Creator, is quite as simple as they thought. It’s not for nothing, explained the serpent, that He prevents you from eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He fears you: “For God knows that on the day you eat from it and your eyes will be opened and you shall be as God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). You, too, should fear Him.
With the expulsion, human relationships continued to deteriorate. Cain, full of jealousy, killed his brother Abel. During the Flood, the land became corrupt and full of vice, and the destruction of Sodom presaged the inevitable demise of a society that had become so wicked that Sodomite became synonymous with evildoing
Losing the ability to engage in the fullness of a pure and trusting relationship with others—first and foremost, with God Himself—led Adam and Eve to hide from Hashem: “They heard the voice of Hashem Elokim moving through the garden in the wind of the day and Adam and his wife hid from Hashem Elokim within the tree of the garden” (3:8). Hashem’s bitter disappointment is expressed in the call “Where are you” (3:9), which does not refer to Adam’s physical location, but to the relationship that had been lost. In his response, Adam confirms that the connection had been tarnished, and he was no longer willing to present himself, vulnerable and exposed, before Hashem: “And He said: I heard your voice in the garden, and I was fearful for I am naked, and I hid” (Gen. 3:10). God immediately “knows” that Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, hence his new emotional state absent of innocence and filled with suspicion: “And He said: Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree which I commanded you not to eat from?” (3:11).
The result was expulsion from the Garden of Eden, at whose center stood the Tree of Life. The damaged relationship that resulted from knowing good and evil separated God and humanity and brought death into the world. This condition was incompatible with the presence of the Tree of Life, which represented a complete connection with Hashem. Adam could no longer remain in Gan Eden: “And now, lest he send his hand and also take from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever” (Gen. 3:22). The central word in this sentence is “also;” the two could not coexist. There is no room in Gan Eden, a place of total life, for flawed relationships. With the expulsion, human relationships continued to deteriorate. Cain, full of jealousy, killed his brother Abel. During the Flood, the land became corrupt and full of vice, and the destruction of Sodom presaged the inevitable demise of a society that had become so wicked that Sodomite became synonymous with evildoing.
Only later did the journey back to the Garden of Eden begin with the father of the Israelite nation: Avraham Avinu.
Gaining Trust—the Hard Way
The Rambam sees Avraham Avinu as the beginning of the effort to correct the sin of Adam Harishon. If the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil lowered humanity’s stature, Avraham was the first to reverse the trend back towards an appreciation of abstract truth, by which he was able to reach the insight of the One God: “Though he was a child, he began to think [incessantly] throughout the day and night, wondering: How is it possible for the sphere to continue to revolve without having anyone controlling it? […] He realized that there was one God who controlled the sphere, that He created everything, and that there is no other God among all the other entities.”
Based on the understanding developed above, the course back to the Garden of Eden was indeed opened by Avraham Avinu, but alongside any philosophical achievements, the emphasis is on life defined by total faith—an innocent connection that includes vulnerability and trust. The very first interaction between Hashem and Avraham is in the commandment to travel to Canaan: “And God said to Avram: Go from your land and your homeland and from the house of your father to the land which I will show you” (12:1). Avraham does not hesitate to put total trust in Hashem and His goodness, and is willing in his innocent faith to follow Him into the unknown. This faith is no small matter. Avraham Avinu believes in Divine promises of goodness, and God considers it as “charity” (or “grace”) (15:7). In a world of good and evil, placing one’s faith in the absolute good of Hashem is a great achievement for humanity.
Immediately after Avraham declares his faith, God reveals the purpose of taking Avraham away from his home and homeland: “And God told him: I am God who took you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it” (15:8). Instead of the Garden of Eden, the place where Avraham’s descendants would return to the level of complete trust was the Land of Israel. The centrality of the Land of Israel, both in the covenant between God and Avraham and in the history of the Jewish People, opens a window for understanding the process of “returning to the Garden of Eden” that the Jewish nation is tasked with. Since Adam and Eve sinned, humanity was denied the possibility of returning to the garden itself, a path blocked by the “flame of the whirling sword.” But, like any process of teshuvah, the possibility of returning to the original virtue inheres in an alternative route, a bypass adapted for the post-sin state of affairs. In terms of the quality of Adam and Eve, that path runs through the Land of Israel, whose conditions are entirely the opposite of the Garden of Eden.
Basic life in our homeland, the Land of Israel, challenges us to practice and strengthen the muscle called faith, to place our trust in the goodness of God, and throw ourselves at His mercy
Multiple rivers ensured that there was no shortage of water in the Garden of Eden. The Torah paints a similar picture of the area on the eastern side of the Jordan where Lot chose to dwell: “And Lot cast his eyes and saw… [the land] of the Jordan for it is all watered before God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, as the Garden of God as the land of Egypt facing Tzoar” (13:10). What this land (known today as the Fertile Crescent), Egypt, and the Garden of Eden shared is a copious supply of water. The Land of Israel, on the other hand, is described in the Torah as a land lacking natural water sources:
For the land you are coming to inherit is not as the Land of Egypt which you have left, where you shall sow your seed and water with your feet as a vegetable garden. And the land you are coming there to inherit is a land of mountains and valleys, you shall drink water from the rain of the sky. (Devarim 11:10-11)
The Land of Israel is thirsty for water: “You shall drink water from the rain of the sky.” It is thus dependent on an extraordinary degree of Divine providence: “A land which Hashem, your God, investigates always; the eyes of Hashem, your God, are on it from the beginning of the year to the year’s end” (Devarim 11:12). In other words, as opposed to the Garden of Eden (or the area of the Jordan or ancient Egypt), the Land of Israel requires its residents to cast their eyes Heavenwards, pray for rain, and trust the goodness of God who cares for His people. Basic life in our homeland, the Land of Israel, challenges us to practice and strengthen the muscle called faith, to place our trust in the goodness of God, and throw ourselves at His mercy.
In accordance with a post-sin consciousness, the world outside the Garden of Eden is one of good and evil, an amalgam of darkness and light intermingled with one another. It is precisely in these circumstances that we are tasked with focusing on the light, seeing the goodness in the world, and placing trust in God as the master of all goodness. So, too, is the case for our interpersonal relations. Suspicion and fear are always present, but we have the power to overcome them and form relationships based on true trust—with our spouses, our relatives, and our friends, and with society in general. The relationship between husband and wife is reminiscent, more than any other, of the perfect connection that we experienced in the Garden of Eden, which is why the Sages coined the remarkable blessing we recite under the Chuppah: “Grant abundant joy to these loving friends, as You bestowed gladness upon Your created being in the Garden of Eden of old.”
Suspicion and fear are always present, but we have the power to overcome them and form relationships based on true trust—with our spouses, our relatives, and our friends, and with society in general
We cannot return to the Garden of Eden; its gates are locked before us. Yet, within our own reality of good and evil, we retain the capacity to touch the innocence and purity that prevailed in pre-sin times. This is the legacy of Avraham Avinu—his unswerving faith in Hashem, his commitment to charity and justice, and his compassion and kindness. And this is the aim of the Torah and its monotheism—a belief in the goodness of God even within the complex reality of knowing good and evil.
In contrast with this path, there are approaches, ideological and practical, which seek to force a return to the Garden of Eden. These approaches are mainly found on the left side of the political map, in what is today known as the “progressive camp.” One of the founding fathers of these approaches, and perhaps the greatest among them, was the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rosseau. To deal with a world of good and evil, humanity has developed a range of institutions that ensure proper social conduct despite the inherent suspicion that threatens to undermine order and stability. The first of these is politics itself, a governmental order including a king, president, government, or any other hierarchy concentrating the country’s power. According to Thomas Hobbes’s famous statement, the absence of a monarch (or some parallel office) implies a condition of total war in which people are rendered helpless to initiate anything that requires cooperation and mutual trust. In what he calls the “state of nature”—in terms of this piece, the post-sin condition of humanity—life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Our Sages preceded him with the simple statement that man should pray for the integrity of the government, as “were it not for its awe, people would swallow each other alive.” 
Additional institutions ensuring proper social order are marriage, the community, the state, schools, private property, established religion, the army, the police, courts, legal contracts, youth movements, and so on. All these, and many more like them, are required for maintaining good order in a world of good and evil. Under post-sin circumstances, in which mistrust and suspicion are constant companions, human society needs to be policed by multiple institutions, without which we could all end up Cain or Abel. Following in the footsteps of the Rambam (as noted above), who made the philosophical distinction between objective truth and social convention, the fulfillment of humanity’s post-sin role requires the charge of social institutions. Without them, we would be unable to achieve the human elevation we yearn for. The Rambam makes a similar observation of Mitzvah performance: “They are the great good that the Holy One, blessed be He, has granted, [to allow for] stable [living] within this world, which allows us to acquire the life of the world to come.”
Instead of Hobbes’ all-out war, Rosseau defined the state of nature, without human institutions, as an idyllic human existence, freed of the chains of institutionalism—the state of the “noble savage,” as he put it
However, there are those for whom the existence and centrality of social institutions generate deep discomfort. Like clothing, social institutions conceal our authenticity and deny our internal self true and full expression. Rosseau gave vent to this frustration throughout his works, beginning his Social Contract with the famed declaration whereby “Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains.” This short sentence defines the intellectual project of Rosseau and his students in their voluminous writings, as well as the political agenda of modern progressivism. Instead of Hobbes’ all-out war, Rosseau defined the state of nature, without human institutions, as an idyllic human existence, freed of the chains of institutionalism—the state of the “noble savage,” as he put it. He argued that humanity had deteriorated to its unfortunate state not because of some ancient sin or Divine decree but because of a “random accident.” It may not be possible to entirely return to the state of nature (Rousseau agreed it was not), but the deleterious situation can be moderated by dismantling the various institutions and empowering the state, led by a Philosopher King, at the expense of unknowing individuals.
Rosseau thus opposed the institution of family and recommended (in his Emile) that children be detached from their parents and raised in areas distant from human civilization. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, he wrote that
[T]here was one appetite which urged him to perpetuate his own species; and this blind impulse, devoid of any sentiment of the heart, produced only a purely animal act. The need satisfied, the two sexes recognized each other no longer, and even the child meant nothing to the mother, as soon as he could do without her.
Rousseau took a similar attitude to private property, seeing the invention of private property as a formative moment in the transition between ancient and pure happiness and a state of humanity characterized by competition, inequality, desire, and theft. After a few decades, Rosseau’s thought served as intellectual fuel for the French revolutionaries who killed the King and Queen, replaced established religion with the “Goddess of Reason,” and committed mass murder against their opponents and, indeed, themselves. The Bolshevik Revolution, and the thought of Marx and Lenin in particular, were also deeply influenced by Rosseau’s writing.
If we only abolish states, religions, private property, and all the other things that separate us, as John Lennon suggested in “Imagine,” the world will be as one and we can all live peaceably
All this is deeply related to our discussion concerning the return to Gan Eden. The French and Russian revolutionaries, and with them modern progressives who seek to abolish core social institutions such as the traditional family, public morals, the nation states, religious authority, and so on—some have recently suggested abolishing (or defunding) the police—are trying to force a return to the Garden of Eden. If we only abolish states, religions, private property, and all the other things that separate us, as John Lennon suggested in “Imagine,” the world will be as one and we can all live peaceably.
But we cannot return to Eden. It is barred to us. Revolutionary efforts at doing so, especially those of Soviet Russia, only prove how quickly suspicion, competition, and their destructive results penetrate the artificial Eden that humanity creates. Human nature cannot be re-engineered, and communism’s egalitarian utopia was doomed to fail. A similar fate awaits “safe spaces,” “police-free zones,” or other structures that strive to break free of the inhibitive nature of human institutions. Ultimately, they risk degeneration into a Hobbesian environment characterized by suspicion and violence. Indeed, the impossible task of keeping spaces “safe”—safe of any speech or action that might limit the infinite expressions of human authenticity—inevitably led to a violent and abusive “cancel culture” directed at a never-ending list of threats.
[I]t seems that the freedoms we enjoy, the value modern society places on each individual, and the reciprocity that characterizes human relations in general and among couples in particular—alongside other unique phenomena, in particular the return of the Jewish People to its land— signify a process revealing new light unknown to previous generations
We do live today in a unique situation. The suffering inflicted by the curses of Adam and Eve is lessening in terms of both our physical situation and the dominion over men over women. It may be that the fading of these curses indicates an auspicious time in global history. Indeed, it seems that the freedoms we enjoy, the value modern society places on each individual, and the reciprocity that characterizes human relations in general and among couples in particular—alongside other unique phenomena, in particular the return of the Jewish People to its land— signify a process revealing new light unknown to previous generations. But precisely these circumstances require us to exercise caution. Outside the Garden, we must take caution lest the power of the light break the vessels containing it.
In this article, I have tried to clarify how the sin of Adam and Eve, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and the new path initiated by Avraham Avinu impact our own lives and shed light on the historical path we continue to tread. To sum up, just as Adam covered his nakedness in the wake of the sin, so good of our world became enveloped in a complex reality of good and evil. Unlike Eden-seekers old and new, our role is not to shed our clothes and destroy social conventions and institutions, which remain vital in a world of good and evil. Rather, our duty is to discover the good hidden beneath the covers.
I believe this analysis and approach have far-reaching consequences for individuals and the general public alike. Enumerating them, however, is outside the scope of this piece, and I will thus end with the general message alone, leaving specific applications to the discerning reader: “Give to the wise man and he will become wiser” (Prov. 9:9).
“Eden Now!” movements are unsustainable. Lacking the Tree of Life at the center of the true Garden of Eden, we cannot create our own to serve the same function. Our return to Eden must come via another route, one laid out by the Torah: “It is a Tree of Life to those who cling to it, and all its supporters are glad” (Mishlei 3:18). This path does not erase our awareness of good and evil and all it entails, but rather introduces the belief in the perfect good of the One God and our ability to augment goodness and choose life. At the end of the path, the hard path, we will reach the peak of “For the land is full of knowledge of God as the sea water covers the sea” (Isa. 11:9). This is not a return to Eden, but, like the Sages say of baalei teshuvah, it’s a way to reach even higher.
[*] Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon (April 1970); I am grateful to Bob Miller (Indianapolis) who referred me to the song after reading an earlier version of this article.
 As he does in the 14th chapter of his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
 Guide to the Perplexed, Part 1, Chap. 2. “This,” he concludes, “is like the story told by somebody that a certain man from among the people disobeyed and committed great crimes, and in consequence was made to undergo a metamorphosis, becoming a star in heaven.”
 See also the Rambam’s interpretation of this verse, loc. cit.
 Commentaries have tried to deal with the patent difficulty of this verse. Rashi explains the text based on a midrashic interpretation: they became naked of the mitzvah in which they were instructed. Others note the descent of their spiritual level and internalization of their sexuality (see, for instance, Seforno). Based on our understanding, the point is a change in consciousness, from innocence in which nakedness is not a threat to a sophisticated awareness that is wary of exploitation by others.
 In fact, the standard word for nakedness, eirom, as found later (3:7), is replaced in this case by the word arum, equating it exactly with the word used for the serpent’s cunning.
 A useful example is the root s-r-s: shoresh is a root, and lehashrish “to root,” while lesharesh means “to uproot.”
 Laws of Idolatry 1:3.
 The Gemara illustrates this process by means of the letter Hey, which has a large opening at its lower side, through which a sinner can fall, and a small opening adjacent to its roof, through which the sinner can return. There is no possibility of returning through the main opening; a penitent must return through a new, circumvential route (Menachos 29b).
 Avos 3:2; the statement is cited from R. Chanina Segan Hakohanim.
 Rambam, Laws of the Foundations of Torah, Chap. 4, no. 13.
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