This, of course, is a relevant question for all of us, especially in an age where the ideal of being safe is widely seen as being more important than actually living a life in more than the biological sense.
People are confronted by this choice all the time, of course. Do we take business or social risks? Do we commit to a single partner, to having and raising children? There are powerful forces in both directions, especially when one considers the siren call of hedonism. After all, thanks to modern medicine, people can engage in the procreative act without risking actual procreation. People convince themselves that because marriage ties one down, it is somehow better to remain unfettered and enjoy multiple partners. And the list goes on. Do we live only for ourselves, or do we invest in others? Do we choose to pursue self-centered stasis, or other-centered dynamism?
I was recently pondering the use of a single word in the Torah, and it made me see the Garden of Eden in a new light – a light which made me realize that this same question may well have been at the forefront of Eve’s mind when she ate the fruit.
There is a word in the Torah that contains a range of connected meanings, all having to do with the cycles – and perils – of life. The word is formed of a three-letter root: SH-K-L. And it usually is connected to loss. It is used by Rivka when she fears that she will lose both Esau and Jacob: “Let me not lose (shkl) you both in one day!” The word is similarly used by Jacob when he says, “These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried (shkl).” Shkl refers, several times, to miscarriage, loss of life, within both flocks and women.
So, too, Jacob uses the word when he protests that he has experienced the loss of his sons: “Their father Jacob said to them, “It is always me that you bereave (shkl). Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin…” Later, when Jacob gives in, he laments, “And may El Shaddai dispose the man to mercy toward you, that he may release to you your other brother, as well as Benjamin. As for me, if I am to be bereaved (shkl), I shall be bereaved (shkl).” Later in the text, the word is used for curses that will happen to the people if we stray from a relationship with G-d: “I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave (shkl) you of your children and wipe out your cattle. They shall decimate you, and your roads shall be deserted.”
This word is not just about loss – it is about the kinds of loss that come with the passage of time. But it also is a word with positive potential in it as well: “Therefore observe faithfully all the terms of this covenant, that you may succeed (shkl) in all that you undertake.”
Here is our clue: the word shkl is all about the passage of time, including the good and the bad that occurs in that passage. Time can bring birth, and it certainly brings death. Growth and new hope is twinned with bereavement and mourning. For every new grape or seed, there is the certainty of an end to that life. Shkl means change, and dynamism, all the vicissitudes of life. When Jacob blesses his grandsons, he chooses to change (shkl) which hand goes on which child. The word is about unpredictability.
The Garden of Eden was, at the time, a world in stasis. Adam and Eve had nothing to do, no creative roles to fill. They were not merely bored in the “what do I do now?” kind of sense: they were bored in the deeper sense: “Is this all there is to life?”
Enter Eve’s attraction to the fruit. “When 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, she took of its fruit and ate.” The punchline here is the translation, “desirable as a source of wisdom.” But the word used is the very same word shkl, the very same word that evokes dynamic changes over time as opposed to statically preserving the future. Eve sees a choice in front of her: does she choose the dangers and perils that come with the passage of time, or does she choose to be preserved in Lucite for time immemorial?
We know what she chooses. And we know one outcome is that she has children. Eve chooses to have new life, even at the cost of her own death. In other words, she chooses to love and, as a result, die, rather than to never love at all. She chooses children – the future – over her own immortality in the present!
And to the woman He said,
‘I will make most severe
Your pangs in childbearing;
In pain shall you bear children.
Yet your urge shall be for your husband,
And he shall rule over you.’
Eve sought change, and she got it: the dynamic uncertainty that are children and husbands. Perhaps this is one reason why the choice was really Eve’s to make and not Adam. Through their lives, women can change far more than do men, in both a physical and emotional sense. Eve made the first choice, seeking change, and women enjoy or suffer from the consequences of that choice.
Adam, of course, also bears the consequences, and they are also about change, complete with potential and loss:
By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat,
Until you return to the ground—
For from it you were taken.
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.”
After Adam and Eve are expelled, the Torah never directly reflects backward on the Garden of Eden episode. But in the use of shkl, the text ties it all together. G-d uses the word in alternatively negative and positive meanings, depending on whether or not we follow the commandments and maintain our fidelity to our Creator. On the negative side, if we follow other gods:
The sword shall deal death (shkl) without,
As shall the terror within,
To youth and maiden alike,
The suckling as well as the aged.
Ah! The vine for them is from Sodom,
From the vineyards of Gomorrah;
The grapes for them are poison,
A bitter growth (shkl) their clusters.
But the very same word has deeply positive connotations as well!
Were they wise, they would think (shkl) upon this,
Gain insight into their future:
And, most critically:
Therefore observe faithfully all the terms of this covenant, that you may succeed (shkl) in all that you undertake.
Eve made the first choice, and when she does that, she creates all these future choices, a world in motion. Stasis, the Garden of Eden was locked away from the world with a flaming sword, because now we are committed to a world of change, where we love and lose, rather than to never love at all. The opportunity lies before us, but what we make of it – whether we use it for good or not – relies on our choices.
P.S. The butler dreams: “On the vine were three branches. It had barely budded, when out came its blossoms and its clusters ripened (shkl) into grapes.” Shkl is frequently twinned with grapes in the text: “They reached the wadi Eshkol (shkl), and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes—it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them.” (Indeed, this link from shkl to grapes suggests that the forbidden fruit, which Eve saw as “good for acquiring shkl,” might have been grapes!)
Why are grapes the only fruit connected to this word? Perhaps because it exemplifies the vast range of possible products from a single item: unripe, ripe, or rotten grapes, grape juice, alcohol, or vinegar. I think the grape is thus identified in the Torah as the symbol for what Eve was seeking when she chose to eat the fruit: dynamic change. The word also is identified with wisdom, the kinds of wisdom that, like the richness of a fine wine, can come with age.
P.P.S. When we choose change, we almost always lose something, too. If I get married, I lose some freedom. If I choose to eat whatever I want, I may lose my physical beauty. If I choose to worship idols, I damage my relationship with G-d. Adam and Eve made a choice. They gained a lot, and they lost Eden.
[An @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter collaboration]