(Note this was written in 2010, when my thoughts were less mature than I believe they are when posting (2022). This was written with Ze’ev Hall and Jonathan Joy).
From the moment Adam and Chava eat from the fruit, through to the Exodus from Egypt, the dominant (though hidden) theme in the Torah is Choice.
It sounds banal, and even trite to say so. Of course our lives are subject, at least in part, to our individual and communal choices. And it is equally obvious that we are responsible for these choices.
But what is extraordinary about the choices presented in the Torah is that each of them is the same as the others! There is only one question each person has to answer, and in each case, it is binary, a straightforward yes/no decision. As we will see, it is the very same choice we face today.
Let’s take it from the top. The Garden of Eden is the scene of Original Choice: Adam and Chava are placed in a utopia, where all their needs are met. All they have to do is sit tight – they could remain in this perfect world, in harmony and flow with nature, and blissfully ignorant of what Might Be Out There…. or they could choose Plan B, and eat the fruit.
Adam and Chava knew that with the fruit came knowledge, and G-d-like power to create new things. And among the many revealed dualisms would be Good and Evil, and endless decisions to make. In other words, the one choice that they made led all of humanity into a world where we are confronted with decisions every waking moment.
Eating from the fruit triggered the actual birth of Adam and Chava into the world we inhabit today. It is a pre-existing condition of our existence that we can – and must – make choices. We have the G-d-given power of creation, as well as an almost-instinctive flair for destruction. And it all happened because of Adam and Chava choosing to walk away from Eden.
Adam and Chava set the tone. But the choice they made does not rest there. On the contrary. Gan Eden may be barred to us, but its analogue in the ancient world was none other than Egypt. Egypt was beautiful, and as we have written before, it represented the easy life, the comfortable life that does not require any relationship with G-d. All one had to do in ancient Egypt was to synchronize with the natural world, and life would be as certain as night and day. Harvests were predictable and food was plentiful. Even as slaves, Egypt brought with it the enormous advantage of not having to make any risky decisions. Or as the Torah links Eden and Egypt explicitly: “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.” (13:10)
And so when G-d told the Jewish people to leave Egypt, they were faced with a simple decision: do I stay or do I go? The midrash tells us that only a minority of Jews chose to leave. The rest stayed, and quickly assimilated into Egypt. Like Adam and Chava could have done, the Jews who remained in Egypt chose the path of least resistance, the path where they would not longer have to make choices at all.
The decision for Adam and Chava was not merely whether they should pursue a new world – they were well aware that G-d had told them not to eat the fruit. The question was whether to listen to Hashem or not. They chose to rebel. Many generations later the Jewish people in Egypt were faced with the very same choice, and the actions of the minority were a corrective, a tikkun for that of Adam and Chava, because the Jews who left Egypt followed G-d’s commandment while Adam and Chava did not.
If Adam and Chava were “born” when they left Eden, the Jewish people equally came into this world as a nation when they passed through the birth canal of the Red Sea. So while the choice of the Jews who left Egypt was the opposite of the one made by Adam and Chava, the consequence of their choice was actually pretty similar. Both Adam and Chava, as well as the exiting Jewish people, chose to enter into the Big Bad World, with all of the uncertainties and dangers and excitement that came with it. The Jews who left Egypt made the explicit decision to have a relationship with G-d, to stand apart from (and even in opposition to) the natural world.
But we must be careful not to condemn those who choose a safe life. Safety is always seductive – when we think about it, who does not want to have job security, stable relationships, predictable lives? And we know that we cannot condemn those who make that choice precisely because we do not condemn Avraham for doing precisely the same thing.
Avraham avinu, the man who first discovered G-d, is not given the choice of whether or not to stay in Eden or in Egypt – when he goes down to Egypt, Hashem afflicts Pharoah and makes sure Avraham left again. But though they leave Egypt in the rear view mirror, Avraham and Sarah bring the spirit of Egypt with them in the flesh – in the person of Hagar. Hagar represents everything Sarah was not – while both women are beautiful, Hagar never argues, and she is fertile. Hagar can be compared to the city of Tzoan in Egypt, which the Gemara tells us is the most beautiful city on earth. Hagar is beautiful and easy. Sarah is beautiful and challenging.
And while Avraham clearly chooses Sarah when his wife was alive, after the stress of offering Yitzchak as a sacrifice, and then burying his wife, Avraham essentially announces his retirement from an active relationship with G-d. Living apart from his son, Avraham marries Hagar (called Keturah), and has many children. The rest of Avraham’s life was easy and contented. Having lived a lifetime of hard work and anguish as Hashem’s servant, Avraham chooses to opt out, to keep the Egyptian wife. The Torah does not tell us that Avraham and Hashem ever spoke again. Avraham’s children become nations in their own right, but none of them inherits the mantle of Judaism, which has passed onto Isaac.
We don’t criticize Avraham for this choice. And we don’t criticize the Jews who remained in Egypt, to assimilate to their native land. It is only natural to choose the easier life, and in most people’s minds, it is the rational path as well. Now, thousands of years later, the majority of born Jews continue to walk away from G-d, to choose an uninvolved and safer life. Breeding can only take one so far; we continue to be faced with the same choice that Adam and Chava had, that Avraham Avinu had, and that our forefathers in Egypt had: are we going to choose the safe, Eden/Egyptian life, or are we going to push the envelope, to seek the limits of man’s freedom and capabilities as servants of Hashem?
(The above also provides possible answers for two major questions:
1: Why did the Jews need to go down to Egypt? If the above is correct, then we could suggest that listening to Hashem when leaving Egypt was the Tikkun (correction) for the choice that Adam and Chava made when they ignored G-d’s will. This specific tikkun may have been necessary in order for the Torah to come down.
2: How could the Jews have received the Torah under duress, and not with free will? One could argue that the Jews had free will – when they were in Egypt. When they chose to listen to G-d, receiving the Torah was part of the deal – it was a direct consequence of the initial decision of “na-aseh v’nishma (we will do and we will hear) to listen to G-d when the first commandments were given in Egypt. We did the mitzvos of the korban pesach, and we then heard the Torah at Sinai.