ומעץ הדעת טוב ורע…

Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat thereof you will surely die. (Genesis 2:17)

What happens in the moment of eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil. We’re told that somehow Adam and Eve become ashamed of their nakedness. The snake has deceived them – Adam has blamed Eve and Eve the snake. But in the moment of understanding of the infinite, the capacity to discern an idea of good and evil, of right and wrong, in that very moment, Adam and Eve become most fundamentally complete in their creation as human beings. We balance in this moment on a delicate point that has the most incredible divine cognisance made available to Adam and Eve – the closeness to the mind of God. And yet, suddenly the realisation of the chasm between us, our finitude, and this new knowledge of the infinite. It is this gap or perhaps dance between proximity and distance, which I am reminded of from the course I arranged with Professor Andrew Benjamin last year, that drives the human family forwards and, in a sense, powers us into the Israelite story of the Torah and ultimately our Jewish lives.

What is the knowledge acquired by Adam and Eve and what does it mean to have a concept of something unassailable yet always aspirational. On the one hand, the story sets up an understanding of commandedness and free will that is the core of our understanding of morality. But we don’t need the story to demonstrate that man and woman had/have a sense of morality. The breach of the rule does more than fulfill our understanding of free will. It cements the complexity of navigating human encounter, the interaction with the natural world, and our connection to God, into the fabric of our existence. All living is now a negotiation between people in the search to live together. All living is now about fulfillment of the idea of not just knowing good and evil but striving for goodness, and reaching for goodness and justice even when complex and pained.

But Rabbi, what are you talking about. This week we’re not reading the story of creation, it’s the story of Balaam and his talking donkey. But after the speaking beast, we all know the famous words which come out of Balaam’s mouth when he’s trying to curse the Israelites:

מה טובו…

How good are you tents O Jacob and your homes O Israel (Numbers 24:5)

Yesterday I led an assembly at a Jewish primary school as a visiting rabbi. I asked the children – what was it that made the homes good? There are plenty of interpretations by the rabbis but the Torah does not tell us – what is a good home? Their answers would have made Maslow, the psychologist responsible for the Hierarchy of Needs, proud:

  • Shelter
  • Security
  • Love
  • Family
  • Food
  • Cleanliness
  • And of course, Fruit Juice!

Notice, no mention of toys, or things – the simple list of the most fundamental necessities to make a home good. The things that are essential to being able to develop our selves beyond the basic to consider what Maslow terms ‘Self Actualisation’. Physical and emotional provisions are the foundation of individual needs. One might ask – if children have such a grasp maybe we should listen to them and learn from them about the way we create our homes?

But here’s where we get pushed as Jews by our inheritance to consider a wide sense of goodness – why I love our tradition.

הנה מה טוב…

How good and how pleasant it is when brothers and sisters sit together in unity (Psalm 133:1)

These were the words of the psalm in the penultimate ‘song of ascent’ – the chain of 15 psalms which may describe the climbing of the 15 steps to the Temple by the Levites each morning. The psalmist describes a different vision of goodness which is not just about the individual dwelling but the collective. When we are able to sit together it is a thing of goodness and pleasantness. Odd that we should need to be reminded of this but we do in this time of fractious political debate. Note, no-one is saying sit down and agree! The psalmist uses the word יחד to describe not unity of thought but collectivity – perhaps ‘one body’. The Jewish vision of goodness begins in the home but extends beyond the home.

And so then our tradition pushes us yet further and back to the story of Adam and Eve and the challenge of morality. For Micah says, and I’ve preached about Micah before:

מה טוב ומה ה’ דורש ממך

It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: only to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

What is good is not simply about the home, it is not simply about the collective experience of sitting down together. Goodness for Micah, the responsibility and burden that humanity now bears, that began with our knowledge mythologised in the story of the garden of Eden, is about justice, acts of loving mercy, humility or perhaps modesty. Perhaps the greatest summary vision of all of the Hebrew Bible, Micah tells us goodness extends far beyond our own needs and into the needs of everyone around us.

And you see this is where I love our rabbinic tradition. These words from Micah could have been interpreted in many different ways – justice though not really an objective idea is nonetheless a concept we might claim to understand, but love of kindness – what does that mean? The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 49b:8) has an extended discussion not just of practicalities of kindness but the philosophical world view:

And this is what Rabbi Elazar said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “It has been told you, O man, what is good, and what the Eternal does require of you; only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)? “To do justly”; this is justice. “To love mercy”; this is acts of kindness. “To walk humbly with your God”; this is referring to taking the indigent dead out for burial and accompanying a poor bride to her wedding canopy, both of which must be performed without fanfare. The Gemara summarizes: And are these matters not inferred a fortiori? If, with regard to matters that tend to be conducted in public, as the multitudes participate in funerals and weddings, the Torah says: Walk humbly, then in matters that tend to be conducted in private, e.g., giving charity and studying Torah, all the more so should they be conducted privately.

There then follows a debate about the importance of charity and deeds of loving kindness and then we get this stunning piece of discussion (Sukkah 49b:12):

And Rabbi Elazar said: Anyone who performs charity and justice is considered as though he filled the whole world in its entirety with kindness, as it is stated: “He loves charity and justice; the earth is full of the kindness of the Eternal” (Psalms 33:5).

Our tradition is utterly remarkable – given the choice to understand what love of kindness is – our sages of blessed memory jump to an extended discussion of the nature of charity and deeds of kindness which go beyond mere charity – like clothing the naked, accompanying a bride, burying the dead, visiting the sick and so on. Our tradition is not politically partisan but essential to it is an understanding of goodness that says yes think about your home, think about your community and the collective and gain an understanding of goodness. But then where you see a lack – where you see someone going without that goodness you have a duty to care. To come back to the children in assembly – yes all those things are good and having them in your home is important. But we have an obligation to make sure everyone has those things that make a home good – that is the Jewish imperative that I find uplifting and inspiring.

See I have set before you – life and good, death and evil….choose life (Deuteronomy 30:15, Deuteronomy 30:19)

This is the thrust of the universal human story and it is the core of the Torah’s vision for the Jewish people. We have good and evil set before us. We have a duty to choose goodness.



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