The Torah addresses the true nature of human beings in its opening chapter on the story of Adam's and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The salient points of the story are certainly pertinent to our lives and times. Adam and Eve disobey God's commandment and mistakenly substitute the quest for human knowledge, wisdom and opinion for the Divine will.
The tendency of humans, even those who deem themselves to be pious and faithful, is to believe somehow that they know better - better than tradition, than experience, better than God Himself. Thus every ideal, policy, analysis created by humans is automatically thought to be correct, progressive and beneficial to humankind. Even such mass murderers and psychopaths as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and their ilk have always convinced themselves and duped others to believe that what they were doing - killing millions of innocents - was for the eventual greater good of world human society. They knew better, and God's commandment not to wantonly murder others was not applicable to them - they somehow had superior wisdom that set them above all laws and morality.
One always has to be wary of those who know better and intend to impose their wisdom and plans on others. Invariably they lead humankind to be thrown out of any little amount of the Garden of Eden it may still occupy. Adam and Eve taught us this lesson the hard way. Their descendants should avoid having to relearn it over and over in every generation.
A second trenchant point that the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden teaches us is that human beings cannot hide from the consequences of their behavior. Eventually the piper must always be paid. When man's plans go awry, when his ideals turn into false idols, when he realizes the disastrous consequences of past hopes and policies, when he is literally stripped naked before the bar of history and suffers from the unforeseen consequences of his past behavior and decisions, most people follow the example of Adam and attempt to hide from their mistakes. Adam hides in the vegetation of Eden and naively believes that he can avoid the necessary confrontation with God. He also believes that somehow he need not confront himself, either.
Then the voice of the Lord asks the question of all questions: "Where are you?" This is not a question that refers to Adam's location on earth; rather, it is the deep, probing question of self-assessment that governs all of life's actions and vicissitudes.
Every moment of our waking lives, the question "Where are you?" is directed at us. And hiding in the bushes does not help, for the question eventually emanates from within our deepest being and cannot be wished away or ignored indefinitely. After centuries of secularism - "Where are you?" After decades of peacemaking and unilateral concessions - "Where are you?" After the pursuit of material goods to the exclusion of all else - "Where are you?" There is no hiding place from that question. It is what guides and informs our personal and national lives.
A final insight that may be gleaned from the story of Adam and Eve concerns the clothing the Lord made for them, so to speak, to cover their nakedness. In the Torah, the clothing was made from material called or - spelled with an ayin and meaning "hides/leather." The Talmud records that in the Torah written by Rabbi Meir, the great scholar and scribe of the second century CE, the word "or" was spelled with an alef instead of an ayin. "Or" with an alef means "light/radiance." Human beings have a choice of how they wish to cover their nakedness and their base and wrongheaded behavior. They can cover it with hides and leather, furs and satins. But eventually these materials fray, tear, decay and/or are no longer considered fashionable. Rabbi Meir's option was to cover them with light - with Torah and faith, commitment and tenacity, repentance and good deeds.
The original light of creation still exists in our universe and world. If human beings are wise enough to envelop themselves in its radiance, our shameful nakedness can be covered and we will not be doomed to repeat past errors of judgment and behavior. We should attempt to retain as much of our physical and spiritual Garden of Eden as possible in this good new year that has now begun for all of us.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.