‘Guarding the Way’ Parashat Bereishit 5779

Adam, working in a high-security facility, hacks into a top-secret system and is caught red-handed. His security clearance is immediately revoked, lest he hack into even more sensitive systems, and he is banished from the Garden of Eden [Bereishit 3:23-24]: “G-d sent him out of the Garden of Eden to till the soil from where he had been taken. He drove Adam out and He stationed from the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the blade of the inverted sword to guard the way to the Tree of Life.” Three questions stand out:

  1. The Torah seems to repeat itself, first saying that G-d “sent out (shalach)” Adam from the Garden and then saying that he “drove out (gerash)” Adam. Some medieval commentators, led by the Chizkuni, explain that the Torah means to say “When G-d sent Adam out of the Garden of Eden, He drove him out east of Eden”.
  2. Why does G-d guard the Garden of Eden specifically with cherubim?
  3. Why does G-d guard the Garden at all? Rav Zalman Szorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, notes that if G-d did not want man to return to the Garden of Eden, He could have hidden it the same way He hid Moshe’s grave, regarding which we are told [Devarim 33:6]: “No person knows the place of his burial, to this day”. Why did G-d not put some kind of similar invisibility cloak over the Garden of Eden?

The explanation that we propose in this shiur is based on the explanation of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch. Rav Hirsch asks a piercing question: The word we translated as “to guard” – “shamar” – has more than one meaning. It can mean “to guard” and it can mean “to remember” or “to store information”[1]. When G-d placed the cherubim in front of the Garden of Eden, did He want to want to keep people out or did He want to keep people from forgetting how to get back in? Most people use the first interpretation but Rav Hirsch explains the verse using the second interpretation: after G-d punished Adam by throwing him out of the Garden of Eden, He wanted to ensure that he and his descendants would one day be able to return to the Garden.

Rav Hirsch’s explanation is firmly rooted in the wording of the Torah. Note that while G-d “sent [Adam] out of the Garden of Eden”, he simply “drove [Adam] out.” G-d did not drive Adam out of a geographical location; He drove Adam out of His sight. A similar example of this usage of the word “driving out” is found in the prayer of the prophet Jonah. Jonah, unwilling to go to Nineveh to warn them of their impending doom, as he has been tasked, tries to run away. G-d has Jonah thrown off a boat into the sea, essentially telling him “If you do not want a relationship, then neither do I”. A whale swallows Jonah, giving time to reflect on his predicament [Jonah 2:5]: “I said, ‘I have been driven away from before Your eyes’”. Rabbi David Altschuler, writing in the “Metzudat Zion”, translates the word “driven away” – “nigrashti” – as “geirushin” – divorce. There, alone in the belly of the whale, Jonah understood that G-d had chosen to terminate their relationship in the same way that a husband and wife might choose to divorce each other. But before divorcing Jonah, G-d gives him one last chance to reconsider their relationship and to once again draw near. Jonah accepts the challenge and the rest is history: the whale spits him out on dry land, he goes to warn Nineveh, they repent, and everyone lives happily ever after, more or less.

After Adam eats from the Tree of Knowledge, G-d banishes him, not only from the Garden of Eden, but from their covenantal bond. In order to leave Adam the option to someday return to their previous relationship, G-d nominates the “cherubim and the blade of the inverted sword”. The next question we must answer is: What do these things have to do with resuscitating an intimate relationship with the Divine?

While Rav Hirsch provides an answer to this question, we will take a different path. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky notes that the term “cherubim” is used to describe the golden angel-like children[2] that were set upon the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. The fact that the same cherubim served as armed guards[3] to Eden alludes to the paramount importance of education: children can become holy or destructive, depending upon how they are raised. If we look at Rav Kamenetsky’s words from a slightly different angle, we can reach a slightly different conclusion: the cherubim were placed at the entrance to Eden so that Adam could look at them and see his own face. Adam was given one commandment to keep and he failed. As far as he could see, his divorce from G-d was final and irreversible. The placement of the cherubim at the gate of Eden showed Adam that return to the Garden was possible. But in order to return to Eden, he must first be reborn. In order to return to Eden, he must undergo an arduous path of repentance. He must tear himself apart, deconstructing himself into a spiritual child and then reconstructing himself back into the adult that he needed to be and was capable of being. This is in no way a simple task. It requires merciless introspection. Adam had to break himself down into his most basic components, weeding out the ones impeding his spiritual growth and nurturing the ones furthering it. And if he failed, then he must do it all over again. And again. And again. This is the message of the “lahat ha’cherev ha’mit’hapechet”, translated above as the “blade of the inverted sword”. This translation is imprecise. The word “mit’hapechet” is in the present tense. It describes a sword that is constantly revolving. Sometimes the sword is upright and sometimes it is upside down, showing Adam that while he may falter – and he will falter – he can always right himself. As King Solomon writes in the Book of Parables [24:17] “A righteous man will fall seven times and rise”. Falling – and failing – is part and parcel of being human. The gate to Eden is always open to a person who wants to enter, as long as he is willing to reinvent himself.

Before Yom Kippur, I attended, along with my wife and daughter, an evening of shiurim. One of the shiurim, given by a well-known rabbi, profoundly shook me to my core. He claimed that people are having great difficulty identifying with certain prayers said on Yom Kippur. The problem, he suggested, was that in our post-modern world, in a world where we are taught to “do whatever floats your boat”, in a world where “right” and “wrong” are relative concepts, people no longer define themselves as belonging to a particular religious class – Orthodox, Reform, Dati, or Chiloni[4]. People see themselves as points on an infinite and continuous religious spectrum. Subsequently, they do not see themselves as “good” or “bad”, but as “better” or “worse”. From a religious perspective, today’s Jew feels quite good about himself. While we could probably make a few changes here and there, we’re holding quite well, thank you very much. This attitude[5] runs counter to many of the things we say on Yom Kippur, such as “I stand before You as a vessel filled with shame”. Many Jews, especially the younger ones, simply cannot relate to these prayers, and so, suggested the rabbi, we should take a cold hard look at our liturgy and consider making changes to make it more relevant for today’s Jew.

The cherubim at the gates of Eden would see things differently. They would insist that a person leave his comfort zone. They would insist that a little “personality tweaking” here and there is insufficient and that one’s ability to tear down and to rebuild his persona is simultaneously an obligation and a gift. If we do not take advantage of this gift, we leave the cherubim standing, waiting in vain, for somebody – anybody – to request entrance to Eden.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] When Joseph tells his father, Yaakov, his dreams, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 37:11] “His father stored [shamar] the information.” Rashi comments that Yaakov “was waiting and looking forward in expectation of when its fulfillment would come”. In modern computer science jargon, “shamar” means to store data on an electromagnetic medium.

[2] The Talmud in Tractate Chagigah [13b] teaches that the Hebrew word “Cherub” has the same meaning as the Aramaic “K’ravya” – “like a child”.

[3] Rav Kamenetsky understood the cherubim were placed to keep man out of Eden.

[4]Dati” and “Chiloni” – “religious” and “secular” – are Israeli terms.

[5] The rabbi referred to it as replacement of “fear of G-d” with “love of G-d”. I am not nearly as optimistic.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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