As incredible as it seems, the Midrash says that God presented an opening for Adam to repent, but Adam did not take the cue. Perhaps Adam and Chava need not have been expelled, or Mankind need not have suffered through a long list of hardships.
וְאָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּא בַּר כַּהֲנָא מְלַמֵּד שֶׁפָּתַח לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא פֶּתַח שֶׁל תְּשׁוּבָה,.. וְהוּא אוֹמֵר פֶּן, וְאֵין פֶּן אֶלָּא לַאו
“Rabbi Abba the son of Kahana taught that God gave him (Adam) an opening to repent … and he (Adam) responded (with the word) ‘Pen’ – and ‘Pen’ can only mean ‘no.’” (Bereishis Rabbah 21:6)
The first clue in understanding this anomaly comes from Bamidbar Rabbah. It repeats God’s desire for repentance and records Adam’s response as “אִי אֶפְשִׁי” – “I cannot”. The Midrash states that it was a result of Adam’s haughtiness:
לְפִי שֶׁנִּתְגָּאָה עַל הַקָּבָּ’ה מֵעֲשׂוֹת תְּשׁוּבָה הִשְׁפִּיל אוֹתוֹ וְגֵרְשׁוֹ מִגַּן עֵדֶן
“Since his haughtiness towards God prevented him from repenting, God humbled him by banishing him from Gan Eden.” (Ibid)
The Midrash discusses how Avraham had humility, while Pharaoh and Amalek were so haughty that God had to humble them. Pharaoh and Amalek were haughty – that’s a given. But how could Adam develop haughtiness? He only had one precept to keep and he didn’t succeed. Now God is giving him a second chance and he considers himself too important to admit what he did wrong? Furthermore, the Midrash comments on the words “וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת חַוָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ, “And Adam ‘knew’ his wife Chava (Bereishis 4:1) that Adam
יָדַע מֵאֵיזוֹ שַׁלְוָה נִשְׁלָה “realized the utopian existence he was removed from.”(Midrash Rabbah 22:2). If he had a keen sense of what he lost, why would Adam decline an opportunity to repair his relationship with God?
In proving that God offered Adam a chance to repent, the Midrash quotes a difficult verse in Devarim which also deals with repentance. What makes this verse hard to understand at face value is the fact that God seems to be asking too much:
וְעַתָּה֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מָ֚ה ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ שֹׁאֵ֖ל מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֣י אִם־לְ֠יִרְאָה אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ לָלֶ֤כֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו֙ וּלְאַהֲבָ֣ה אֹת֔וֹ וְלַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
לִשְׁמֹ֞ר אֶת־מִצְוֺ֤ת ה֙ וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לְט֖וֹב לָֽךְ׃
“And now Yisrael, what does God ask of you? Just to fear God, to go in His ways, to love Him, to worship him with all your heart and soul. To keep God’s precepts and His laws which I have commanded you today – for your own good.” (Devarim 10:13 &14)
The word “וְעַתָּה֙, And now” is seen by the Midrash as a plea for repentance. However, it seems a bit far fetched because God is asking that we first love him, fear him, keep all the commandments, etc,
Nachmonides addresses this concern by pointing out that the real focus should be on the last 2 words: “לְט֖וֹב לָֽךְ for your own good.” It may seem like God is asking a lot from us but God actually has our best interests in mind. It’s all for our own good.
Perhaps we can see in this explanation a simple but powerful psychological insight into the nature of repentance – and the source of Adam’s resistance to the idea.
No repentance before its time
A commentary to Midrash Rabbah, Eished Nechalim, says that Adam’s refusal to do Teshuva need not be taken literally. It simply reflects the fact that after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam’s entire religious perspective was skewed. He was now fighting an evil inclination which was part of his psyche. A return to his former life of spiritual intensity was no longer so compelling. The desire to get closer to God would have to come from another source. The Eished Nechalim says that Mankind’s new inspiration for repentance could only come from the realization of our own vulnerability and mortality.
This approach dovetails with the insight of Nachmonides. Mankind only responds to לְט֖וֹב לָֽךְ – “what’s good for us.” We don’t see that (תְּשׁוּבָה) repentance is good for us. A fire and brimstone lecture from a dynamic Rabbi does not get anyone to change their life. Unless, of course, someone came to that lecture having been already pondering a lack of meaning in their life. Something happened to activate the switch.
An Israeli cab driver once shared with my wife and I his story of returning to religious observance. He was in such a bad traffic accident that he was paralyzed for a year. He declared that nothing short of this would have stirred a spiritual response. A brush with death can bring on an examination of life. Suddenly a purposeful life seems “good for us.” Then, and only then can someone be open to spiritual messages.
Adam did not perceive his loss of immortality as a brush with death. Perhaps he realized that their punishment was not going to be immediate as he first thought. It was not literally going to be: “כִּ֗י בְּי֛וֹם אֲכׇלְךָ֥ מִמֶּ֖נּוּ מ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת׃.” Because on the day you eat from it (the forbidden fruit) you will die.”Bereishis 2:17). Adam may also have planned to eat from the Tree of Life and regain immortality. However, when he spurned God’s overture for reconciliation, God banished Adam and Chava in order to prevent them from regaining immortality.
פֶּן־יִשְׁלַ֣ח יָד֗וֹ וְלָקַח֙ גַּ֚ם מֵעֵ֣ץ הַֽחַיִּ֔ים וְאָכַ֖ל וָחַ֥י לְעֹלָֽם׃ …to make sure he doesn’t reach for the Tree of Life, eat from it, and live forever. (Bereishis 3:22 & 23)
God’s gift to Mankind
As I mentioned earlier, the Midrash saw in Adam an issue of haughtiness. If anyone in the history of the world could claim to be “God’s gift to Mankind,” it would be Adam. However, in his original spiritual state, before eating from the Tree of Knowledge, it would have been inconceivable for Adam to see himself this way. As Maimonides, Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed), pointed out, Adam was on an intensely high level of truth (cited by the commentator on Midrash – Yoffei Toar). Adam defined what “was good for him” as what was good for God. But after eating from the Tree of “Good and Bad,” Adam could only relate to what was “good for him.”
In our current (obscured) state of truth and falsehood, Adam might have indeed seen himself as God’s gift to Mankind. Perhaps his expulsion from Gan Eden triggered a defense mechanism to preserve his once lofty image. Rather than feeling repentant about his actions, he adopted a posture of defiance and spurned God’s overtures towards reconciliation.
Whatever the emotional forces at play, God doesn’t force repentance before it’s time. Life’s lessons have to bring us back to a state of humility so we once again look upon having a relationship with God as something that’s “good for us.” Of course, when we talk about “life’s lessons” – it’s really an ongoing series of tests and lessons. We have the free will to act upon God’s messages or, like Adam, ignore them.