Chasing the Garden of Eden

08.29.2016

Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens points out that for 2.5 million years, humans fed themselves by gathering plants and hunting animals that lived and bred without our intervention. All this changed about 10,000 years ago when homo sapiens began to devote all of their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset, humans sowed seeds, watered plants and led sheep to prime pastures. It was a revolution in the way we lived, the Agricultural Revolution.

The human beings thought that this new way of life would bring us more fruit, grain and meat. And, it did. As long as we had to depend on what lived wild, resources were limited, so we tended to live in small, intimate groups. Once we began making our own food, we could support large populations.

So, from the standpoint of the growth of the  human species, the Agricultural Revolution was a spectacular success. But, from the standpoint of quality of life, it was ‘history’s greatest fraud.’ Hunter-gatherers were happier and healthier than farmers. Ancient hunter-gatherers roamed free. They lived in territories covering hundreds of square miles. ‘Home’ was the entire territory with its hills, streams, and open sky.

Farmers, on the other hand, spent most of their days working a small field. Their domestic lives centered on cramped structure of wood, stone or mud—the house. And, the lives of farmers were infinitely more stressful than that of hunter-gatherers. Hunter gatherers did not worry about the future because they lived from hand to mouth and could not easily preserve food or accumulate possessions.

By contrast, farmers lived with much more anxiety. Farmers always had to keep the future in mind. On the night following the end of a plentiful harvest, the farmer could celebrate. But, a week later they were up at the crack of dawn for a long day in the field. Although there was enough food for a couple of months, the farmer had to worry about next year and the year after that.

But, perhaps the biggest change brought about by agriculture was in our social structure. Since hunter-gatherers couldn’t save very much, our society was egalitarian. No one had any more than anyone else. But, once agriculture enabled us to accumulate food, the foundation was laid for vast inequality, a society of haves and have nots. So says Harari.

Apparently, the trauma of this transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers had a huge and lasting impact on humanity. We’ve never forgotten it. It’s burned into our consciousness. And, that’s why it’s the subject of the Bible’s foundational story. The Torah tells us that when humans were first created, we lived in the Garden of Eden, where we ate the fruit that God provided for us. We didn’t have to work hard or grow anything on our own. In other words, we were hunter-gatherers.

The Torah then tells us that because our ancestors Adam and Eve disobeyed God, we were kicked out of the Garden, and we were cursed with having to be farmers. As the Torah says: b’ze’at apecha tochal ba lechem/from now on you’re going to have to grow your own food. And, it’s going to be exhausting, miserable work.

The rest of the Bible can be understood as a record of humanity’s attempt to return to the Garden and to recover the happiness we lost when we had to leave there. First, the Torah shows us what evils come to the world when human beings develop an agricultural society. Here I am indebted to Rabbi Micah Odenheimer who I studied with at Hartman this summer for his insight.

Remember, we said that growing your own food means you can begin to store it and accumulate it. What is the result of that accumulation? Slavery. In the story of Joseph, anxiety about future food shortages leads Egypt to store huge amounts of food. When people ran out of money and land to pay for the food, they sold themselves into slavery.

And, a generation later, we became those slaves. Agricultural societies need huge labor forces. The Torah says Pharoah made us work hard ‘b’chol avodah ba’sadeh’/in all manner of work in the field. We weren’t building pyramids. We were picking cotton.

So, when we celebrated our freedom from Egypt, what did we stop eating? Bread, the symbol of agriculture. And, when we left Egyptian slavery, where did we go? We went into the desert, and we became hunter-gatherers again. We lived on the manna which God provided from heaven. The nature of this manna was that you couldn’t store it. You couldn’t save it. Miraculously, no matter how much you gathered, you only ended up with what you needed to eat for that day. No one had any more than anyone else. So, once again, we lived in an egalitarian society, dependent on God for our bounty.

Of course, we were not going to live in the wilderness forever. What would happen when we entered the Promised Land? Wouldn’t we back in the same boat of growing our own food, saving and hoarding and moving again towards slavery?

Well, yes and no. It’s true, we would be farmers. But, it would be different from Egypt. First of all, the Land of Israel is described as a Garden of Eden, eretz tova, a good land….eretz nachalei mayim, a land of flowing rivers….eretz zayt shemen u’dvash, a land flowing with oil and honey. But, most importantly, eretz asher lo b’miskeinut tochal ba lechem/a land in which you will not want for bread. This line is a direct reference to the curse of Adam and Eve: b’zei’at apecha tochal ba lechem/you shall eat bread by the sweat of your brow.

The Torah is telling us, that when we enter the Promised Land, the curse of humanity will be over. Israel is the new Garden of Eden where ‘lo techsar kol ba’/you will lack for nothing. And, not only that. But, land of Israel is different than the land of Egypt. Egypt has the Nile. The Nile is a continuous water supply. Egyptians do not have to live day to day.

But, the land of Israel depends on rainfall. As the Torah puts it, God is daily engaged in the nourishment of this land. It’s like the manna situation. We are dependent on God’s bounty each day. Technically, we may be farmers. But, psychologically, we are still hunter gatherers.

Most important of all, once a week, we return to our hunter gatherer state. On Shabbat, we re-enter the Garden of Eden. Once a week, we live like our ancestors did in the desert collecting the manna. On Shabbat, there is no possibility of saving, or hording or accumulating. The money which we accumulate during the week has no value on Shabbat.

On this day, we live in a totally egalitarian society again. No one has more than anyone else. No one has more than we need. And, there is no worry about the future. Whatever we have at the moment, whoever we are with at the moment is enough for us. We are satisfied. We are happy.

So, we see that if we take a macro view of the Bible, we find that the Bible addresses issues of human nature that are rooted in an understanding of the meaning of all of human history. The Bible is not anti-progress. It doesn’t want us to return permanently to the days of hunter-gatherers. Shabbat is once a week, not every day.

But, the Bible is a critique of human progress. It tells us that it’s true that our increasing dominance of nature makes us less vulnerable to the elements. But, with that comes a loss of reverence for nature.

It tells us that our impulse to save is vital to our overcoming our insecurity, and it gives us control over our future. But with it, comes anxiety about the future, and a desire to have more, and a desire to outdo our neighbor. And, these things isolate us from each other and can lead to a restless hunger that can never be satisfied.

Shabbat is the corrective for the inevitable imbalances that progress brings to our lives. Through Shabbat, we reassert the bonds of community. We temper our anxiety. We learn to be grateful for the blessings of a single day.

That’s why this year at HNT, we are hoping to dramatically increase the amount of time we spend eating together on Shabbat, and cooking together for Shabbat. We’re seeking a new kind of Garden of Eden, a Garden of Eden that does not require us to reject progress and human striving—but which adds balance and wholeness to our lives.

If we are fortunate, we can have our challah and eat it, too.