This first Torah reading is the Jewish version of Kipling’s Just So Stories — tales of how it all began and why the world runs the way it does. But it is deeper, more like Aesop’s fables, not just “How the Camel Got Its Hump,” but “How We Humans Got Our Suffering.”
How that happened is that Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge and were driven out of paradise. Christian theology concluded that since all human beings have inherited the taint of original sin, suffering is our just deserts. Rejecting this, Judaism asks, “If we are not inherent sinners from birth, why do we suffer?”
We will never know — but we can know why it bothers us.
Concentrate on what did Adam and Eve in, says Midrash Rabbah: a taste from the tree of knowledge. This brought self-consciousness, awareness of their nakedness, but also of their vulnerability. All creatures suffer, but only the offspring of Adam and Eve have the self-consciousness to wonder why. Our quest for knowledge leads also to science and the opportunity to mitigate suffering — but only slowly, and never entirely. And without a good rationale for suffering, the very fact of suffering becomes insufferable.
Self-consciousness also distances us from the rest of the natural order, which we study, manage, and order for our own ends. The universe remains our home, but as much as we are of it, we are also outside it. We call that alienation, even exile — defining those who live in certain knowledge that they are not altogether at home wherever they chance to be. The exile of Adam and Eve is our exile too; we are the only species that can strive to be like God but have to suffer and die like everything else that is temporary, that can imagine perfection but never find it.
All this came about from sampling the tree of knowledge. And once cast outside the garden, we cannot go home again.
There are people who try. A common response to existential exile is to yearn for a kind of homecoming to the fully “natural” state of belonging to the earth. Everything natural is automatically labeled good. Science becomes suspect. Hence the fetish for returning to a simple way of life — sometimes to the point of the absurd.
A better response comes from applauding Adam and Eve’s eating from the tree of knowledge. I even think, somewhat heretically, that God applauded it as well. Knowledge at the expense of exile is, overall, a deal well worthwhile.
Having sampled knowledge, we must live with self-conscious awareness that we suffer, sometimes unjustly, and that we must die. We humans alone must suffer existential doubt, loneliness, even despair. But think of what we gain! Science and human betterment, the arts and human imagination, religion and the consciousness of a life well led. The rest of Torah is the Jewish people’s exploration of what that life well-led can become, and this start of the Torah cycle proclaims our gratitude at being able to join that exploration.