What Happened in Eden

We all know the story, and yet, no matter how many times we read it, it remains a source of amazement: After G‑d created the world, He “planted a garden in Eden,”1 bringing into being an oasis of perfection on this physical plane. On the sixth day He formed man, the ultimate purpose of the entire creation. He made a helpmate for him and placed them in the Garden of Eden “to till it and watch over it.”2 At 2 p.m. on that day, G‑d gave them one commandment: not to partake of the Tree of Knowledge. But by 3 p.m., they had already sinned.3

It is hard to understand Adam and Eve. How could they have violated G‑d’s Will so soon after their creation? And after hearing a command from G‑d Himself, how could they have done anything else but heed it?

But hard as it is to understand man, it is even harder to understand G‑d. He is all-knowing and almighty. How is it possible that the being He created would disobey Him so soon? And how could His purpose go unfulfilled?

These questions lead to an obvious answer. G‑d has a manifold purpose in creation and desires that all aspects of that purpose blossom into fruition. One aspect of that purpose was expressed by Adam’s work in the Garden of Eden, tilling it and watching over it,2 and this work is mirrored by the Divine service of the righteous in their observance of the Torah and its mitzvos.4

Yet G‑d’s Will is not one-dimensional. If Adam sinned, we are forced to say that there was a profound Divine intent and purpose behind his actions.5 On an obvious and observable level, his sin contravened G‑d’s Will. But from a deeper perspective, the sin must be seen as part of a process that would enable Adam, and later, his descendants, to develop a deeper bond with G‑d, a bond so comprehensive that it would be worthwhile, as it were, for him to undergo the temporary separation from G‑d that is caused by sin.

There are righteous men who appreciate the power of this bond and help others achieve it.6 Thus it is told that once, the saintly Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw the town sinner approaching, and exclaimed: “Chayim, do I envy you!”

“Rabbi, what did you say?”

Reb Levi Yitzchak repeated, with emphasis: “Oy! Do — I — envy — you!”

“Please, Rabbi,” the poor fellow pleaded, “everyone knows that I’m the biggest sinner in town. Why envy me?”

The tzaddik explained: “Our Sages teach7 that when a sinner repents, all of his sins will be considered as merits. When you repent, do you realize what a huge mountain of merits you’ll have? Oy! Do I envy you!”

A Higher Light

Reb Levi Yitzchak’s envy was aroused not only by the quantity of the merits that Chayim would have, but also because of theirquality. Our Sages state8 that “perfect tzaddikim cannot stand in the place of baalei teshuvah,” penitents. The righteous relate to G‑d by carrying out His Will, observing the Torah and its mitzvos and integrating them into their lives. Thus they connect to a revealed level of G‑d’s Will, a level of Divine Will that has adapted itself to the structures of the spiritual cosmos.

This path of Divine service is a vital component of the purpose of Creation, for the Torah and its mitzvos are the channels through which G‑d’s light is drawn down into the world.9

Nevertheless, after a person has sinned, he can no longer draw down G‑dliness through the accustomed channels of G‑d’s Will, for in its revealed state there is a difference between right and wrong, light and darkness. Everything has its defined place. By transgressing, a person has cut the threads binding him to G‑dliness on a revealed level10 and has destroyed the channels of connection ordinarily available to him.

There is, however, a higher frame of reference, a level of G‑dliness that transcends the ordinary definitions of light and darkness, revelation and concealment. Concerning this level, our Sages say:11 “I do not know which He desires, [the deeds of the righteous or the deeds of the wicked].” This is the sublime level of G‑dliness to which the baal teshuvah relates.

A Parallel Level of Soul

How can a Jew relate to such a lofty level of G‑dliness? Because he has a similar potential within his own being. The essence of every Jew’s soul is “an actual part of G‑d,”12 unlimited and undefined, as He is. Because of this inner G‑dly spark, every Jew feels an inherent desire to connect to Him. Moreover, in the words of the Alter Rebbe, “No Jew is willing — and no Jew is able — to remain separate from G‑dliness.”13 Although an individual may have failed to establish a connection with G‑d through the observance of the mitzvos or has separated himself through sin,14 he has an innate desire to cleave to Him. This desire is expressed through teshuvah.

This level of connection is far deeper than the ordinary connection established through the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos, which the Alter Rebbe describes as a Divine embrace.15 Although the analogy reflects the depth of the connection achieved through observance, it also implies that the person is a separate entity who employs mitzvos to bond with G‑d. Teshuvah, by contrast, reflects a level of soul at which the person is inherently one with Him. Indeed, that oneness is so powerful that even when he has separated himself on a conscious level, he feels an innate need to reconnect with Him.

In that vein, it is related that a person once approached his Rebbe, Reb Shlomo Karliner, and asked him to instruct him along a path of teshuvah.

Reb Shlomo told him: “I can’t help you.”

“What do you mean?” the questioner asked.

“Did you need anyone to instruct you how to sin?”

“No. I felt the desire to sin, and I sinned.”

“Well, the same applies to teshuvah,” said the tzaddik. When you feel an inherent desire to turn to G‑d in teshuvah, you will repent.”16

A Subtle Divine Intent

G‑d desired that man also bond with him through the higher mode of Divine service that involves teshuvah. For that reason, He set into play — to borrow a phrase17 — “an awesome design toward humanity.” Or, to echo the wording of the Midrash,18 Adam’s commission of the Sin of the Tree of Knowledge came as a result of “a Divine intrigue against him.” G‑d, as it were, set in play forces that led Adam to sin.

Why would G‑d’s providence allow for the possibility of man violating His will? So that afterwards, he would be able to attain the deeper and more comprehensive bond with Him established through teshuvah. The heights to be reached through teshuvah are so great that G‑d allows mankind to undergo the depths of sin and separation in order to reach this greater bond.

This motif was repeated at a later stage in the world’s spiritual history. Our Sages state19 that after the Giving of the Torah, it was not in character for the Jews to have committed the Sin of the Golden Calf. They sinned because, in Rashi’s words,20 there was a Divine decree empowering the people’s Evil Inclination to rule over them. Why did G‑d grant the Evil Inclination such power? To allow for them to relate to Him through teshuvah.

From the Macrocosm to the Microcosm

These concepts apply not only to mankind as a whole, but to every individual. Thus the Torah21 introduces the passage concerning sin-offerings in these words: “If a soul should sin….” The Zohar,22 astonished by that very possibility, echoes those words, but as an expression of amazement: “If a soul should sin?!” For every Jew’s soul is “an actual part of G‑d Above.”23 What then can cause a Jew to sin?24

In resolution, the Mitteler Rebbe explains25 that “at times, the Evil Inclination so overpowers a person and causes him to sin” because “from Above, his Evil Inclination is unleashed [in its full force], to bring him to this sin.”

Turns in the Road

Even when G‑d grants extraordinary power to the Evil Inclination,man has the power to overcome it. At no time can it be said that G‑d compels man to sin, for free choice lies at the heart of our Torah heritage.26

Hence, since man sinned due to his own free choice, his sin will bear consequences, such as difficulty in earning a livelihood, health issues, or other material privations. Because of that suffering, his attention is diverted from his Divine service. Instead of relating to G‑d, he becomes concerned with his physical needs. Moreover, he feels that he is cut off from G‑d, as it is written,27 “Your sins separate between You and your G‑d.” This indeed is the fundamental aspect of punishment for sin — not the suffering one may endure, but his distance from G‑d.

Distance Arouses Desire

Nevertheless, a person’s feeling of being separate and distant from G‑d prods his soul to seek to renew its connection. As the Alter Rebbe states,28 “Inasmuch as till now, his soul had been in a barren wilderness and in the shadow of death… and had been far removed from the light of the Divine Countenance…, now his soul thirsts for G‑d even more intensely than the souls of the righteous.”

On this basis, we can appreciate the pattern G‑d sets into play. At first, a person may relate to G‑d superficially. This breaks up into many levels — there are those who are concerned almost entirely with their material pursuits, others who observe the Torah and its mitzvos, but do so more out of habit than of choice, and still others who devote themselves to the Torah and its mitzvos, but within the limits of reason and logic. Common to all of these approaches is that the person is not tapping his soul’s essential G‑dly core.

G‑d wants more than that for — and of — a Jew. Hence He, as it were, enables the entire dynamic described above to unfold.29 Sin is given an opportunity to lure a person. He succumbs and as a result suffers. The suffering is painful, but in the pain, the person feels his distance from G‑d and seeks to return.

The bond that he establishes at this level is intense, emanating from his essence. And it was for the sake of the establishment of such a bond that G‑d enabled the entire process. G‑d was never separate from the person. Even when He was outwardly distancing Himself, His inner Will and desire were focused on the person and invested in elevating him to the deeper connection established through teshuvah.

A Challenging Mission

Our Sages30 paraphrase Iyov’s plaint to G‑d in these words: “You created the wicked.” As explained above, it cannot be said that G‑d created a person to be wicked, for that would deny the principle of free choice. Tanya31 understands this statement to mean that a person’s inherent tendencies can expose him to spiritual challenges, but that he can overcome them. The Mitteler Rebbe32 offers an interpretation closer to the phrase’s literal meaning: the person was created with a tendency to sin — but even after sinning, he would turn to G‑d and establish the deeper and more intense relationship with G‑d brought about through teshuvah.

In this light, a person who sins has to realize the twofold motif involved. On an obvious level, he must feel sincere regret for his sins, and sorrow that he has violated G‑d’s Will. At the same time, however, he must also be conscious that he has been chosen for a unique mission: to establish the essential bond with G‑d that can be forged only through teshuvah.33

A River of Tears

The Mitteler Rebbe once came to see the Alter Rebbe, alarmed and distraught. Weeping, he told his father that his heart was troubled by a strange dream.

In his dream he had seen a broad river. Its clear waters flowed vigorously, and though they were constantly replenished, there were no waves. Two men wearing long garments were seen approaching; the taller man had one leg thicker than the other. The Alter Rebbe was now seen to appear. The three then walked together, their arms in firm embrace, the shorter man in the middle, the taller man to his left and the Alter Rebbe to his right. They continued until they came upon a broader river, whose many-colored waters flowed rapidly. On all sides its waves rose and fell like the waves of the sea.

While this was happening, the Mitteler Rebbe heard the authoritative voice of the shorter man in his dream. He was pointing at the Alter Rebbe and ordering him to walk along a floating board. The Alter Rebbe walked straight along it until he reached the end, and then wanted to move it further along. However, the shorter man beckoned him to return, and said: “With the power of these waves of water, one can pass intact even through waves of fire.”

Hearing the dream, the Alter Rebbe told his son that he should first daven, and then come to see him. That day’s davenen was stern and tearful, quite unlike the Mitteler Rebbe’s usual joyful mode of inwardly contained delight.

The Alter Rebbe then told him that the shorter person was the Baal Shem Tov; the other was the Maggid of Mezritch, who suffered from pain in his leg. The river was filled with the tears of baalei teshuvah to whom the Alter Rebbe had dedicated his efforts.34

Nerve Centers

In every generation G‑d has implanted comprehensive souls35 — for example, the Rebbeim in the above episode — whose individual mission is to serve as36 “shepherds of faith,” and enable the souls of the people at large to reach fulfillment. They reach out both to those souls whose lifetask is the fulfillment of G‑d’s Will in a direct and simple manner, by observing the Torah, and also to those souls whose indirect paths on life’s journey will be navigated via teshuvah. Slowly and patiently, with loving care, the shepherd souls endeavor to guide these souls back to a full connection with their spiritual source.

The process is interactive. When a person takes the initiative and connects to these shepherd souls, his process of teshuvah is eased and accelerated. His bond with these right­eous men facilitates his efforts to discover and reveal his own G‑dly core.37

Towards a New Dawn

Teshuvah involves renewal, not only within the individual sphere but also for mankind as a whole. Thus Rambam states:38Israel will be redeemed only through teshuvah. The Torah has promised that ultimately Israel will return towards the end of their exile, and immediately they will be redeemed.”

Indeed, the Zohar39 teaches that Mashiach will motivate tzaddikim to return to G‑d in teshuvah.” For no matter how complete their Divine service was until then, the unbounded dimensions of G‑dliness to be revealed in the Era of the Redemption will overwhelm them and enable them to realize the limitations of their service. Instinctively, they, too, will turn to G‑d in teshuvah, for the infinite potential possessed by their souls will yearn to surface.