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The Ambition for Eden

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In the Bible God exiles Adam and Eve and declares that they will never be permitted to return to the Garden. If God's intention was to assure that humanity would be forever exiled from Eden, why did God not destroy the Garden? After all it seems the experiment was a failure: God put humanity in the Garden with a single prohibition. Right away, they violate God's command. The lesson seems clear -- plant human beings in the midst of perfection and they will ruin it as soon as possible. So why leave Eden around at all?

Perhaps the Bible is teaching us a lesson in human striving. Knowing that Eden endures, we will keep before us the image of a perfect world. When the song advises that "we got to get back to the garden," it enshrines a deep human truth. Exile will not turn into hopelessness. We will scheme, plot, search and strive. Humanity will not give up the quest for paradise.

Among the rabbis of the Talmud, there is a disagreement about the permanence of the punishment. According to Rabbi Johanan in the Midrash (interpretations and legends written by the rabbis), God sends Adam and Eve out without the possibility of returning. According Rabbi Johanan's student and debating partner, Rabbi Simeon Ben Lakish, God will eventually permit them to return. Banishment does not extinguish hope.

So much of human effort, from diplomacy to medicine to innovation -- well, in a sense all human creativity -- is spurred by a vision beyond what exists. In a sense the first story is the forever story; the garden is tantalizingly out of reach, but never out of mind.

Part of the beauty of the Torah's beginning is that it announces at the outset the content of our hopes. This garden, peaceful, bountiful, just -- this is what you wish for. Deep inside of human beings are qualities that make it hard to achieve, but how much worse would we be without the possibility dangling before the eye of our minds?

Adam comes from the Hebrew word for earth and Eve from the Hebrew word for life. Our life depends upon our ability to both preserve this earth we were given, and to create of life something beautiful and lasting. Unlike other utopias in human history, Eden is not a product of the (often coercive) planning of social engineers but the natural flourishing of the world as it was meant to be.

Eden is the symbol of perfection, a lost paradise that persists in both memory and aspiration. Robert Browning wrote in his poem Andrea Del Sarto "Ah, but a man's reach must exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Eden stands before our imagination's eye, unreachable but vivid, coaxing us to greater efforts to approach what we may never, in this unredeemed world, quite achieve. We left, but we have not forgotten.

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