Image from Eden
Children of the Bible: A New Series
Jewish Family Identity Forum
By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
Open a family photo album and you’re likely to find myriad snapshots of children waving food-filled spoons, chasing runaway kittens, climbing slide ladders, and wearing grown-ups’ shoes.
If you look closely, the pictures of the kids’ various antics create a freeze-frame series of emerging personalities, each child’s unique and separate from that of siblings or parents.
Any single page may be titled “The Organizer,” “The Book-Worm,” or “The Adventurer.” But like the snapshots themselves, the heading only captures one moment, one trait. If you look at a whole series of albums, it may actually be possible to see many facets of the developing characters.
The Torah is like our family photo album. It, too, is filled with “snapshots” of children: pushing limits, craving approval, exacting revenge, and resenting siblings.
But we only get a quick glimpse or two of most of them: one a toddler, another a teenager, yet a third moving into adulthood.
It’s almost as if their performances are on a stage illuminated only by strobe lights. Taken as a whole, however, their snapshots create a revealing childhood portrait.
In this series, I will explore what the biblical children and their adventures can teach us about living, parenting, and relating to one another.
Many thanks go to local author Martha Moody Jacobs for suggesting this topic.
While they are not actual children, commentators view Adam and Eve as innocent and childlike in the idyllic world of the Garden of Eden.
Like children, they are given only a single rule: not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Deceived by the serpent and tempted by the tree’s allure, according to the text, Eve and then Adam ate the fruit and forever changed their identities and their future.
A modern midrash (commentary on the text) by Matt Biers-Ariel, author of The Triumph of Eve, offers a slightly different version of the story.
In the Garden, Eve is bored because she has nothing to do, no need to grow, and no purpose in life.
The snake convinces her that only knowledge of her own mortality will give her the incentive to make each day precious.
“Without this knowledge, you cannot really live; you can only exist.”
She could only get that knowledge by eating the fruit, and she would have to take that final step herself.
Both versions of the story reflect a significant biblical concept found earlier in Genesis (1:26), that humans are created “in God’s image, according to God’s likeness.”
Clearly this tenet doesn’t mean a physical likeness; after all, even the Commandments forbid making an image of God.
Of the many interpretations, the one most relevant to these stories, is that like God, humans have freedom, or more specifically, free will.
Unlike the rest of Creation, which is fully controlled by the laws of nature, humans have the ability to freely make conscious choices. Both in the text and in the midrash, Eve (and Adam) make conscious decisions.
The implication of free will — for parenting or personal self-improvement — is that we need limited boundaries. Otherwise, with no limits, what’s to choose?
Even in Eden there was a limit; how much more should we have limits in our own lives.
The Torah gives us guidelines for those boundaries, everything from how to treat a playmate to how to conduct our business.
Ideally, we start when we’re young by learning a few basic limits and then add, not with the goal of becoming legalistic automatons but of behaving like menschen (good people).
At the same time, it seems worthwhile to evaluate how we are making choices: are we consciously choosing? If not, we aren’t living up to our full potential as humans.
But is our “likeness to God” limited to free will and the associated ability to make choices?
According to an interpretation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in Covenant and Conversation: Genesis, our “likeness to God” is the capability of being creative, not just enterprising in the world but inventive of our own selves.
He cites Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man: “The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself. It is this idea that Judaism introduced into the world.”
In Eden, God created humans. In the Garden, by deciding to eat the fruit, Eve and Adam began the process of creating themselves.
We, too, create ourselves with each choice that we make. It is never too early or too late to learn this concept. Should I eat the cookie or share it? Should I cheat if it means I’ll get into college? How much can I donate to the synagogue? Can I find time to study on a regular basis?
Parents and teachers can coach youngsters to create their best selves through their own decision-making.
Individuals can train themselves to make decisions by taking into account the impact those decisions will have on their own identities, in their own and others’ eyes.
“In the beginning,” we learn that human beings are created “in the image of God.” But what does that mean?
The story of the first children, Adam and Eve, illustrate for us what that image means in terms of fundamental Jewish values: humans are endowed with free will, exercise that freedom through the choices they make, and are ultimately responsible for creating their own identities.
The next time you — an individual created in God’s image — are faced with a choice, ask yourself “WWGD? (What would God do?)” and “Who do I want to be?”
Family Discussion: In the book Three Times Chai, R. Kinneret Shiryon offers this story Finding Your Own Voice: When a synagogue needed to replace its retiring rabbi, it hired his son, also a rabbi. But he did things very differently and the congregation was unsettled. “Why don’t you act like your father?” congregants asked. The son replied, “I do exactly as my father does. My father never imitated anyone, and I don’t imitate anyone either.” How does this tale reflect the ideas of free will, choice, and identity?
Literature to share
Feivel’s Flying Horses by Heidi Hyde. This picture book about a childhood favorite — the carousel — introduces young readers to the magic of its fanciful figures. Even more, it is a delightful tale about Jewish immigration in the late 1800s and the many woodworkers who hand-carved the painted and bejeweled “flying horses.”
The Recipe Club: A Tale of Food and Friendship by Andrea Israel and Nancy Garfinkel. Lilly and Val narrate their lifelong saga full of ups and downs — and a surprising ending twist — through the personal letters they wrote to one another and the delicious recipes they shared.