As a modern, liberal Jew I sometimes look at the fences the rabbis erected around the Torah and shake my head in wonder. Is this a natural tendency of humankind? Given that we now see warnings on coffee cups that the contents is hot, I must consider the possibility. Perhaps it is the natural outgrowth of our intelligence that, rather than always resorting to the fight or flight response, we seek other ways to insure our safety. If this is something that, if done even slightly wrong, might offend the gods and bring us misfortune, then we’d better stay as far away from it as we can.
Close examination of the text of B’reishit reveals that it was the progenitor mother of us all herself, Chava, who, perhaps, decided that if one inch of distance is good, then two are even better. Or maybe the idea was planted by Adam? Or maybe, it came fromt he serpent itself?
When Chava is being accosted by the serpent who asks if G"d really did tell them not to eat of any tree of the garden, we have our first discrepancy. G"d . In 2:16-17, G*d says to Adam that he may eat of any tree in the garden except for the tree of knowledge of good and bad. Chava replies that yes, G"d did so state-however, she embellishes. She adds to G"d’s words to Adam that not only must they not eat of the fruit, they must not even touch it.
Now, at no point does the text say that G*d also told Chava, who was created after G"d and Adam had that little talk. So we must assume that it was Adam that told Chava. Was Adam the source of the embellishment, the extra safety measure, the slightly higher fence?
All this plays into my thought that the whole "forbidden fruit" thing was either a deliberate setup, or the act of an inexperienced creator. Everyone knows that telling a child "don’t do this" is likely to produce the opposite result. If G"d knew this, then perhaps it was deliberate.
So why the extra "don’t touch" that Chava added? Did Adam or Chava already mistrust G"d at this point, even without the knowledge of good and evil? Did they mistrust themselves? Yet without knowledge of what is good and bad, how or why might they come to distrust G"d or themselves? Was Chava merely trying to stiffen her resistance to the serprent, as she might have suspected the serpent’s motives? Again, I ask how this could be so before they ate of the fruit?
The "Etz Chayim" commentary raises an interesting point in this regard. It’s an example of what the commentator labels the "dangerous tendency of religion to multiply prohibitions to safeguard the essence of the law. When the law becomes too onerous, people may disregard them and come to disregard the basic intent of the law itself." The comment ends then with this quote from Genesis Rabbah: "Make a fence too high and it may fall and destroy what it was meant to protect."
Funny things is, I must have read through that same comment in the Etz Chayim numerous times in years past, glossing right over it. What an earth-shaking thought, especially considering the source. The wisest of our sages and poskim through the ages and today recognize the danger in being overly restrictive. I can only assume that, in creating what is now halakha, this principle was always taken into account. Yet, if this is so, then how much more onerous might have been the fences under consideration. Many of the fences that exist today are onerous enough. They were onerous enough in the early days of the Jesus movement that the fisherman from Tarsus decided that they couldn’t sell Jesus to the goyim without dropping all the onerous mitzvot. Today, we have Jews who ignore them outright and deliberately, those who struggle with them daily, and those who like the big tall fences.
Why did Chava (or Adam) build that fence just a bit higher?
It’s hard to know for sure. There are those who say the fences are what have enabled our survival as a people through all that we have endured, and that they must remain intact. There are those who say the fences grew too big and have toppled over onto us, destroying our unity, our peoplehood.
Do fences really make good neighbors? Does G"d want us hiding behind fences for fear of offending G"d? Or does G"d want us to "tear down the walls" in our continuing effort to be closer to G"d?
To find out, I think I’ll climb to the top of a few fences and see what I can see from there. Care to join me?
©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester