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Eden and the Messianic Age
From The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism by Rabbi David Sears

In the second chapter of Genesis, the Torah describes the Garden of Eden, an idyllic environment in which the first man and woman, and with them all living beings, could enter into communion with God. Formed of the dust of the Earth but imbued with a Divine soul, Adam and Eve lived in this wondrous place of luxuriant trees and plants, together with all the species of animals.

The animals of Eden were neither predatory beasts of the wilderness nor the domesticated animals with which we are familiar; they were awesome beings possessed of beauty and wisdom, which, like Adam and Eve and the first ten generations of humankind, peacefully subsisted on vegetation alone. Their mode of existence was not something to be shunned or pitied, as it is today. Indeed, sea-creatures and fowl were deemed worthy of receiving the first explicit Divine blessing, given on the fifth day of creation (Genesis 1:22). The other animals were created on the sixth day, together with Adam and Eve, and they received a separate affirmation of Divine favor (ibid. 1:25).

The dignity of animals is borne out by a number of sources. The Talmud states that God conferred with the souls of all animals prior to creation, and they readily agreed to be created as such, even choosing their own physical forms.[1] This teaches us that they were deserving of God's consideration, and that they were given to understand their destiny in positive terms. Another testimony to the worthiness of animals is their connection to angels. Although angels are incorporeal spiritual beings,[2] their forms as envisioned by the prophets were often those of animals. This suggests that in their spiritual source, animals occupy an exalted rung - an inference supported by the fact that the Torah uses animals to symbolize the Twelve Tribes of Israel.[3]

Animals, too, serve their Creator. The Talmud tells how Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach caused his master Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai to share a mystical vision with him in which they heard the wondrous song of all creatures, bringing to life the words of the Psalmist: "Praise God from the Earth: sea giants and all the depths, fire and hail, snow and vapor, storm wind that fulfills His word; mountains and all heights, trees and all cedars; animals and all beasts, creeping things and winged fowl..."[4] This is the theme of the Sabbath and Festival prayer "Nishmas kol chai" ("The souls of all living things shall praise Your Name..."), as well as the Perek Shira ("Chapter of Song"), an ancient rabbinic work mentioned in the Talmud[5] and much favored by the Kabbalists. Thus, the Torah confers dignity upon the animal kingdom, and does not define it merely in utilitarian terms. Animals belong in the Garden of Eden because they, too, are an integral part of God's world that, in the words of the Mishna, "He created solely for His glory."[6]

Back to Eden

Eden is the biblical paradigm of the original state of accord between God, man, and nature. It represents a state of harmony and peace that, since the hour its gates were closed, the world has never known. Eden is our spiritual home, and the longing to return to it is deeply buried within the human psyche. Perhaps the animal rights and vegetarian movements, while seeking to redress ethical or ecological wrongs, derive their emotional fuel from a deeper source. Aside from the reasons given in the previous chapter, human beings feel a special kinship with animals and nature because they remind us of this "Paradise Lost."

Throughout history, the attitude of Western civilization toward nature has been one of struggle and dominance. Its animating myth has been that of the hero, whose very reason for being is conquest. In biblical terms, this attitude is symbolized by the Tower of Babel; in contemporary cultural iconography, by the spaceship. At the same time, there always have been countervailing attitudes that expressed distrust of human artifice, idealizing the "noble savage" and advocating a return to nature. What is the root of this basic ambivalence that human beings feel toward human productions? Despite all our achievements - or indeed, because of them - we are haunted by the sense that there is something lacking in our approach to life, something amiss in human nature itself.

The Tree of Knowledge

The Torah understands this spiritual lack or confusion as a consequence of the first sin.[7] Human nature is not inherently evil: Adam and Eve were endowed with every manner of physical and spiritual perfection, possessing only the slightest deficiency in order to have free will.[8] Even in contravening the Divine will, they only wished to serve God. (According to the "Alter" of Novhardok (1848-1919), one of the outstanding proponents of the Lithuanian Mussar movement, the rationale by which Adam and Eve were persuaded to eat the Forbidden Fruit was that by internalizing evil and then overcoming it, they might sanctify God's Name to an even greater degree - a task that proved to be far more difficult than they had imagined.)[9] Their transgression was not a willful act of rebellion, but the result of confusion and misjudgment.[10] In psychological terms, the Serpent[11] that tempted Eve represents ego: the illusion of self as an entity independent of God, seeking sensory gratification and power.[12] The ego and its associated traits were not always innate tendencies of human nature, but existed only in potentia; they were acquired when Adam and Eve heeded the advice of the Serpent and ate the Forbidden Fruit.[13] We have been spiritually divided ever since.

The Tree of Knowledge represents the conflict between good and evil, produced by our estrangement from God. In a broader sense, it also represents dualistic thinking: seeing things in "positive versus negative" terms, without any sense of their underlying unity. This dualistic consciousness is actually an extremely warped mode of being. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, this produced an existential split between the imaginary "self" built of our egoistic hopes and fears, and the essence of mind that is the Divine soul.[14] Thus, Adam and Eve immediately became self-conscious, and sought to hide from God. For most of us, this existential split characterizes the way we commonly think and feel. Although we suffer greatly from it, we may hardly know that we have a problem. However, there is a rabbinic principle that "before God creates a sickness, He creates the cure."[15] In this context, this is reflected by the fact that before the Torah mentions the Tree of Knowledge, it mentions the Tree of Life (Genesis 2:9) - for the Tree of Life bears the power of spiritual healing (tikkun). It can rectify the dualistic state of mind associated with the Tree of Knowledge by awakening the perception of the Divine Oneness within the very plurality of Creation. (Thus, the Tree of Life is associated with the Torah, and its mystical dimension in particular[16]; as stated in Proverbs 3:18, "She is a Tree of Life to those who grasp her.") It is significant that both trees are described as standing in the "center of the Garden."[17] This suggests that they are interdependent and share a common purpose.

If the original Divine intent in creation was to confer the ultimate good to His creatures,[18] why did God create the Tree of Knowledge? In truth, it was not created merely as a temptation for Adam and Eve to overcome, but its fruit was meant to be their Sabbath food. If they had waited the remaining two hours until the onset of the holy day, they would have received permission to partake of this tree, as well.[19] First, they would have eaten from the Tree of Life, and then partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, thereby attaining an even higher spiritual state.[20] Their perception of the essential unity of all Creation would have extended into the realm of multiplicity and dualism; thus, they would have gained a more vivid knowledge of the Divine Oneness.

Unfortunately, the first man and woman had no way of anticipating the nature and extent of the damage their transgression would cause. The Zohar states that as a result of eating the Forbidden Fruit, thirty-nine curses were brought upon creation,[21] including the mortality of all living beings, the difficulty of earning a livelihood, inequity between the sexes, and the pain of childbirth and child-rearing. The greatest punishment of all was estrangement from God, resulting in our distorted perception of the world and ourselves. This condition of estrangement is enforced by the Cherubim, the angels that guard the gates of Eden, wielding "revolving swords of flame" (ibid. 3:24). Rabbi Nosson of Breslov (1780-1844) states that these are the mental confusions that eclipse the soul's knowledge of its own essential nature.[22]

The Messianic Age

However, the original state of Divine favor and bliss that Adam and Eve had known in the Garden of Eden and the mutual harmony that existed among all creatures was not lost forever. The Prophets assured all humankind that a time was coming when God would fulfill all the blessings He had given His works at the very beginning of creation.[23] Then the Thirty-Nine Curses (lamed-tes klallos) will be transformed to the Dew of Illumination (tal oros)[24]. That is, not only will we regain the state of Adam and Eve before the first sin, but also everything we formerly had experienced as "negativity" will now serve as a lens through which to perceive God. The meaning of human history, in all its agonies and ecstasies, will be revealed. We will understand how the political, interpersonal, and existential conflicts we have suffered have been, in truth, "birth pangs of the Messiah"[25] - birth pangs of enlightenment. The Jewish people, chosen to bear witness to God's existence and Oneness, will no longer suffer exile, misunderstanding, and persecution, but will return in peace to the land of Israel. And with their political redemption, a religious renaissance will begin to flower: prophecy will return to the world, heralding the spiritual redemption of all creatures.[26]

Isaiah describes a future world in which the peace and joy of Eden will be restored. Indeed, the prophet speaks as if the Divine promise had already been fulfilled:

Truly God has consoled Zion,
Consoled all her ruins;
He has made her wilderness like Eden,
Her desert like the Garden of the Lord;
Gladness and joy shall abide there,
Thanksgiving and the sound of music
(Isaiah 51:3).

Each level of Creation will be elevated in a continuous process of spiritual ascent. According to one Midrashic opinion, all animals will become kosher (ritually pure)[27]; in any case, they all will become spiritually perfected, regaining their status prior to the sin of Adam. Moreover, all animals will share what we presently consider human intellect and wisdom. To a limited extent, this has already happened. The Talmud cites several cases in which the animals of tzaddikim refused to violate Torah laws, although these laws apply only to humans. Indeed, the cow that demurred from working on the Sabbath inspired a Roman farmer to embrace Judaism. This convert later achieved renown as the Torah sage, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Torsa.[28]

As in Eden, animals during the Messianic age no longer will be carnivorous. Not only will war between nations cease, but even animals will desist from preying upon one another. "And a wolf shall dwell with a lamb, and a leopard will lie down with a kid, and a calf and a lion cub and a fattened ox will flock together, and a small child shall lead them. And a heifer and a bear will graze together, their young will lie down together, and a lion, like the ox, will eat straw. A suckling babe will play at a viper's hole, and over an adder's den an infant will stretch forth his hand. They will do no harm or damage in all My holy mountain, for the knowledge of God shall fill the Earth as the water covers the sea" (Isaiah 11:6?9). Although Maimonides understands this prophecy strictly as allegory, Abarbanel and other authorities interpret it in the literal sense.[29]

Spiritual Repair

The key that opens the Gates of Eden is teshuvah: return to God. In a hidden way, each one of us, every day, goes through the moral scenario implicit in the biblical account of the Garden of Eden. We are constantly faced with the challenge to trust God, and not rely upon our own guile; to heed the Torah and the tzaddikim, and not follow our own desires; to be patient, and not impulsive; to refrain from taking what belongs to others; not to listen to gossip or evil speech; and if we fail in some way, not to blame our associates or circumstances, but accept responsibility for our own actions.

Having engaged in teshuvah, we also must engage in tikkun: spiritual repair of the damage we have done. However great its extent, this damage may be fixed through Torah study and observance of the commandments; through meditation and prayer; through acts of kindness and charity; and through using the things of this world in order to serve God thereby. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught: "Ultimately, everything can be transformed to the good,"[30] even the worst moral failings. We have the power to make this world a Garden of Eden, to spiritually benefit all creatures, and to fulfill the Torah's directive to "know God in all our ways,"[31] if we but will it.


[1] Chullin 60a, with Rashi, s.v. li'tzivyonam.
[2] Cf. Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:3. The Zohar I, 101a, 144a, and III, 68b, states that the "bodies" of angels are formed of air or fire, whereas Pardes Rimonim 24:11 (51a) describes the angel as a composite of the four elements, even asserting that "an angel is like a physical body in comparison to the sublime level of the tzaddik." However, this does not mean to ascribe actual physicality to the angels. In general, the angelic realm is a spiritual analogue of physical nature, whereas human souls occupy an altogether higher rung; cf. Yerushalmi Shabbos 2:6; Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 70 (137a); Likkutei Moharan II, 1:1.
[3] Genesis, ch. 49.
[4] Chagigah 14b, citing Tehillim 148, acc. to Maharsha.
[5] Chullin 64b.
[6] Avos 6:11; also cf. Yalkut Reuvaini, Bereishis 25b (top), citing Koheles Rabbah. The term "glory" specifically refers to Divine revelation, as the Ramban states (ad loc.) on the verse, "Please allow me to behold Your Glory" (Exodus 33:18).
[7] Zohar III, Emor, 107b, et al.
[8] Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 66 (98a); Ramchal, Derech Hashem I, 3:8; Nefesh HaChaim, 1:6. Concerning the lofty status of Adam before the first sin, see Avodah Zarah 5a; Eiruvin 18b; Yerushalmi Shabbos 2:6; i 2:5; Bereishis Rabba 8:10, 12:5, 21:1; Bamidbar Rabbah 4:8; Zohar I, 37b; Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 54 (95b), Tikkun 57 (91b), Tikkun 66 (96a), Tikkun 67 (98a); et al.
[9] R. Yosef Yoizel Horowitz of Novhardok, Madreigas HaAdam, Maamar 1: B'tekufas HaOlam, Adam HaRishon.
[10] R. Chaim Vital, Sha'ar HaPesukim, Bereishis 3.
[11] According to one Midrash, even the Serpent was not created with an evil nature, but was influenced by the accusing angel euphemistically known as the "Samech-Mem"; see Yalkut Shimoni I: 95. The trait that made the Serpent susceptible to evil was its cleverness (Genesis 3:1). If not for the sin, the Serpent would have benefited humankind materially and spiritually, as stated in Sanhedrin 59b; also cf. R. Gershon Henich Leiner of Radzin, Sod Yesharim, Bereishis.
[12] Likkutei Halachos, Orach Chaim, Hilchos Tefillin 6:4.
[13] Yalkut Reuvaini, Bereishis, 35b, citing the Ari z"l; Nefesh HaChaim, I:6, hagahah 2.
[14] Concerning the soul as essence of mind, see Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Vayeilech, note 6, citing Nesiv Mitzvosecha; Ohr HaGanuz L'Tzaddikim, Mattos, citing the Baal Shem Tov; Teshu'os Chein, Tzav; Likkutim Yekarim 161; Likkutei Moharan I, 35:1, 234; ibid. II, 114. Concerning the existential division of self and soul, see Derech Hashem III: 1; Likkutei Halachos, Yoreh De'ah, Orlah 4:2; ibid. Choshen Mishpat, Sh'luchin 5:1. Citing a teaching of the Ari z"l, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi discusses this conflict in terms of an "animal soul" (nefesh ha-bahamis) and Divine soul (nefesh Elokis) in Likkutei Amarim-Tanya, section I, esp. ch. 1, 6, 9, et passim.
[15] Megillah 13b.
[16] The Torah describes both trees as standing in the center of the Garden. How was this possible? One answer is that from a common trunk and root system, they separated into two trees: the Tree of Knowledge below, and the Tree of Life above (Rabbeinu Bachaya on Bereishis 2:9). This symbolizes the concept that dualistic reality devolves from the Divine Oneness and is inseparable from it. According to other sources, the Tree of Life was surrounded on all sides by the branches of the Tree of Knowledge (Yalkut Reuvaini, Bereishis 33b, citing Asarah Ma'amaros). This indicates that within every appearance of dualism, the Divine Oneness is present (cf. Likkutei Moharan I: 33). From either point of view, however, the dualistic aspect of the Tree of Knowledge is subsumed within the transcendent unity expressed by the Tree of Life. Their central position in the Garden indicates their primacy in Creation, due to the higher consciousness they confer.
Alternately, R. Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein of Cracow (1751- 1823) opines that the term "Tree of Knowledge" does not indicate any particular tree, but a mentality of attachment to physical desire as an end in itself; see Ma'or VaShemesh, Bo, s.v. "V'kachah tochlu oso…"
[17] Midrash HaGadol, Bereishis 3:24. Re. the Tree of Life as alluding to the mystical dimension of Torah, see Sha'arei Orah, Gate 5, 61b; Zohar III, Naso, 124b-125a (Rayah Mehemnah); Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 55 (89a); Sefer HaTanya, Iggeres HaKodesh, Epistle 26; Likkutei Halachos, Yoreh De'ah, Sefer Torah 3:10.
[18] R. Chaim Vital, Eitz Chaim, Sha'ar HaKlalim 1; Pardes Rimmonim 2:6; Ramchal, Derech Hashem I, 2:1, K'lach Pis'chei Chochmah 2; Likkutei Moharan I, 64:1 (also note ms. version in appendix of some editions, where R. Nachman first used the term chesed and subsequently changed it to rachmanus).
[19] R. Chaim Vital, Sefer HaLikkutim, 3 (pp. 25-27); Be'er Mayim Chaim on Bereishis 2:9, 2:16, 2:17; et al.
[20] Derech Hashem I: 3:6.
[21] Adam, Eve, and the Serpent each received ten curses, while the earth received nine. These correspond to the 39 forms of constructive activity forbidden on the Sabbath; cf. R. Yaakov Zvi Yolles, Kehillas Yaakov, Erech Lamed-Tes Malachos; for additional sources, see note 24.
[22] Likkutei Halachos, Netilas Yadayim Shacharis 4:12; ibid. Birkhas HaShachar 3:2.
[23] Rabbeinu Bachaya, Bereishis 2:15.
[24] In Hebrew, the number 39 is spelled with the letters lamed-tes. When transposed, these letters spell the word tal, meaning "dew."; cf. Zohar III, 243b; Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 48 (85a), Tikkun 64 (95b); Likkutei Moharan I, 11:4, 38:7 (end). The word arur ("cursed") that the Torah uses in connection with the Serpent is phonetically similar to ohr, meaning "light."
[25] Sanhedrin 97a-98b; Sotah 49b; Derech Eretz Zutah 10; Midrash Tanchumah, Noach 3; Zohar III, 67b, 124b, 125b (Rayah Mehemnah), 153a; Maharal, Netzach Yisrael, ch. 36; Sichos HaRan, 35, 220; also note Likkutei Moharan II: 2, with Parparaos L'Chochmah, sec. 8.
[26] Zechariah 8:22, 23; Isaiah 2:2-4; Jeremiah 3:17; Shemos Rabbah 23:11; Avos D'Rabbi Nosson 35:19; Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 11:4 (end), 12:5; Ramchal, Maamar HaIkkarim, "BaGe'ulah." Concerning the return of prophecy, see Joel 3:1, 5; Maimonides, Igeres Teiman (p. 30); Likkutei Moharan II, 8:5; R. Kook, Arpelei Tohar, 40; Orot, 34-35.
[27] Midrash Shocher Tov, Tehillim 146.
[28] Literally, "son of a cow"; see Pesikta Rabbasi 14.
[29] Abarbanel on Hoshea 2:18, citing Isaiah, op cit.; also cf. Mahari Kara, Metzudas David, Radak, ad loc.; Malbim, Chazon Yeshayahu, ad loc.; Likkutei Halachos, Choshen Mishpat, Nezikin 2:6; R. Kook, Chazon HaTzimchonut V'HaShalom, 32.
[30] Likkutei Eitzos, Hischazkus 36, citing the principle in Yoma 86b that through the power of teshuvah, one may retroactively transform former wrong deeds to spiritual merits by using them as a means to bring about the good.
[31] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 231, citing Proverbs 3:6. The concept that the Garden of Eden is the hidden spiritual "essence" hidden within the confusions of this world is suggested by Sefer HaBahir 31; Zohar II, 150a; Likkutei Moharan II: 119, with Parpara'os L'Chochmah; et al. The Zohar Chadash (Midrash HaNe'elam) 17b, states, "Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai taught in the name of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai: The Holy One, blessed be He, called the Garden of Eden the 'nut garden' [in the Song of Songs], because just as a nut is enclosed by a series of shells and the fruit is within, so, too, the Garden of Eden is concealed in world beyond world, and it is within…" This teaching has profound metaphysical implications, as well.

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