To Dust You Shall Return – Life and Death
Who are We?
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We’re all going to die. Why do we have such an aversion to this most inevitable of events? Why have almost all cultures throughout human history dreamed of a way to stave off the inevitable and somehow dodge the angel of death? Why to this day, with all our scientific knowledge and disdain for religion, do we still dream of defeating death, not through a magic potent or prayers but through medicine and manipulation of the genetic code? We have an aversion to death. We don’t want to face it.
Perhaps our aversion is due to the unsettling realization that we have no idea what happens after death. Do we just vanish? Though that may seem obvious, it sure isn’t easy to accept. Do we go ‘somewhere else’? Where else is there to go? Do we come back in another lifetime or live on in the memories of others? We just don’t know the answer so we cannot help but harbor hopes that there’s got to be a way out. But not knowing certainly makes things difficult.
It should come as no surprise that life and death were major concerns of the Bible. The Bible openly acknowledges the inevitability of death. It gives only the barest of hints that there might be an afterlife of some sort. The most obvious place to look for Biblical insight into this great mystery is in the verses of Genesis that deal with the instructions God gave to Adam before embarking on his adventure in the Garden of Eden and in the curse he received as a consequence for his failure to follow those instructions. The text indicates that it was specifically through this failure that death became inevitable, leading to the tantalizing possibility that it was not inevitable prior to the fall. These verses are the window into the Biblical view of life and death.
First we have the verses that present the man with his instructions in the Garden and the consequences of failing to follow them: ‘And Hashem God commanded the man saying: From all the trees of the Garden you may eat. But from the Tree of Knowledge, good and evil, you must not eat, for on the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.’ (2:16-17)
Then we have the consequences of his failure to abide by the rules: And to the man He said, 'Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate from the tree that I commanded you that you must not eat from it, the ground is cursed for you – with pain you will eat from it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles will sprout for you and you shall eat the grass of the field. With the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken, for you are dust and to dust you shall return…'And Hashem God said, 'Behold the man has become one of us, to know good and evil, and now lest he send forth his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and live forever.' And Hashem God sent them from the Garden of Eden to work the ground the he was taken from. And He drove out the man and placed to the east of the Garden of Eden the angels and the flaming sword that revolves to protect the path of the Tree of Life. (3:17-19, 22-24)
Common knowledge has it that Adam and Eve were supposed to be immortal before eating from the Tree of Knowledge. That fateful act doomed them to death, among other things. The possibility remained, however, of regaining immortality through eating again from the Tree of Life. It was to prevent this possibility that Hashem drove them out of Eden and placed a guard at its entrance. This is how almost everybody understands the role of life and death vis-à-vis these two Trees in this story.
Nevertheless, there are problems with this commonly held understanding. First off, if they were created/formed to be immortal, then what was the need for the Tree of Life to begin with? Because of this problem, some maintain that they were not immortal at all but could gain immortality by eating from
the Tree of Life. But according to this, what did the Tree of Knowledge do? Would it cancel out that immortality? So why couldn’t they eat from the Tree of Knowledge to their heart’s content as long as they remained within striking distance of the Tree of Life? But if they were not immortal, then what exactly was the terrible consequence of eating from the Tree of Knowledge?
Perhaps that commonly held belief in the immortality of Adam and Eve has to be reconsidered. Perhaps the equally commonly held notion that the Tree of Life granted immortality also has to be questioned. And perhaps the universally held understanding that the Tree of Knowledge imparted death to them should also be up for questioning. What are the alternatives, if any?
Perhaps the Torah is implying a non-literal understanding of death. Perhaps death does not imply the physical death of the body, which was already in them, but a psychological or existential understanding of death. Perhaps it was something resembling dread of death – the psychological state in which the human being cannot face the inevitability of his or her own demise, either because it means facing divine judgment or because it forces one to confront non-existence. Up until the moment that they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, death was inevitable but it was not an existential dilemma. There was nothing to fear from the impenetrable mystery of death. It would simply be the initiation to the ‘next stage’, whether that means an afterlife or merely the state of having lived and now no longer living. Immortality is only psychologically necessary for those who cannot face the inevitable.
But once they ate things changed. They changed instantly and drastically. This was a profound change that Adam and Eve sensed immediately. They were ashamed of their nakedness, compelled to hide from God among the trees of the Garden, and in total denial of their responsibility for what had happened when confronted with their crime. How could a simple act of eating from a forbidden fruit result in all this? Guilt is a heavy burden to bear. Most of us are like Adam and Eve – unable to face our guilt. We are ashamed, we hide, we deny. In the end the price that we pay for our running away is an inability to face ourselves.
And it all ends in death. To die with unresolved guilt is to know that one’s task in life is unfulfilled. In such a state, death is a dreaded mystery. Only if that guilt can be resolved can a person face that mystery with confidence and longing. Adam and Eve, and all of us by extension, were left in a perpetual state of uncertainty as to what lies beyond. Some are troubled by the thought of facing up to our failures in the next world. Others are equally disturbed by the gnawing sense that there will be nothing left of our existence when we go – that we just fade away like smoke dissipating in the air.
Those three final verses seem to be further punishment to Adam (and Eve). They bring up the possibility that this ‘enlightened’ man will grab from the Tree of Life and unjustly gain eternal life. To prevent this undesirable outcome God cast them from the Garden to work the ground. God even placed a guard on the path to block them from somehow sneaking in behind God’s divine back. But is this what these verses really mean? Is the way blocked or is it protected? Is this another layer of punishment or is it a way back?
What was God really worried about with man ‘sending forth his hand and taking from the Tree of Life’? Isn’t this why the Tree was planted to begin with, so that man could eat from it and gain the gift of life? Maybe this Tree had/has more to it than meets the eye. Maybe just as death didn’t mean physical death with the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Life did not impart physical life. Perhaps it means the opposite of what death meant. Perhaps it granted the awareness that every day of our lives, every minute we exist, can be lived with the joy and wonder that it deserves. This is the cure for death. It won’t cure cancer or reverse aging, but it sure will make those burdens easier to bear.
Maybe God wasn’t worried about somebody sneaking in through the back door of the Garden of Eden and stealing the nectar of the gods or the eternal flame. Maybe God was wondering if somebody would figure out the secret and learn to reverse the curse of the death dilemma. Maybe God was worried that this would come too easy.
We need that curse. It keeps us in line to whatever degree that it keeps us in line. But it’s not the only possibility. There is another road to go down in life. We needn’t see the earth as cursed and find thorns and thistles everywhere. We can work the ground that we were taken from with the satisfaction of knowing that this is our task and this is our purpose. To realize this is not easy. It is not simply a matter of reaching out and taking a fruit. It requires work, both physical and spiritual. It may entail expanding our horizons and breaking down protective walls. Perhaps the eternal life that the Tree of Life bequeathed was this realization – that life is its own reward, and that death is nothing more than the next moment of life. This realization only comes with difficulty and pain; it cannot and shouldn’t come with ease and comfort. But the path is still there.
Gazing in the Mirror
What does it really mean to be alive? Is it simply a fortuitous collection of atoms and molecules that happens to include the natural but not-very-remarkable properties of self-sustainment, growth, reproduction, and aging? Is it nothing more than a biological state that ends after a while? Or is it more than all that, as wonderfully natural as all that is. Is it a unique opportunity to be – to want to continue, to strive to survive, to have an urge to produce one’s successor, to sense one’s impermanence, and in the perhaps extra-unique case of human beings – to be aware of one’s self?
What does it mean to die? Is it nothing more than the end of a pretty good thing while it lasted? Is it simply the next stage in a somewhat prosaic natural process in which this fortuitous biological state ceases to sustain itself and goes into a rather short period of decay in which it is absorbed into the world around it? Perhaps for self-aware beings it means sensing their own departure from this world and entering into the unknowable state of non-living.
What really is the difference between these two contrasting ways of looking at life and death? The difference is whether we see life and death as ordinary or as extraordinary. That difference is everything. We, perhaps alone among all life, can truly appreciate this difference. It is utterly remarkable that on the one hand we are no greater than a bacterium or an insect or a frog, but on the other hand possess the self-awareness to look upon our lives as an amazing journey.
This almost impossible combination is who we are. We can look upon ourselves, upon our journey, and wonder how it came to be and how it will end. We can question it's meaning and purpose and question ourselves if we are on the proper path. We can reach out to the spiritual heavens as we have our physical feet planted firmly on the earth. We know that we must die and we either openly or secretly dread that unknown destination, but we can simultaneously treasure life while we have it. Death is mysterious and dreadful, but so is life. We really needn’t dread either one. But we must acknowledge the mystery of both.
Why is it so difficult to overcome the fear and dread of death? Why can’t the joy and wonder of life overcome that dread and that fear?
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