Breisheet: Guardians of the Garden

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

"G-d took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it, l'ovdah, and watch it, l'shomrah" (Breisheet 2:15).

A perfect world beckons. Everything is "very good" and man, as the centre of creation, is free to enjoy the fruits of G-d's labour. He is to “fill the earth and conquer it; dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks in the land"(Breisheet 1:28). Man is truly living in paradise. All that is missing is a partner with whom to share his joy, for simcha is always enhanced when there are others to join the celebration. Thus, G-d prepares to create Eve. The pristine world has yet to be soiled by man's misdeeds. All man has to do is "work and watch" the Garden of Eden, not to destroy the beautiful potential that awaits. 

While G-d's order not to eat from the tree of knowledge is quite clear, man’s role as guardian and worker appears much less so. In fact, these two duties seem almost contradictory. If one is watching over something, one may not use it; and those items with which we work can never be fully protected. Jewish law states that, with rare exceptions, a shomer, guardianwho uses an object is liable for damage to the watched item, whether or not he caused that damage. Valuable items must be guarded quite zealously, used only on rare occasions and with great care.

Avodah is forbidden on Shabbat as it is a transformative creative process—the opposite of shmirah which is to ensure that the guarded object remains the same. Because we are shomer Shabbat, avodah is forbidden. On the other hand, the command to work the garden implies natural wear and tear, as well as change and transformation. How can man then be expected to do both shmirah and avodah in Gan Eden?

We can only guard what is most precious to us if we work on it, at times even transforming it. Guarding something without using it leads to decay, just as fruit will rot on the vine if it is left untouched. We guard our children, but we also work with them to help them to grow.

We are bound to refine our Torah and make it relevant, to work with it in order to protect it. It may be unfortunate, but the reality is that we must market Torah to a sophisticated yet sceptical public. New approaches are often needed, because the methods that worked in pre-war Europe may fail utterly in 21st century America or Israel.

To my mind, the fact that Israeli society (by and large) adopted an eastern European rabbinic model for a Western style democratic country is one of the greatest tragedies of religious life in Israel. The modern-day rabbi must be able to speak to his congregants in their own language, serving them as pastor, program director, orator, or marriage counsellor in ways that serve today’s needs. For many, the pristine world of psak Halacha will not suffice.

But even as we work on the Torah, we must ensure that we guard it—and guard it carefully. Some of the externals and packaging may be radically different, but Torah is eternal, unchanging and unchangeable. It is designed to direct human nature, which is also unchanging; Torah, as the guide for humans, reflects that consistency. Honesty in business, commitment to family, dedication to Torah learning, and the details of halacha in all of its facets must be the basis for our lives. It is the way we guard the Torah as we strive to recreate Gan Eden.

No doubt the line between avodah and shmirah is at times fine indeed. But it is a line we must not cross. Adam Harishon was unable to properly guard the garden. However, that is no excuse for us to fail.  We must strive to make Torah speak the language of modern man while maintaining its Divine, unchanging character. Let us get to work.