2367 The Art of Learning Torah



        The literal account of the five books of Moses is almost impossible to appreciate without assistance. Hundreds of commentaries exist and, as we might imagine, many offer interpretations that contradict one another. Nobody agrees that there is a definitively "correct" way to read the Torah. In fact the oral tradition suggests that there are at least 600,000 different interpretations, representing the number of those who received the Torah through Moses at Mt. Sinai.

This is what makes the study of Torah so interesting. If we simply accept the literal meaning of what it says, then it is merely a book with many interesting stories. If we engage it, however, work with it and use a variety of methods to analyze the text, it yields hidden clues that lead us on to further investigation. Study like this, a continuous give and take, becomes a mystical relationship between the text and the one studying it. 

Many experiences with inanimate objects involve mystical interactions. A mechanic who fine tunes an engine often relates to it as if the engine is communicating with him or her. A pilot or boat skipper interacts with the "personality" of an airplane or boat. Clay and a potter become one as a bowl rises on the wheel; oils, canvas, and a painter merge into a relationship that carries the work to a different reality. Art transcends the objective world and enters a mystical realm that is inexplicable.

Students of Torah have always had an artistic-spiritual engagement with the scriptural text. Engagement is a good word because the experience is almost like a betrothal. The student becomes intimate with a set of words, commentaries, commentaries on the commentaries, and a brand new world opens.

This is the world that has kept Torah alive and well in Judaism for over two thousand years. The questions raised in the mind of our imaginary editor were obvious to readers thousands of years ago. A great deal of oral tradition speaks to these issues. Many other questions, not easy for modern readers to see, were addressed as well.


The Torah is studied on four different levels, known by the acronym: P-R-D-S. A pardes is an orchard or garden. In Hebrew it is spelled with the consonants peh, resh, dalet, and samekh. In the context of studying Torah, the peh represents p'shat, which means the simple or literal interpretation. Resh represents remez, which means the interpretation of what is being hinted at in the text: the metaphors, allegories and parables. Dalet represents drosh, which is an examination of the text by bringing in additional material. Finally, samekh represents the sod of the material, the secret, hidden meanings that offer insights into the structure of the universe.

Let us look at a few elements of the Garden of Eden story, the trees, the rivers, the forming of man, and see how this is viewed from the four different perspectives of interpretation.

P'shat (literal)

There was a place called Eden and it had a garden. The word Eden comes from the Akkadian word edinu, derived from the Sumerian word eden, which means plain, as in prairie or plateau. This, in addition to the mention of the rivers that run through it, suggests that Eden is a geographical location.

 Commentators generally agree that two of the four rivers running out of Eden are the Tigris and the Euphrates. Regarding the other two rivers,

 some say one could be the Nile, with the fourth being the Indus or Ganges; but most would agree that the common meeting point was the Persian Gulf, which may be the undivided "river" running into the garden.


Although the Garden of Eden has never been seen by a living human being, Resh Lakish, a talmudic sage, said, "If it is in the land of Israel, its gate is Bet Shean [a fertile area near Tiberias]; if it is in Arabia, its gate is Bet Gerem [possibly a highly fertile area facing Bet Shean on the other side of the Jordan]; and if it is between the rivers [unknown], its gate is Damascus."


An anecdote recorded in the Talmud says that Alexander of Macedonia found the Garden of Eden in the middle of Africa.

 On his journey he encountered women warriors who warned him not to make war with them for he would lose either way: If he killed them, it would be said that he took advantage of women, and if they killed him, he would be called the king who was killed by women. 

When asked for bread, these women served him loaves of gold. He asked them if they ate gold and they replied, "If you wanted bread, did you not have enough bread in your own home to eat that you had to travel all the way here?" When he left this place he wrote on the gate of the city, "I, Alexander of Macedonia, was a fool until I came to this city of women in Africa and learned wisdom."


Farther on, he ate some salted fish washed by water from a local well. The fish gave off a sweet odor. He recognized by this scent that the water had come from the Garden of Eden. He found the garden and cried out that the gate should be opened. The guards said it was the gate of the Lord and would only be opened for the righteous. He said that he was a king and wanted something. So they gave him an eyeball. (Here the story moves from literal to metaphoric.)


Remez (hints: metaphor, parable)

Alexander took this eyeball and weighted it against the gold and silver he was carrying, a significant amount. The eyeball was heavier than all his wealth combined. He asked the wise ones traveling with him, "How could this be?" They replied that this was a human eyeball, which represents desire that can never be satisfied. The desire of human beings is immeasurably weightier than all the gold and silver in the world. He asked them to prove it and they sprinkled some dust over the eyeball so that it could not see. Immediately it lost it weightiness.


(More in the style of remez.) 

The first man was created from dust taken from the four corners of the world. Humankind was created in this way so that if a person born in the East should happen to die in the West, the earth would not refuse to receive the dead. Thus, wherever anyone happens to die, the body will be returned to the earth.

 Also the dust taken was of various colors: red, for blood; black, for bowels; white, for bones, and green for pale skin.


Rabbi Yehuda said, Adam is so-named because he was taken from the ground (adamah). Rabbi Joshua, the son of Korhah, said Adam was so-named because he was made of flesh and blood (dam).


Rabbi Eliezer wondered what kind of work the first man was supposed to do in the garden. There were no fields to plow and the trees grew on their own. There was no need for watering as a river ran through it. Therefore, the instruction God gave to Adam to "tend and maintain it" must not refer to tending the garden. Rather it must mean to follow the teachings of the Torah. Rabbi Eliezer says, "The Tree of Life signifies only the Torah; for it says in Proverbs (3:18), 'She is a tree of life to those that hold her, and happy are those that hold her tightly.'"


At another point, Rabbi Eliezer describes a different metaphor. He says that the tree refers to a man because it says in Deuteronomy that "man is a tree of the field."

 The garden refers to woman, because it says in Song of Songs, "an enclosed garden is my sister, my bride."

 Therefore the midst of the garden suggests the center of the woman and the taking of forbidden fruit refers to inappropriate sexual intercourse.


Drosh (searching, examining)

Rabbi Meir said the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil was wheat. (The word for wheat--hita--is similar to the word for sin--het.)  Rabbi Judah said the fruit was grapes. (Grapes were known to be the fruits of gods.) Rabbi Abba of Acco said it was a citron. (Fruit like a lemon--from a play of words related to desire.) Rabbi Jose said that it was figs. (Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves.) Rabbi Azariah and Rabbi Judah, the son of Rabbi Simon said, "Heaven forbid [we should be guessing at the fruit of the tree.] The Holy One purposely did not reveal the type of tree or its fruit so that we would never accuse [this fruit] of bringing sin to the world."

 (It is interesting to note that not a single commentary in the Talmud or the Midrash Rabbah says that the Tree of Knowledge was an apple tree. This idea comes from non-Jewish sources.) 

The words "man" and "woman" are each composed of an element of fire and God. The Hebrew name for man is ish, and for woman is isha. Both include in their spelling the letters for fire (aish), which are aleph and shin. In addition to the letters for fire, man is spelled with a yod, and woman is spelled with a hey. The new letters yod and hey are the first two letters of the four letter name for God: yod-hey-vav-hey. Thus it is taught that God says, "If you follow my ways my name will be with you; but if you do not I will take away my name and you will become fire."


The four streams that flow through the Garden of Eden come from the roots of the Tree of Life. They separate the lower (earth) region, and the upper (heavenly) region. The lower waters, associated with the earth, are equated with the feminine principle. The upper waters represent the masculine principle.

 Water is used as the symbol because it spontaneously merges with itself, suggesting that the separation of heaven and earth is temporary and all will be one in the world to come.


Sod (hidden, secret)

The hidden teachings of the Torah are derived through kabbalistic techniques. They are mysterious, arcane, and very difficult to understand without considerable background, and even then a teacher is often needed. This is why so few of these teachings are available to a more general readership, and is the reason why the mystical approach to the Garden of Eden story is rarely heard. Here are a few examples of kabbalistic teachings on this subject.

There are actually two Gardens of Eden, one below and one above. Saintly beings stay for a while in the lower Garden of Eden after they die, and then rise to the celestial academy, which is the upper garden. There is yet a realm higher than the upper garden, for these righteous beings eventually rise to bathe "in dewy rivers of pure balsam."


The river that goes forth from the Garden of Eden represents the central one of three columns on the kabbalistic Tree of Life. Eden is viewed in Kabbalah as the principle of the Supernal Mother, and the central column represents the presence of the Divine on earth, called the Shekhina. The Shekhina (water) is the nurturing force for the entire earth (garden). 

The four rivers coming out of the one river represent four major emanations of the Divine: loving kindness (chesed), which is the personification of the archangel Michael; strength (gevorah), the archangel Gabriel; triumph (netzach), the archangel Nuriel; and grandeur (hod), the archangel Raphael.


The mystery of saying the Shema prayer (Shema Yisra-el, Ado-noy Elo-haynu, Ado-noy Ehad--Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One) is that it draws a beam of light from a hidden supernal world and divides it into seventy lights, representing the seventy nations of creation. Those lights become luminous branches of the Tree of Life. When the seventy branches are illuminated, this Tree and all other trees in the Garden of Eden emit sweet odors, perfume which prepares all the polarities to unite into the Divine Oneness.

 In Kabbalah, the urge for this union, bringing the upper and lower together, is the driving force of the process of creation.