Filling in the gaps in the Torah

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The Torah portion Bereshit is jam-packed, to say the least. It includes the creation of the world in six days, the creation of man and woman, the commandment to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the failure to obey that commandment, the resulting banishment from the Garden of Eden, the birth of Cain and Abel, the murder of Abel, the birth of three sons to the Man and the Woman, the birth of Noah, God’s decision to eradicate all that had been created, and (fortunately for us) God finding favor in Noah.

But this Torah portion, like other parts of the Torah, is also notable for what it does not include.   After all, haven’t you wondered how Isaac felt in Genesis 22 about coming so very close to being sacrificed by his own father?  Genesis doesn’t say.  Haven’t you wondered how Moses felt, in the last chapter of Deuteronomy and while in God’s presence, about seeing the Promised Land but not being able to enter it?  Deuteronomy doesn’t say.

A glaring example of missing information in Bereshit is how the Woman, only later named Eve, is told about the commandment to not eat from the Tree.  This matters not just because of the consequences of eventually eating from the Tree, but because she gets the commandment wrong.

In Genesis 2: 15-18, God places the Man in the Garden of Eden, but tells him to not eat of the Tree or he shall die.  What’s important here is that, at this point in the text, the Woman has not yet been created.  This means that, however she ultimately hears of the commandment, it was not from God, at least not at that time.  And if it was from God, the conversation is not recorded in the text.

So what is the Woman’s error?  As Genesis 3 opens, the Woman encounters the serpent.  When the serpent asks if there was any tree which she was told to stay away from, she replies that not only are she and the Man commanded to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they are commanded to not even touch it, lest they die.  However, in God’s only statement on the subject, a statement made before the Woman was even created, God makes no mention of touching.  None.

If you can picture the encounter between the serpent and the Woman, you can see how her error could easily be manipulated by the crafty serpent.   After all, the moment that she touches the fruit and does not die, isn’t everything she has been told immediately suspect?

And no, the circumstances of her being told of the commandment are not stated in Genesis. She was not present when God told the Man, and if the commandment was transmitted to her by the only other human being alive at the time, then either he transmitted it in error or the Woman misunderstood it.  Either way, the Torah leaves us without an answer – and wondering: Why would the Woman say that even touching the fruit would lead to death?

Perhaps the Man was so worried that the Woman would violate the commandment that he overstated it, thus “building a fence” around the commandment.  Perhaps the Woman simply misunderstood the Man when he communicated the commandment to her. Either way, this story – an important story – has some gaps, and invites us to wonder.

So what do we do?  With or without gaps, the Torah has more than enough to keep us reading, studying, learning and, of course, wondering for as long as we live.  I submit, however, that there is an alternative to merely wondering about those parts of the Torah which we might see as having gaps: we simply fill them in.

So, if you were to write a midrash to fill in the gaps in the story of the Garden of Eden, how would you explain the discrepancy between the commandment as transmitted from God to the Man and how the Woman describes it in her encounter with the serpent?  And what would your agenda be?  Would you simply fill in the gaps with a reasonable explanation?  Or would you craft a cautionary tale about how important it is to be careful when passing God’s words on to others? Or would you tell a story that would argue against building fences around commandments?

Some of us believe that the Torah is still being read and studied because its characters, including our patriarchs and matriarchs, are as flawed as we are. However, the gaps in Bereshit provide another reason to not only keep learning and wondering, but to do more.  These gaps also invite us to create, using the gifts that God has given each of us.  They invite us to fill in the gaps, and to reconcile the discrepancies, if we choose.

Perhaps the purpose of the gaps and discrepancies is to do exactly that: to take us from our wondering all the way to our creativity so as to honor the other gift which God has given us: the Torah.

JOE MURRAY was ordained as a rabbi in 2009 by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York. He engages in informal adult education of the Hebrew Scriptures, and serves as a hospice chaplain.  Contact him at jm1959@netscape.net.