What A Difference A Letter Makes
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Sermon B’reishit 2018
What a Difference A Letter Makes
We live in a world of information overload. In fact, we are so super saturated by choice and by information, that it can actually paralyze us and shut us down. This phenomenon is called ‘decision fatigue’. What online newspaper to read? What cereal to choose in the supermarket aisle? What clothes to wear? What social media accounts to follow? In our hyper-complex world, we are spoilt for choice… and the choice can spoil us.
If anything, my theory is that Adam and Eve suffered from decision fatigue and I examined this in a sermon a number of years ago: the First Couple were completely confused by all the options in the Garden of Eden. After all God told them ‘hineh, natati lachem et kol esev zorea zera asher al p’nei chol ha’eretz’ – ‘behold, I give you all seed-bearing plants upon all the earth to eat.’ The word ‘kol’ (or ‘chol’) is repeated twice.
In other words, Adam and Eve were like hipster vegans with a credit card in a Los Angeles Wholefoods.
It is my theory that they deviated from eating their normal, Divinely-mandated vegan diet to eating from the one tree that was forbidden to them (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) because homing in on that one simple thing quieted their mind. They didn’t have to make any decisions. They could just follow their instincts and abdicate their responsibility. It’s a natural and human impulse and I think many of us can relate.
One of the many charges that Genesis gives us is perhaps not so apparent compared to the many profound themes the Torah discusses in these few, succinct, existentialist chapters. But if we go back to the word ‘kol’, ‘all’, then maybe the insight that we can glean is that we cannot have it all. Despite books like Cheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’, many of us women – and men! – know that we cannot have it all. We have to make choices. We have to weigh different demands against each other. We have to prioritize. We have to learn to say no so that we may truly say yes.
Many of us instinctively know this: after all, minimalism or simplicity is an enduring passion (or at least, aspiration) for many (and by ‘many’ I mean those people who don’t share living spaces with tiny human beings). The Japanese method of decluttering promoted by Marie Kondo called Kon-Mari is a huge success. The basic premise is that you ruthlessly, in a room free of distractions like music or other people, examine your inventory and throw out anything that doesn’t bring ‘joy to your soul’. In fact, the author and decluttering expert summarizes her methodology in six core principles:
Commit yourself to tidying up.
Imagine your ideal lifestyle.
Finish discarding first.
Tidy by category, not by location.
Follow the right order.
Ask yourself if it sparks joy.
Could we apply the Kon-Mari methodology to Adam and Eve’s dilemma of decision fatigue in the Garden of Eden? Perhaps God is a little to blame also. What if God had said ‘hineh, natati lachem et esev zorea zera asher al p’nei ha’eretz’ – ‘behold, I give you seed-bearing plants upon the earth to eat.’ – Leaving out the double ‘all’. Would it have kickstarted creativity and choice in them instead of a sense of being overwhelmed? We cannot know, of course, but the deep allegories of the Creation Story allows us to tell (and retell) deep stories about ourselves.
There are hints in the Torah that words matter; that even single letters matter. The Torah commentary pointed me to such a thing when I was reading the commentary for Simchat Torah. God creates the sixth and seventh days but contrary with day one to five, uses the definite article – the hey, meaning ‘the’ – in the description of these days. ‘Vayehi erev, vayehi voker, yom ha’shishi’ – ‘it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day’. Likewise, for the narrative of day seven, we read: ‘Vayichal Elohim bayom hashevi’I melachto asher asah’ – ‘and God completed on the seventh day the work of Creation.’ Why does the extra definite article matter and why is it there? The Torah commentary notes it but teasingly does not offer an explanation: ‘The definite article in Hebrew, used here and with the seventh day, points to the special character of these days within the scheme of Creation’ the commentary writes. That’s nice to know, but not particularly helpful. Clearly, those letters matter. Just like the single word ‘kol’ matters.
Perhaps the definite article was a matter of perception: not in the eyes of the Creator, but in the eyes of the Created. After all, it was human beings who were created on the sixth day and who, alongside God, rested on the seventh. Just like Abraham and Sarah had ‘heys’ added to their names upon the assumption of the covenant with God, we could conclude that Adam and Eve gained special consciousness of and relationship with God on account of their humanity. The Torah wants us to see the relevance of that extra letter: it teaches us that our choices and our perceptions, no matter how small, can have huge impact.
Whether we are fatigued by choice or not, the story of Adam and Eve is an unexpected call to empowerment. We have choice. We have consciousness. We can make decisions. We can assume responsibility. Those are the parameters of covenantal and conscious living. Whether or not we ‘lean in’, ‘want it all’ or use the ‘Kon-Mari’ methodology is just part of the larger question at stake here: what we do, how we perceive, matters. May we be blessed in this new Jewish year to move through the world with awareness, wisdom and discernment.