One. Imagine the moment when Eve takes the bite. Imagine the slight crackle as the skin of the fruit breaks, then the waft of newly released smell, and finally the taste, and the feel of the juice, dribbling perhaps just a bit down the chin. And imagine the shock, the sudden awareness. Perhaps it hits her immediately as her teeth sink in. Maybe it happens after swallowing the first bite. Regardless, she hands it wordlessly to Adam. In my imagination, when the sudden awareness hits him too, Adam doesn’t drop the fruit. He simply holds it helplessly, arm halfway crooked.
Two. I’m walking to Walgreens, buying something I’m sure but mostly just enjoying the evening stroll. I’m singing gently to myself, a niggun I’ve composed for a line from Psalms. The music turns my mundanity into a meditation. I go inside, purchase tissues, or tinfoil, and exit, smiling and serene. I’m primed to appreciate the light breeze, the white roses with their simple sweetness, the vague darkness of clouds against a night sky. Like I do almost every week, I walk right by him, or someone just like him, sitting on the sidewalk with his whole life on meager display. He looks up at me. And it takes a second but then the music just dies in me, and silently I hold the tinfoil in my hand, arm halfway crooked, and the soft meditation dissolves like vapor into a suddenly jagged reality.
Three. There is a moment, an undeniable, indelible moment, when sudden awareness floods you, when the comfortable clothes you dress both yourself and your world in are swept away. Undeniable because you are left stunned and naked, alone with an aftertaste of truth. Indelible, because that moment can never be unexperienced, unencountered, unlearned. This, you have no choice over. What happens next, however, is entirely up to you.
What is this moment? Why does it happen? And when it happens to us, how do we respond?
This moment is, above all, true, and it is true in a particularly visceral way. Emily Dickinson writes:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –
Emily Dickinson writes about Truth as if it were dangerous, as if we were incapable of confronting it face to face. As if our encounter with Truth would leave us blind, lacking our most important sense of awareness. No. You know this moment because your eyes are opened and you cannot help but see. And more than seeing, you feel it in your deepest self that there is something real to what you are seeing. This is important – we have a lot of experiences in life, many of them emotionally powerful, many of them intensely subjective. This moment, too, is emotionally intense, but its power comes from the recognition of a profoundly simple reality. This is not awareness of new truth, this is new awareness of existing truth. Its very simplicity is what catches us off guard. It is the type of truth that gets told and accepted and ignored most of the time, until suddenly the moment happens and that truth that existed out there gets seared into our eyes and writhes in our bellies and is coded into our DNA. We don’t change truth, truth changes us.
This moment is above all true, and also painful. Emily Dickinson urges us to encounter truth slowly, with kind explanation, but we are overwhelmed with new sight, new awareness, which unrelentingly displaces our self-image. There is the pain of loss – loss of innocence, perhaps, or loss of contentment, loss of an idea of self that no longer holds, loss of a smaller world shattered by a bigger, scarier world, or loss of a delightfully complex world exposed as hollow when a simple, hard reality beckons.
When Adam and Eve became yod’ei tov v’ra, knowers of all knowledge, they discovered that new awareness is invariably embarrassing. There is no time to prepare, no time to rationalize, only time to see yourself lacking. Only time to recognize the naked self, not your body, but your soul.
And I – when I looked his way and saw a thousand sidewalk dwellers and a million passersby – I kept on walking, step after step, but I knew need, and I knew injustice, and I knew my blindness, and I knew my blindness wasn’t real but simply willfully closed eyelids, and I knew I couldn’t sing, not yet, not while the pain of need and the pain of no response inhabited my heart. Not while I was so aware of my soul’s nakedness. Not while I was ashamed. No imagination, no creativity, no distraction, nothing to cover up the pure awareness.
Why do these moments happen? What purpose do they serve? I think one could approach this scientifically, or pedagogically, or with a sophisticated theology.
I want to offer one small conception. Franz Rosenzweig described three themes he saw played out in Jewish thought, a theological arc beginning with Creation, involving Revelation, and ending in Redemption, the ultimate harmony of humanity and environment. If we apply this arc to one individual, we have a helpful framework for understanding the moment I’ve been talking about. We begin with creation – the raw material of our selves, the way we are accustomed to being in the world. At our best we seek redemption – the true harmony of awareness, intention, and action. This personal redemption goes hand in hand with seeking the just harmony of our larger world.
How do we go from our “created”, current selves to our “redeemed”, aligned selves? We pay attention to Rosenzweig’s intermediate element, Revelation, in one of two ways. First, we can seek it out. My meditative niggun singing reflects a desire to engage with ideas in an emotionally compelling way which over time may unlock insights and in that way lead me to deeper understanding of how I should act in this world.
Eve, too, aspired to greater awareness in life. After the serpent convinces her that she actually can eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the Torah – in a rare peek into character – describes Eve’s motivation. She sees nechmad ha’etz l’haskil, which the Eskenazi-Weiss translation interprets as: how desirable the insight was that the tree would bring. In other words, she wants to learn, she wants to grow, and she thinks eating the fruit of the tree will help her become a more aware her. She desires redemption, and so eats of the tree. The awareness she receives is revelation, new insight into herself that can then lead from her created, current self to her redeemed, aligned best self.
Adam, on the other hand, has everything happen to him, and he meets Revelation in the second way. The Torah does not suggest he sought anything out, nor did the serpent talk to him. Adam moves from the created self to the redeemed self through unpredictable, unexpected revelation. This is the moment I’ve been talking about.
So why do we experience unpredictable moments of revelation? Because there is something about ourselves that we have forgotten, or that we have never really known, that we need to confront in order to move closer to alignment. The experience feels viscerally true because it simply exposes us to our nature and reminds us of our ideals. It is unpredictable because it catches us at times when we do not realize we are not in touch with our naked selves. The function of these moments of revelation is to jolt us back to honesty and the path towards alignment.
How do we respond to these painful moments of awareness? These random moments of revelation occur regardless of choice. But once they happen, once the fruit has been bitten, once we are left with the aftertaste of truth, we do have choice.
Adam and Eve, embarrassed of their nakedness, try to fashion clothes out of fig leaves. The first humans, the first to become aware, and the first to try to conceal, to clothe, to avoid looking at their naked truth. This is one choice.
But there was an even earlier choice, made by Eve. She chooses – in the aftermath of revelation – to reach out to her partner, to share. How alone the experience of visceral knowledge. What could be more isolating than having sharp awareness others do not have? Imagine that lonely burden. Eve chooses to share, hoping to connect to another human being.
Where Eve chooses to reach out, Adam chooses to respond honestly. God calls out, Ayeka, where are you? And Adam says, “I was afraid, I was naked, and I hid.” Choose honesty, with yourself at the very least. You may have the urge to avoid the reality of need and the call of obligation, but don’t fool yourself into thinking the revelation never happened, or worse – that it didn’t matter.
You may have the understandable urge to avoid the reality of need for a while, but the time will come when you must respond to the moment of revelation. The Torah gives us a clue about the futility of concealing our nakedness. It tells us Adam and Eve made fig-leaf garments, but it never says they put them on. Rather, after God tells them they will endure pain and be expelled from the Garden, we encounter what I think is one of the most beautiful verses in the entire bible.
Va-ya’as adonai elohim l’adam u’l’ishto kotnot or va’yalbisheim. And God made for Adam and his wife outfits out of skin, and God clothed them. God knows that life changes forever for Adam and Eve, because of their new awareness, and God cares, God literally makes clothes for them to cover their nakedness, and furthermore actually dresses them. Where their own feeble fig-leaf attempts to hide themselves failed, God does it better. Not to hide, but to endure. Not to run away, but to confront with courage and preparation. Not to ignore, but to seek a new normal, a normal more aligned with the truth undeniably and indelibly revealed. God becomes through this act a partner in their adjustment.
Share. Be honest with yourself and others. Seek partners who will help you respond to that terrifying, painful moment of self-awareness. Interpret your experience, and identify your obligations. Who are you? Who can you be? Who will you be your best self with? How will you, confronted with revelation, bring about redemption, for yourself – through aligning yourself with your highest aspirations, and for the world, one moment at a time?