Today’s focus: Paradise.
But first, an unfortunate update on our Sukkah. We enjoyed it from Sunday, Oct. 16 through the following Friday evening. Then the winds came. Big winds. Next morning, I saw that the bamboo mat was lying in the middle of the backyard. Aerodynamically, the sukkah resembles a box kite. It was apparently blown into one side of the deck and house. I’ll have to dissect it to see what needs replacement versus repair.
Anyhow, we are starting the annual Torah reading all over again with Bereishit. I always wish that this 146-verse portion, covering 1500 nominal years, had been split at least in half because there are so many stories, tropes, themes, (mis)interpretations, etc., in it. We have two Creation stories, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the descendants of Adam who lived as long as 969 years (Methuselah), and an introduction to Noah and his family. The portion ends such corruption on earth that the Lord wants a do-over. Your local rabbi can have a field day sermonizing on any of these from points of view that are literary (comparison with other creation stories), linguistic (verse 1:1-3 doesn’t really start, “In the beginning…” but rather “When God began to create heaven and earth —the earth being unformed and void…”), theological (cosmic versus human-centered creation stories; creating order out of chaos; humankind in the image of God), and sociological (roles of men and women). And those are just a few examples.
But this year, I focus on the concept of paradise. What is it? Does it have to be lost, i.e., ephemeral? Does it have to have been lost in order to be paradise?
Certainly there have been many, many considerations of paradise/Eden/heaven in Jewish thought over the millennia from the Bible onward. In ancient and medieval texts, heaven (“the world to come”) is referred to, and conflated with, the Garden of Eden. In the Talmud, for example, the soul exists there in a blissful, disembodied state until the time of the Messiah. All the wonderful banqueting described elsewhere is spiritual. In rabbinic literature, “the word (pardes) is used metaphorically for the veil surrounding the mystic philosophy (Ḥag. 14b), but not as a synonym for the Garden of Eden or paradise to identify a blissful heavenly abode for the righteous after death.” And the righteous enjoy all sorts of spiritual goodies according to various commentators: rich surroundings and vestments, gems, angelic attendants, fragrances, nourishment, beauty, an ever-shining sun.
By the Middle Ages, many forgot that these were to be spiritual delights and took them literally. Maimonides rejected this. “To believe so,” he says, “is to be a schoolboy who expects nuts and sweetmeats as compensation for his studies. Celestial pleasures can be neither measured nor comprehended by a mortal being, any more than the blind can distinguish colors or the deaf appreciate music.” He maintained that the Garden of Eden was somewhere on earth and would be re-discovered.
Modern images of paradise in popular culture usually include a tropical island, with perfect weather, people who wait on you endlessly and smilingly, and as much delectable food and drink as desired. In the movie “Defending your Life,” in the pre-paradise waiting area, you could also eat as much as you wanted without gaining an ounce. In the 2002 book, The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, heaven is tailored to each individual’s idea of paradise. Susie, at 14, finds basically her previous existence with the annoyances (like teachers) removed. Eventually, she is able to let go and move on to a more substantive, wiser, “wide wide Heaven.”
Paradise also shows up in the science fiction I read and saw. Mainly written in the 50’s and 60’s, paradise is presented as an existence of peace, contentment, and total lack of discord. In the 50’s and 60’s of course, this meant “paradise” was soulless at best, a totalitarian state at worst. This theme showed up a lot on TV in The Twilight Zone episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” (C. Beaumont, J. Tomerlin) people undergo the “Transformation” which not only changes their appearance to that of one of a handful of beautiful models, but smooths out any quirkiness and individuality, thereby keeping order in the state.
And paradise came up a lot in Star Trek, particularly in two episodes that aired in 1967, “Return of the Archons” (B. Sobelman) and “This Side of Paradise” (D. C. Fontana). In Return of the Archons, a tranquil society is controlled by Landru via computer; young people are allowed one Red Hour a year to let their nastiness loose in a Festival. Individuals are removed or absorbed by the Body, which happens to Lt. Sulu:
SULU: They’re wonderful. They’re the sweetest, friendliest people in the universe. It’s paradise, my friend. Paradise.
KIRK: Lieutenant O’Neil. Where is he?
SULU: Paradise. Paradise.
(But it isn’t.)
SPOCK: This is a soulless society, Captain. It has no spirit, no spark. All is indeed peace and tranquility. The peace of the factory, the tranquility of the machine.
(Of course, they find and destroy the machine.)
In “This Side of Paradise,” an agricultural colony is remarkably alive despite bombardment with deadly Berthold rays. They also don’t work much and are curiously content. We soon learn that they are in a symbiotic relationship with spores that protect them and bring contentment:
SPOCK: You see, they [the spores] actually thrive on Berthold rays. The plants act as a repository for thousands of microscopic spores until they find a human body to inhabit.
ELIAS: In return, they give you complete health and peace of mind.
KIRK: That’s paradise?
ELIAS: We have no need or want, Captain.
SPOCK: It’s a true Eden, Jim. There’s belonging and love.
KIRK: No wants. No needs. We weren’t meant for that. None of us. Man stagnates if he has no ambition, no desire to be more than he is.
ELIAS: We have what we need.
KIRK: Except a challenge.
[Of course, Kirk finds a way to destroy the spores and wake everyone up.]
MCCOY: Well, that’s the second time man’s been thrown out of paradise.
KIRK: No, no, Bones. This time we walked out on our own. Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through. Struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.
SPOCK: Poetry, Captain. Non-regulation.
KIRK: We haven’t heard much from you about Omicron Ceti Three, Mister Spock.
SPOCK: I have little to say about it, Captain, except that for the first time in my life I was happy.
So maybe paradise is not a place we strive for or a time of lost innocence or some unattainable perfection or absolute tranquility and serenity and lack of discord. Nor does it have to have been lost, just not omnipresent. Like the Jewish idea of “holiness” denoting something special that is set apart. Maybe paradise for us is simply those moments that come, often unbidden, when you feel at home in your little part of the world – respected, content, loving, and loved.
http://www.reflections-online.net/en/spiritual_jokes_4.php (from 2009)
THE CHILDREN’S BIBLE IN A NUTSHELL [just through Noah]
In the beginning, which occurred near the start, there was nothing but God, darkness, and some gas. The Bible says, ‘The Lord thy God is one, but I think He must be a lot older than that.
Anyway, God said, ‘Give me a light!’ and someone did.
Then God made the world.
He split the Adam and made Eve. Adam and Eve were naked, but they weren’t embarrassed because mirrors hadn’t been invented yet.
Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating one bad apple, so they were driven from the Garden of Eden…..Not sure what they were driven in though, because they didn’t have cars.
Adam and Eve had a son, Cain, who hated his brother as long as he was Abel.
Pretty soon all of the early people died off, except for Methuselah, who lived to be like a million or something.
One of the next important people was Noah, who was a good guy, but one of his kids was kind of a Ham. Noah built a large boat and put his family and some animals on it. He asked some other people to join him, but they said they would have to take a rain check.
Seven reasons why God Created Eve
1. God was worried that Adam, being alone, would regularly get lost in the garden of Eden because he refused to ask for directions
2. God knew right from the start that Adam would eventually need someone to find the remote and then hand it to him
3. God knew that Adam didn’t have any idea how to choose the latest style of fig leaf when his old one wore out. He would therefore need someone to choose one for him
4. God knew that Adam would never be able to make an appointment with a doctor, dentist or hairdresser all by himself
5. God knew that Adam was having difficulty in remembering which days he needed to put the recyclable rubbish in the ‘green’ bin
6. God knew that if the world was to be populated, Adam would never be able to handle the pain and discomfort of childbearing
7. When God finished creating Adam, he stepped back, scratched his head, and said, “I can do better than that.”
The New Wave
Couldn’t biblical characters be recruited as high-tech promoters? Consider the following tech advocates and their ad slogans (selections):
- Noah for Match.com: We can find a mate for anything. Why not you?
- The dove for UPS.com: Guaranteed delivery in 40 days and 40 nights.
- Adam and Eve for Dell: No Apples for us. We’ve learned the hard way.
- Methuselah for AARP.org: Life begins at 960.
Last year, I included an item on creation according to cats. For equal time:
A Dog Creation Theory
- On the first day of creation, God created the dog.
- On the second day, God created man to serve the dog.
- On the third day, God created all the animals of the earth (especially the horse) to serve as potential food for the dog.
- On the fourth day, God created honest toil so that man could labor for the good of the dog.
- On the fifth day, God created the tennis ball so that the dog might or might not retrieve it.
- On the sixth day, God created veterinary science to keep the dog healthy and the man broke.
- On the seventh day, God tried to rest… but He had to walk the dog.
Quotes about Paradise
- I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. Jorge Luis Borges
- Paradise is exactly like where you are right now… only much, much better. Laurie Anderson
- There is a kind of serenity in love which is almost a paradise. Alain Badiou
Utility is when you have one telephone, luxury is when you have two, opulence is when you have three – and paradise is when you have none. Doug Larson
- The only paradise is paradise lost. Marcel Proust