The Garden of Eden Imagined
Updated: Apr 24, 2020
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Dedicated to the memories of Berton Fliegel and Dov Zimmer
Yesterday was the eighth day of Passover. On the 8th day of Passover Ashkenazi Jews around the globe include a service that memorializes the dead which is called the Yizkor service. During this service Jews recall both specific relatives as well as communities of people who have died over time, Holocaust victims and people who have died as defenders of nations.
One prayer that is always recited during Yizkor is the El Malei Rahamim prayer, which is both hopeful and beautiful. In comfortingly descriptive language, the prayer creates a vision of the soul of the departed resting forever in "paradise", which is how the Garden of Eden is translated.
Oh merciful God who dwells in the heavens,
Grant final rest in your sheltering presence
Among the heights of the holy and pure
Like the stars of the sky they endure
To the soul of ____ who has passed on,
May he/she live in paradise for everlong.
Master of mercy,
Hold him/her in your embrace for eternity,
And bind up his/her life and his/her memory with our own.
Adonai is now his/her home.
And so may he/she rest in peace.
Interpretive translation by Adin Nelson from Ritualwell.org
What does the Garden of Eden look like?
And the L-rd G-d planted a garden in Eden from the east, and He placed there the man that He had formed. And the L-rd G-d caused to sprout from the ground [in the garden of Eden] every tree desirable to the sight and good for eating, and the tree of life in the very midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And a river goes out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it parts and becomes four heads. The name of the first, Pishon ["the bountiful" (the Nile)]. It is that which goes round the entire land of Chavilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good. There is the bedollach and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river, Gichon ["roaring"]. It is that which goes round the entire land of Kush. And the name of the third river, Chidekel [so called because its waters are pungent (chad) and light (kal)]. It is that which goes east of Ashur. And the fourth river, Perath ["waxing" (the most distinctive of all, being mentioned in conjunction with Eretz (the land) Yisrael.
Translation taken from Sefaria
In the torah, the text creates a map of sorts.
It places the garden between rivers which are named and placed in space. It describes lands and the precious stones you might find there and the qualities of the water that runs at the borders of the garden. We learn that trees added both beauty and food for its inhabitants, that there was a special tree in the middle of the garden and there was ample running water.
Commentators on the text, to my knowledge, pay less attention to the appearance of "The Garden" than the high drama that takes place within its borders between Eve, Adam and the snake. This gives us as readers ample room for our imaginations to expand and create. Would the way that I envision the garden be the same as someone who lives in a warm and humid environment? In my mind's eye, if I envisioned that ideal garden, one where my loved ones are spending eternity, how would it look? Would my parents each have imagined that garden differently? Would those martyrs for whom we pray during Yizkor have been transported each to their own versions of what this garden might be?
Looking at the different works of art that depict the garden, one can see that some use the description in Genesis as a basis for their imaginings, yet we can imagine The Garden of Eden to be exactly what we wish.
For someone who hates the heat, it would be cooler. Perhaps there would be no mosquitoes to buzz past one's ears. The grass could be lush, but not induce allergies. Perhaps the season in the garden would be fall, when the trees are crowned in reds, yellows and russets? Perhaps that garden would be always at the point of harvest, with vegetables ready to pick, shiny and fresh. Perhaps for some, the time would be spring, when the trees are dressed as ballet dancers, their leaves resembling pink and white tutus? Can we imagine the garden as it would it be at dusk or at dawn, in the drizzle or the sun, from the peak of mountain or by the banks of the river?
If each of us imagines the garden differently, I suspect that my father's garden would have been different than my mother's garden and their gardens would be different than mine or your imaginings. Over the past twenty four hours I have attended the memorial services for two fine men, which leaves me wondering what their Gardens of Eden would look like and how they might be imagined in an entirely different way than my parent's gardens. Perhaps there are commonalities between all of these gardens, but each of them have will be as different as the individuals who rest on their grasses and delight in their smells and sites.
Perhaps the Torah commentators focused less on the appearance of the Garden than on the moral lessons we can learn from its visitors, exactly for that reason; so that when we think about our loved ones in The Garden, whether it be my parents or yours or my friend's fathers, whose souls are now flying toward the Garden of Eden they imagined in their own hearts and souls, there are no limits for what the Garden of Eden might be. The garden has no walls and no ceilings and can be as we wish it to be in the sweetest of our dreams. When we recall individuals, the words of the El Malei Rachamim are there to help us elevate our loved ones higher and higher to their own gardens; to place them there ever so gently and imagine the beauty that they have imagined surrounding them with peace.
Garten Eden by Avi Holzer 2012
The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole 1828
Detail from "The Garden of Eden" by Erastus Salisbury Field
Thanks to Michael Bogdanow for the use of this image. Michael Bogdanow is an internationally recognized artist, attorney, musician, and author. Information about his art can be found by clicking here, and about his law practice can be found by clicking here.