The Meaning of Life
What is the meaning of life? There are not too many questions that are more important to ponder.
The Torah answers this question right where it should be answered in its beginning, in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Obviously, G-d, as the Intelligent Designer, must have had a plan for His creation man, so of course, He told man what he needed to accomplish on this earth from the moment He placed him “into The Garden of Eden.” G-d told man, after placing him in the garden, “to work it and to guard it.”
It seems Adam’s purpose, and therefore ours, is to be a gardener. A gardener. So much for the great Jewish professionals, entrepreneurs and academians. They have missed the point.
And yet if man’s mission was to be a gardener why did He put him in Eden, The Pleasure Garden. Is that where one works as a gardener or is it where everything is prepared and on autopilot? Surely The Pleasure Garden was a paradise in which Adam was never meant to work. G-d only demanded that Adam work as a result of his sin when He said, “Because you have eaten of the tree, which I (prohibited), cursed is the ground; you will eat from it in sorrow all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it will bring forth for you. By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread.”
A careful reading of the Hebrew opens our eyes to a revolutionary understanding that immediately resonates with any spiritually sensitive person looking for the meaning of life.
“It,” as all pronouns and inanimate objects in Hebrew, cannot be neuter, as in English. It has to be either masculine of feminine. The profound idea that everything has either a male of female quality, lets G-d, through the semantics of the Hebrew language, help one understand the very nature of the world. If an object influences and/or changes something it is male, like the male seed. If it receives and/or builds, it is female, like the egg.
The word garden is masculine and the “it” which man is told to work and guard is feminine. So “it” must be something other than the garden. G-d did not command man to work and guard the garden.
So with what did G-d want man to involve himself, when He said to work “it” and guard “it”? “It” must refer to some feminine thing that G-d gave man earlier in the story. And that “it” is his soul,which He gave him eight verses earlier. “And G-d formed man out of the dust of the ground, and blew into his nostrils a soul of life.”
So G-d created Adam, and placed him in the Garden of Pleasure to work and guard his soul. Adam would have to see to it that he did not allow his soul to deteriorate and, in addition, to be careful to work it and help it flourish.
In short, Adam indeed had to be a gardener – a gardener of his soul.
And perhaps this is exactly why even the technically unambiguous Hebrew frequently confuses native Hebrew speakers into thinking Adam was in charge of the garden. There’s an intended double entendre. The human soul is like the Garden of Eden. Adam must work his soul just as a man must tend his garden. If one is not careful to weed and prune, as well as to plow, seed water and harvest, he will have nothing to show for himself at the end of his tenure in the garden of his life.
This is the purpose of life: to make oneself a better person, while, of course, protecting one’s soul from deteriorating.
For the same reason, man, Adam, is made from adama, earth – that’s why perhaps the best translation of Adam would be ‘earthling.’ In fact, G-d specifically created man from the earth to teach the lesson that a man’s value, like the earth’s, lies in his potential. Land is as valuable as what is done with it, and a person is only valuable to the degree that he improves himself spiritually, according to his relative ability.
But what are the details of how Adam was to go about fulfilling these two directives 1) to work and 2) to guard his soul?
In the next verses, G-d details his two commands to Adam, “saying, (1) of every tree of the garden you must eat. (2) But you cannot eat from The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Adam receives these two specific commands parallel to the two general commands to work and guard his soul. This synchronizes well with the Talmudic understanding that “guarding” is usually associated with “refraining from a violation,” i.e., “a thou shall not.” While “working” would be connected to “doing something positive,” i.e., “the work of the heart,” which is prayer.
To work his soul = to eat the fruits from all the other trees,
which would include The Tree of Life
To guard his soul = to refrain from eating the fruit from
the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Why would eating the fruits from all the other trees “work” one’s soul?
By eating from the other trees Adam was supposed to work his soul. Adam had to “fertilize his soul,” to make it realize, that G-d was taking care of him, as He had said, “I have given you… every tree [with its] fruit [as] food.” This farming of his soul would allow him to feel His kindness, to feel closer to Him and to bind to Him. Much in the same way that thanking G-d for one’s food with the appropriate blessing creates an appreciation of G-d’s care for us. This could also be why, before man was created, G-d did not allow the trees to grow until there was a man to “work” the soil through prayer.
Additionally, “working his soul” may be associated with Adam’s obligation to eat especially from the Tree Life, which represents Torah. If Adam was commanded to eat from all the other trees, other than the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he must have been commanded to eat from The Tree of Life which was also amongst all the other trees in the garden. So to listen to G-d to eat from The Tree of Life would symbolize listening to Him to obey all of the Torah’s commands.
Adam ate from The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which he was told not to eat, so Adam’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge symbolizes man’s desire to do what he wants at any given moment, despite G-d’s prohibitions. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge represents man’s desire to know good and evil before achieving “life” -- to evaluate on his own, without G-d, what is “the good” that will lead to life, and what is “the evil” that will detract from it -- that’s called “second guessing G-d.” While, the reverse, eating from the Tree of Knowledge after the Tree of Life -- there is tradition that the forbidden fruit would have become permitted -- represents understanding what you have already accepted unconditionally as morally correct.
Adam’s actions stand in stark contrast to the remarks of the Jews at Sinai, “we will do and we will listen.” Although one must listen to instructions in order to do, our people are praised for demonstrating their unconditional commitment to G-d’s commandments prior to hearing them. Adam chose the opposite. Perhaps this is a reason why the sources indicate that the Jews, before sin of the Golden Calf, attained Adam’s spiritual level before he sinned.
Incidentally, had Adam told Eve that there was a command to do something positive, and not just a prohibition, the snake wouldn’t have been able to trick her. Only because she thought their religion was "one big 'no' " did she fall prey to the snakes remarks. It’s ironic that most translators today also translate G-d’s words as “from all the other trees you may eat” instead of “must eat.”
It’s not very meaningful if your only meaning in life is what you are not, i.e., I am not a non-Jew, or if you look for your inspiration from what you don’t do, i.e., I don’t violate Shabbos. Avoiding breaking
G-d’s rules isn’t as sweet as the fruits of The Tree of Life, which is doing as He asks, encourages and commands us in His Torah.
Rabbi Shimshon R. Hirsh and the Even Ezra suggest that even though the word “garden”, in the Hebrew form that’s used in this sentence looks masculine, but that this form can some times be feminine as proven by the verb that goes with it.
Through out the Torah, the masculine form of a word implies that the object is active, influencing, and initiating, while feminine nouns are passive, receptive and building. This follows the model from sexuality, i.e., that the male seed moves and fertilizes, while the female egg receives and builds. The Torah notes “like gardens (gannot – feminine plural) by the river’s side.” The Soforno comments “those that pray are like gardens by the river which won’t fail from producing fruit, like the Sages say, “There is a contract for The Thirteen Attributes (if we pray with them) that they won’t be “return empty.”“ Although one would think that righteous supplicators are producing fruit for their world through their prayers, a male active role, in fact, they are giving to the world by receiving G-d’s good. This garden produces and gives by receiving, so it deserves the feminine version of garden.influencing the world above to have their prayers answered, in fact, one who prays must change him self.
However, Hirsh’s understanding goes against all the major commentaries in Song of Songs, as well as against the easiest read of the grammar. The Even Ezra either has no proof anywhere for his idea or it is decidedly unusual, but not unheard of. One way of understanding the Even Ezra has the gender of garden. If the gender of a noun is switching from masculine to feminine in mid-sentence, or from the previous sentence. one would think that specific transition would be noted. Perhaps the meaning of such a switch here would be, that although it could be that when the garden provides it is masculine, when it is being worked, it is feminine, similar to the Soforno above. This only adds to our main thesis that the garden is a double entendre for the soul, as both are feminine and both need to be worked.
Below are the details for Hirsh and the Even Ezra.
Rabbi Shimshon R. Hirsh suggests that He sites Song of Songs 4:16, in which the verse says “blow my garden” which he understands to be a command to “my garden” to blow, or perhaps “give off” (a scent). All the commentaries actually read this sentence as “the wind”, which is the subject of the previous clause should blow [upon] my garden (they ignore the absence of the word “upon” which would normally be here). In addition the expression “its spices”, because the pronouns “its” is masculine, which also implies that the garden is masculine. In order for Hirsh to be correct, our verse in Genesis and this verse in Song of Songs would be the only two exceptions to the rule where “garden” could be feminine, except that in Song of Songs it would have to be switching genders in mid-sentence.
The Even Ezra in Genesis also says that the “it” in “to work it” is feminine and that garden can sometimes be feminine. He offers no proof or clear explanation of what he means. However, it is true that the word gan has a feminine form, ganah, which appears about ten times in the Bible. Several commentators, such as the Metzudos Tzion, say that gana has the same meaning as gan; it is just the feminine form of gan.
On the word ganot, the Even Ezra noted that gan can be masculine or feminine. He seems to be saying that ganot is the feminine plural for the masculine looking feminine gan and our verse, “to work it” is an example of this feminine form. But it’s still not clear.
Had the Even Ezra in Koheles chose either one of the many examples of gana or Hirsh’s example, we would have known exactly what he meant. Instead, we are left with the dilemma between two choices. 1) Does the “it” in “to work it” refer, like Hirsh, to gan (i.e., a masculine looking noun that is feminine)? Or 2) does the sentence change from the masculine gan to the female gana as it goes from noun to pro-noun, from “Garden” to “it”, which would just be the normal feminine gana like the Metzudos Tzion.