Fifteen years ago this month I had my Bat Mitzvah on parsha Noah. At the time I was extremely interested in the image of the Divine wiping out all of humanity. I wanted my invitations to depict little people drowning in a giant wave. Needless to say my mom said “no” to that suggestion. Today, I am thankfully no longer an angsty teenager, and instead of the violence, I’m interested in how the Divine handled that situation. I can’t help noticing that the Divine was impulsive in the decision to destroy the world.
And so it was with that in my mind that I reread Bereshit, because that is actually this week’s parsha. The Divine places Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and warns them against eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the tree of good and bad.
We often understand this phrase to mean good and evil. However, in addition to having a moral meaning, it can mean knowledge of the good things in life and of the bad things in life. This figure of speech does not necessarily mean just two things, but rather is using those two things to describe a greater whole. Not simply good and evil, or good and bad, but everything that is. The Tree of Knowledge does not unleash evil per se, but opens humanity up to all possibilities, all that makes up life as we now know it.
It takes little convincing for Eve, and then Adam, to eat the fruit, despite being warned not to.
According to the Rambam, the preeminent medieval commentator, they were just following their instincts, acting without considering the consequences. He says that Adam and Eve did what came naturally, in the same manner as the Divine and the angels do, beings that only act according to their nature and without love or hate. Humanity eating from the Tree of Knowledge is an inevitable outcome since they do only what they are naturally inclined to do.
I am struck by humanity's impulsiveness, and by the Divine’s rashness in these two stories. In Noah she wipes out all of humanity, with no warning, giving no opportunity for improvement. Apparently a certain kind of impulsive tendency is intrinsic to the Divine and the beings made in her image.
Impulsivity is a quality with which I am intimately familiar. About one year ago I was diagnosed with ADHD, or Attention Deficit slash Hyperactive Disorder; October also happens to be ADHD Awareness Month. People with ADHD have trouble with their executive functioning--the neurological system that allows you to control what you focus on, your ability to sit still, and your impulsive behavior.
Being diagnosed caused me reevaluate my character. My perpetual tardiness doesn’t signal disrespect for other people’s time, but is the result of my never ending battle to ignore all the other tasks that pop into my brain in those last minutes before leaving the house. Similarly, if I start zoning out during a conversation it is unlikely that I’m bored--it’s those pesky thoughts stealing my limited focus, again. Actions and tendencies that I previously labeled as “bad” I now see as manifestations of the way my mind works, like the Rambam’s appraisal of Eve’s actions.
Although having ADHD is not the majority of people’s experiences, we all are impulsive from time to time. We interrupt each other because we’re so excited to share our ideas. We spend too much money on clothing because it is so cute and we need to have it. We get distracted from our work and instead watch Youtube videos for three hours.
But maybe these aren’t bad behaviours, but simply manifestations of Divine Impulsiveness. Neither morally good, nor morally bad, but like the Tree of Knowledge, encompassing all that is. For the remaining week of ADHD Awareness Month, I invite you to reorient your perception of the world to see these impulsive behaviours not as character flaws but as Divine features.
This d’var was given on Friday October 25, 2019.