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April 20, 2000

Bittersweet Life

Shabbat Hol Ha-Moed Pesach (Exodus 33:12-34:26)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/bittersweet_life_20000421

Exiled from Paradise, Adam and Eve lived together east of Eden, struggling to raise children, to scratch a living out of the hard earth, to stay alive.

Finally, in their old age, with children grown, Adam and Eve decided to see the world. They journeyed from one corner of the earth to the other, marveling in God's handiwork, until they found themselves, quite by accident, standing before the gates of the Garden of Eden. Eden's entrance was guarded by the specter of an angel with a flaming sword. Adam and Eve were frightened and began to flee. But then God spoke to them:

"Adam, Eve, you have lived these many years in exile. Come home now. Return to the Garden." Suddenly, the angel disappeared, and the way to the Garden opened. "Come in Adam! Come in Eve! Come and enjoy Paradise!"

"Wait," says Adam, "It has been so long, so many years, and I've forgotten. Remind me, what is it like there, in the Garden?"

"The Garden is Paradise." God replied, "In the Garden there is no work, no toil, no suffering, no death. In the Garden, there is no time. Day after day, an eternity of life. Come, my children, return to the Garden!"

Adam listened to God's words -- no work, no struggle, no pain, no death. A life of endless tomorrows. And then he turned and looked at Eve. He looked into the face of the woman he loved, the woman beside with whom he had struggled to make a life, to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home. He thought of the tragedies they had overcome, the joys they had cherished, the moments they had shared. And Adam shook his head.

"No, thank you. Not for us. Not now," he replied. And Adam took Eve's hand, and together they turned their backs on God's Paradise and walked home.

We are creatures in time. Time makes human life tragic. But it gives us moments of extraordinary sweetness. Time tests our dreams and erodes our accomplishments. But it reveals the heroic in us. It calls forth faith and binds us into family and community.

There is a puzzling ceremony in the Passover seder. Just before the meal, comes the korech -- the "Hillel sandwich." Hillel, the first century sage, combined all the sacred foods of the seder in one bite -- the Passover sacrifice, the matzah, the maror, the charoset.

In korech, we taste something special. Eating the biting, bitter maror and the sweet charoset all together, we savor the taste of life -- and the taste of life is bittersweet. The charoset mellows the sting of the maror and makes it digestible. The maror brings out the sweetness of the charoset. Bittersweet is the taste of life lived in full awareness of the passage of time.

Bittersweet is an acquired taste. Those whose lives have never been touch by death will not appreciate it. To them, all moments are alike, all moments are equal. They have no sense for the rare sweetness of special moments. They waste moments, squander moments, spoil moments. To them, life is supposed to be all happiness -- an endless series of promising tomorrows. And when it isn't so, they are deeply disappointed. They turn cynical and depressive, they dwell upon the darkness and surrender their dreams.

Those who know how to live in time have learned to savor the bittersweet flavor of life. They have learned to mellow the harshness of mortality with the precious sweetness of special moments -- moments of love, of solidarity, of insight, of wholeness. They embrace moments; preserve and collect moments. And when darkness encroaches, they return to these moments to renew life, to build new hope, to regain strength. In moments of time, they find eternity.


Ed Feinstein is Rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

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